Whatever can be said about Alex Ferguson’s failings as a human being, it cannot be denied that he has been extraordinarily successful at keeping Manchester United at the top end of the Premier League for over two decades.
Many argue that Ferguson’s success is based on two factors: that he has been given complete control over his team and that when he first took over he was given time, a luxury not afforded to many managers these days with the modern game seemingly enthralled to a culture of instant gratification and knee-jerk reactions.
The arrival of Sky and the advent of the ‘Premier League’ as a brand ensured a much greater degree of media attention focused on the competition. It is often said that the media’s default setting is hysteria and this means they are not prone to considered and proportionate responses to football results.
Every loss by a big side must be labelled a ‘crisis’ and every victory achieved with a new manager must be due to his brilliance, as if they had never heard of the term ‘reversion to the mean’; essentially, a team in a bad run of form cannot go on losing indefinitely and there comes a point where the law of averages applies and results in a victory.
However, what generally happens to a manager in the Premier League when his team has a bad run of form is that he is sacked. A new manager is appointed and inevitably achieves an instant, yet (and this is a fact normally ignored) temporary, improvement in form. After this, the team reverts to the mean and results stabilise to a level similar to before.
Alas, the impression had taken hold that sacking the manager had a positive effect, even if time may reveal it to be merely a dead cat bounce. This sacking culture is of course the antithesis to the concept of successful sporting dynasties. Alex Ferguson was infamously one game away from his P45 before Marl Robins scored and the rest, as the cliché goes, is history.
The recent success of West Bromwich Albion seems to contradict the argument that granting a manager complete control and a long tenure is the key to success. For much of the last decade, West Brom were a classic example of the ‘yo-yo’ club; gaining promotion to the Premier League one year, only to suffer relegation the next.
Roberto di Matteo took them up in 2010 playing attractive, flowing football; as had been the norm at the Hathorns since the days of Tony Mowbray. But after a poor run of form, Di Matteo was sacked and Roy Hodgson was appointed in his stead.
Many felt this sacking was harsh and endemic of the culture discussed above, but under Hodgson there was no reversion to the mean; the club stabilised and rose up the league. Hodgson had instilled a defensive discipline and organisation that had been lacking under Di Matteo, who favoured a more expansive approach.
The team now had the best of both worlds with a solid defence and a fluid attack. In June 2012, Hodgson left West Brom for the England job and Steve Clarke was appointed as his replacement. Clarke had worked under a succession of managers at Stamford Bridge, Upton Park and Anfield and had undoubtedly learned something from all.
His West Brom team progressed even further than before, incorporating pace, pressure and tempo into their game and rose to the heady heights of 4th in the league. There has since been a reversion and they find themselves in 8th position but the point remains that this team had benefitted rather than suffered from its regular change of manager.
The manager must also work in tandem with a technical director. Dan Ashworth director has the final say over transfers and contracts although he works in consultation with the manager. This ensures a degree of continuity and the club does not fall prey to the whims of individual managers who wish to alter the entire set-up and playing staff.
This contrasts with the shambles at QPR, who have given complete control to a farcical number of managers recently. The club now has nigh on 50 senior professionals on its books, with its expenditure on wages dwarfing its turnover.
Whilst the maxim remains that continuity and stability are crucial to success, this does not necessarily have to refer to managers but, rather, the general structure of a club. This has been the system in continental Europe for years with technical directors possessing power over financial decisions at a club and the manager performing more of a coaching role. The system relies on harmony between the two employees but the manager is regarded as the more disposable.
It seems the days of one-man dynasties are over, as the corporate owners of football clubs become increasingly reluctant to cede complete control over to one man. This brings us to the great Shakespearean tragic hero: Arsène Wenger.
Wenger has been given complete control of Arsenal, however his own dogmatic insistence on financial prudence has seen Arsenal slide further away from contention with every passing year. With each year, Wenger greater resembles the mad King Lear.
Perhaps, responsibility for retaining a dynasty is too much for one man and the days of governance by committee are upon us. Undoubtedly, Ferguson would treat such a notion with utter contempt, but who’s to say that upon his retirement, the cries won’t be, ‘The king is dead, long live the kings’?