With Blackburn Rovers languishing at the foot of the Premier League table manager Steve Kean was this week awarded with a ‘revision’ to his contract – commonly understood to be a pay rise – by the club’s owners, the Venkys. Similarly Wigan Athletic Chairman Dave Whelan has pledged his full support to Roberto Martinez who, despite helping his club to only nine points from their first thirteen fixtures, remains one of the league’s most sought after managers. Pundits have long bemoaned the tendency of fickle owners to sack their bosses after a few bad results but this season seems to have shown the opposite happening so far. Even Roman Abramovich, who reliably gets sick of his manager every season or two, has stuck by under-pressure Andres Villas Boas for the time being. Is the football tide finally changing? And is this a case of being careful what you wish for?
As recently as the last couple of seasons managers have been replaced after only a couple of months of poor performances to the seemingly universal disapproval of the public. Look at the outcry that greeted the sacking of Chris Hughton at Newcastle United or Sam Allardyce at Blackburn (whose replacement was, incidentally, the aforementioned Kean). The fans may have been unhappy at some of the results but they weren’t prepared to accommodate the extreme of firing the boss in an attempt to turn things around.
Owners undoubtedly have a very difficult job. They’re constantly stuck between a rock and a hard place; criticised for not caring when they don’t take action and ridiculed for being too hasty when they do. The only antidote to this is success. A pertinent example is the Glazer family; once the most hated family in Manchester, now hardly mentioned by United fans, whose attention has shifted to their continuing league and cup successes. Owners are very rarely admired, and such indifference is often the best they can hope for from a club’s fans. This is especially the case if apathy replaces extreme hostility as in the case of the Glazers or Mike Ashley at Newcastle, who are currently flying high in the league.
But success is easier said than achieved and for too many clubs fans’ expectations exceed accomplishments on the pitch. It is in cases like these that managers start to feel the pressure, after a string of poor performances, and the owners start to consider their loyalties.
And so we are brought back to the cases of Kean and Martinez (although there are also countless others), who have – temporarily at least – been given the backing of their paymasters. The curiosity is, in the case of the former at least, that for a change it is the fans calling for the manager’s head rather than wishing he be given more time to bounce back.
Hindsight is indeed a wonderful thing and it must be said that there were at least some fans questioning their devotion to Sam Allardyce and Chris Hughton before their sackings. Only after their departures were the implications of those decisions seen in full. But there does seem to be a far greater protest against the reign of Kean at Blackburn than there ever was against Allardyce.
Perhaps the owners are wary of making the same mistake twice. It may seem like things can’t get any worse for Blackburn, but Kean has shown the traits of a good manager in the past and could yet keep them afloat. Getting rid of Kean only for his successor to perform even worse would be extremely bad news for the Venkys who are already unpopular enough in Lancashire.
The Venkys will certainly be mindful of appearing on the right side of history. They will remember the incredible pressure on Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger only a couple of months ago who faced repeated calls to either leave or be forcibly removed after an awful start to the campaign. Now, the Gunners are unbeaten in their last six in the league (taking 16 points), and Wenger’s place is once again assured. Majority shareholder Stan Kroenke must be understandably relieved for sticking to his guns and holding on to Wenger given that that now seems like the right decision.
It may simply be a case of ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’. All club owners would love the ability to foresee the full ramifications of their decisions but in the end no one can predict what will happen whether a manager is supported or sacked. The decision may be turn out to be as popular as exchanging Roy Hodgson for Kenny Dalglish at Liverpool this January or, equally it may result in something similar to, well, Hodgson taking over from Rafa Benitez last year.
The cases of Kean and Martinez may be exceptions to the rule. Both are still widely respected in some quarters and for now few Wigan fans would propose giving Martinez the chop. The ‘hire-them and fire-them’ culture popularised by Abramovich’s Chelsea may not be gone but it’s certainly changing. Perhaps owners are starting to find some patience in their managers. Whether that’s a good or bad thing, though, is down to the fans.