Give Football Managers Some Slack – They’re Living On The Volcano – 7/9/15

So who would be a football manager?

The Griffin Park Grapevine fans’ message board is currently awash with mocking and derogatory comments regarding former Brentford manager Terry Butcher’s lack of success at his new club, Newport County, who currently languish at the foot of Division Two with a mere single point from their opening six matches. Schadenfreude at its malicious worst.

Yes, Butcher proved to be a dismal failure throughout his tenure in charge at Brentford eight long years ago, failing to connect with the Brentford supporters and recruiting a ragtag and bobtail of uninspiring journeymen who failed to deliver on the pitch.

It is so easy to carp and criticise but it takes far more effort to look beyond the superficial and obvious and try and analyse why things go wrong. Butcher’s efforts at Griffin Park were hamstrung by a total lack of investment and he was forced to recruit in the bargain basement.

The situation at Newport is even more dire. In the close season EuroMillions lottery winner Les Scadding decided to stop throwing his money into a black hole and the club found itself bereft of his investment, money that had enabled Newport to climb back into the Football League and even come close to promotion to Division One. Manager Justin Edinburgh, the architect of their on field success, buttressed as he was by Scadding’s massive financial support, quite understandably decided to jump ship and has now led his new team, Gillingham to the top of League One.

It might be slightly exaggerating to state that Terry Butcher has inherited a club in turmoil, but it can’t be by very much. The Supporters’ Trust is valiantly attempting to run the club but they have had to cut their cloth accordingly and the very future of Newport County remains in doubt.

The playing budget has been cut dramatically, the better and higher paid players have left the club and their squad now contains a hodgepodge of players released by National League teams, including the unforgettably named Lenell John-Lewis, kids, rejects and bargain basement signings plus some untried young loanees including our own Josh Laurent.

Brentford supporters saw with our own eyes just how strong and talented a full strength Oxford United team was when they obliterated our young and weakened eleven a few short weeks ago. No wonder Newport County are struggling to keep their head above water given the number of recent body blows they have suffered.

Terry Butcher has previously proved at Motherwell and Inverness that he can be a successful manager if he is given a modicum of support and I am sure that his calmness and experience are now crucial as he needs to impart some confidence into his young and overmatched squad and put a metaphorical arm around their shoulders as they learn the hard way about the realities of the game at that level.

His beleaguered team is certainly playing for him and creditably fought back from an early two goal deficit recently against promotion favourites Leyton Orient before falling to an unjust late defeat.

His squad on Saturday was down to the bare bones and included six teenagers given the recent transfer of highly rated teenager Regan Poole to Manchester United and another defender, Kevin Feely deciding to retire and return to full-time education. There is also an ever-growing injury and suspension list that further limits his options.

It never rains but it pours and Butcher is fighting against almost insurmountable odds as his team fights for survival and he tries to remain in a job.

Surely he deserves a little bit of sympathy and understanding rather than the cheap jibes he is currently being subjected to by fans and pundits alike who are totally unaware of the constraints under which he is working.

Brentford no longer have a manager but new Head Coach, Marinus Duikhuizen has also been subjected to some second guessing and criticism barely after he has got his feet under the table at Griffin Park.

After all, expectations have been raised to a ludicrous degree after last season’s massive overachievement, the team has got off to a slow and stuttering start and also Marinus isn’t Mark Warburton.

Reason enough surely for some Brentford fans to get on his back?

Rather than find fault, they should instead consider the long list of serious problems that he has inherited and has had to cope with recently at a club which has undergone a radical revolution from top to bottom over the past few months rather than the more gentle evolution that the majority of supporters would have preferred:

  • Inflated expectations after reaching the playoffs last season
  • The determination on the part of our opponents not to underestimate us again or take us for granted
  • Enduring disappointment at the departure of Mark Warburton and David Weir
  • The loss of key squad players in Craig, Odubajo, Dallas, Douglas and Gray
  • Losing Bjelland, Jota and McEachran to long-term injuries
  • Having to rebuild a team on the verge of the new season
  • Trying to integrate a whole raft of new signings from abroad, none of whom with any experience of playing in England or understanding of the demands of the Championship
  • Being marooned in a new environment and country without the support of his family
  • Inheriting a new management structure at the club where he does not have the final say on player recruitment
  • Facing incessant media questioning over matters that are not under his control
  • The chaos and embarrassment caused by the appalling new pitch at Griffin Park which has had to be relaid

I am quite sure that football fans would be more patient and have a better understanding of the problems and pressures that managers face every day if they took the time to read Mike Calvin’s fascinating and illuminating new book, Living On The Volcano.

Calvin has gained a well-earned reputation over the past few years for obtaining the inside track on what goes on behind the scenes in football and he has now focused his attention on the role of football managers and how they deal with everything that is thrown at them. Calvin has followed his tried and tested method of becoming a fly on the wall and observed a variety of managers, young and old, established and new, successful and otherwise from the Premier League down to Division Two as they went about their business throughout the 2014/15 season.

The title of the book came from Arsene Wenger who compared the insecurity of his job to that of living on a volcano where any day might be your last, and the statistics substantiate his concern.

The average lifespan of a manager is seventeen months in the Football League and a mere eight in the competitive jungle of the Championship. On average it takes a sacked manager eighteen months to get a new job and fifty-eight percent of first time sacked managers never receive a second opportunity to get it right. Ian Holloway has spent nineteen years as a football manager and moved home thirty-three times throughout his long and illustrious career.

The pressure is intense and unrelenting and just as is the case in all other walks of life where one in every four of us suffers from mental health problems, some football managers also cannot cope and become ill. Martin Ling, a chirpy, confident manager at Leyton Orient and Torquay United was so stricken with depression that he underwent an ultimately successful course of Electroconvulsive Therapy and is now making his way back into the game despite the self-proclaimed coffee stain on his CV and the ignorance and prejudice he has to overcome if he is to find a new post.

Despite the fact that managers are in competition against each other every week and new jobs only come about as a result of dead men’s shoes, there is a real sense of family, brotherhood and fraternity between them all and a deep shared understanding of the problems they all face to a greater or lesser degree, such as lack of financial support, second guessing owners and chairmen and the ignorant vitriol spewed on fans’ message boards.

Yes, there are some well-publicised feuds such as that between Neil Warnock and Stan Ternent but Ling was touched to receive many calls of support during his darkest hours from illustrious members of the League Managers Association such as Sir Alex Ferguson and Sam Allardyce.

Notts County manager Shaun Derry was visibly shocked and angered at the total lack of respect paid to Russell Slade by Leyton Orient’s ignorant and bumbling new Italian ownership who totally disrespected him and cut him off at the knees by threatening him with the sack in front of his players if he did not win his next match. Nobody deserves to be treated like that, let alone a manager of Slade’s stature and accomplishments.

Managers cannot show weakness or their true feelings in front of their players and Tommy Docherty once talked about his stuckon smile that he wore every day at the training ground irrespective of his true feelings.

Readers also could not fail to be affected by the poignancy of Adie Boothroyd’s fourteen year old son bursting into tears when informed of his dad’s sacking by bottom of the league Northampton Town and how well his father dealt with the situation and turned it into a life lesson for his son.

Boothroyd also talks a lot of sense about picking a good chairman before you pick a new club and ensuring that football does not take over your life. He also confirms what I have long suspected, that most club chairmen have no real idea of how best to hire a new manager so Adie often has been forced to set the agenda and pose the following key questions during interviews:

  • What is their strategy
  • What is their structure
  • Where do they want to be
  • What are they trying to do
  • What are they prepared to accept
  • What aren’t they prepared to accept

He also makes the gratifying if frankly surprising point for somebody whose job depended on results, that winning football games is not as important as how you play the game.

Gareth Ainsworth is another young manager rapidly making a name for himself at Wycombe Wanderers. He admits that this job consumes your life and eats you up. He transformed the fortunes of a club that was one match away from being relegated from the Football League. They survived by the skin of their teeth with a last day of the season victory at Torquay, a win wildly celebrated on the triumphant bus trip home. Yet in the ruthless and merciless game of football, the following week seven of those selfsame players were released and in all fourteen players left the club.

Ainsworth highlights the importance of providing suitable pastoral care for the young men, often vulnerable and impressionable, who are under his care and he fully admits how painful it is to release players at the end of every season. Football manager as social worker.

He admits too that he has finally learned not to worry too much about the opposition. As a player he always felt that more attention should be given to what we could do to them rather than the other way round. A lesson here perhaps for the likes of Uwe Rosler?

The book continues in this vein as other managers such as Brendan Rogers, Mark Hughes and Garry Monk also reveal the secrets of their trade, their inspirations and the insecurities that they have to acknowledge and deal with on a daily basis. There is much for Brentford fans to identify too with former favourites Jimmy Sirrel, Micky Adams and Mark Warburton also coming under the spotlight.

I can do no more than wholeheartedly endorse and recommend a book that lifts the lid on a subject previously so shrouded in arcane mystery and secrecy. Calvin used the title Family when writing about Millwall FC a few years back and the same title could just as easily have been used for this book as it so perfectly describes the manner in which football managers regard each other as fellow members of a rare and talented breed.

Living on the Volcano: The Secrets of Surviving as a Football Manager by Michael Calvin is published by Century.

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6 thoughts on “Give Football Managers Some Slack – They’re Living On The Volcano – 7/9/15

  1. Thanks Phil. It’s a thankless job as every football fan is an instant expert without having much of a clue about what is really going on and the horrors of social media allow us our say and to pour more pressure on.

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  2. I really good article and food for thought as they say. It is so easy to get wrapped up in our own desire for success without giving a second throught for the person underneath. We have already had the first, but, no doubt, not the last, sacking of a manger – Dave Robertson at Peteborough, so it really is precarious.

    Whilst we are being considerate and not wishing to be controversial, the other group who deserves some understanding are the match officials. Obviously they are biased, blind, hopeless, don’t know what there doing etc etc, but it can’t be much fun geting abuse from players, a mangers and fans week in week out.

    I remember Jack Taylor once been asked about it, and he said, that he knows that at any one time 50% of the players will be hating him at any one time.

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  3. A good piece, kinda agree in general & it is very relevant where BFC and Marinus are concerned. But irrespective of the circumstances i’m not having TB – Newport have real problems, he will make them worse..

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    • I’m not saying he’s the answer but the circumstances he’s facing at Newport should be taken into account.

      I suspect that no manager could sort them out.

      I am just urging a bit of patience and understanding before we vent our spleen.

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