Beware the curse of the caretaker boss

Beware the curse of the caretaker boss

West Brom’s interim management team Jimmy Shan (left) and Darren Moore (right) © West Bromich Albion

After a 2-0 defeat to Crystal Palace on the final day of the season confirmed West Bromwich Albion were relegated, likeable, long-serving youth supremo Jimmy Shan was quick to observe all respected conventions.

He thanked the ‘amazing’ fans for their support and hailed what caretaker boss Darren Moore had done as ‘incredible’, putting the likeable central defender-turned-youth coach square in the frame for the West Brom job on a permanent basis.

Shan tweeted: “Yesterday was an emotional day. What a pleasure it has been watching @DarrenMooro grow – what HE has done is incredible, the support from @WBA fans has been amazing. Thank you #wetogetherstronger.”

Make no mistake, Moore has indeed done an excellent job. The popular ex-Bradford, WBA, Portsmouth, Derby and Jamaica stopper, that goes by the name of ‘Big Dave’ at The Hawthorns, picked up more points from his six games in charge than either of his predecessors Tony Pulis or Alan Pardew managed from 10 games and 18 games respectively, this season.

And Moore is very much in the running for the Albion job, with the club expected to make an appointment later this week.

Both Shan and goalkeeping coach Neil Cutler are expected to stay on at the club and there is no doubt 44-year-old Moore has a fair wind behind him in terms of popularity and demonstrable impact.

But history suggests that a team that appoints in haste is a team that repents at leisure.

I think you must always and instinctively be very, very wary of the work of interim, caretaker or expedient managerial appointments in every walk of life.

In almost every case they flatter to deceive because their tenure exists in a vacuum and as a reaction to what have been previously very testing times. The new boy parachuted in, is a pick me up, a slackened valve, a metaphorical drag on a cigarette, a sugar hit.

And their effectiveness usually can be measured in indirect proportion to their length of time in the hotseat.

Once the novelty wears off so does the upturn in fortunes. Training goes back to being stale and slow. Divisions in the camp resurface and the novel tactical and selection solutions begin to look like what they were – knucklehead moves. And as the press interviews and interactions with staff, fans and players hit the skids, the honeymoon period is deemed to be officially over. From there it is a short, sharp step to the dreaded vote of confidence and the wielding of the chairman’s axe. This is the curse of the caretaker. A legitimate football phenomenon.

As a scout, I have worked with three caretaker managers. And in all cases the experience was universally positive.

None of these ‘bosses’ especially wanted the job so there was no pressure. They called it as they saw it. Kept smiling. Lifted the mood and played simple, effective football for the 4–6 weeks they were in post.

All the power, no expectation and none of the responsibility for their decisions.

They knew they’d duck back into their previous roles with their dignity and reputations intact.

And it was a brilliant experience for me. A new broom, fresh ideas, positivity without fear. Football’s equivalent of a holiday romance.

Now, I know there are always exceptions to the rule but I’ve given this thought ten minutes of breathing space and I can’t recall a single manager who has made a lasting career off the back of a first appointment as a caretaker boss. Most if not all don’t stay the course and especially so at clubs that turn to them in their gravest hour of need.

Of the 17 caretaker bosses of the Premier League era, Kenny Dalglish who won a League Cup in 2012 with Liverpool and Roberto Di Matteo with his Champions League and FA Cup double are notable exceptions, to the general rule of relative failure. Even still, Dalglish was gone by the end of the following season. The Italian lasted as long as November in the season that followed Chelsea’s smash and grab Champions League Final defeat of Bayern Munich at their own Allianz Arena in 2012. The likes of Steve Kean (Blackburn), Stuart Gray (Southampton), Ricky Sbragia (Sunderland), Tony Adams (Portsmouth), Mike Phelan (Hull) and Craig Shakespeare (Leicester) won few friends (or games) during cameos of varying lengths.

Tony Adams had one game in temporary charge of Portsmouth after Harry Redknapp left for Tottenham before being handed a two-and-a-half year contract. He lasted less than four months. © Sky Sports

On a connected point, a wise old football man called Tony Collins (see: Why football remains the most unpredictable game, even for the experts) told me a very interesting anecdote about young managers who get over-promoted, too soon only to fail spectacularly.

He said that a typical scenario is that a chairman grows impatient with a good, safe hands boss who is laying down the foundations for a longer plan, to the detriment of short-term results or attractive football.

So he makes the decision to sack the old head and bring in a young gun with big ideas (what we euphemistically call a ‘philosophy’ in current parlance). What happens next is the new guy comes in. Everyone gets a bounce and he carries it on to the end of the season like the son of the second coming.

By the start of the following campaign he gets a further boost because his predecessors youth prospects are finally ready to play a major role in first team affairs after being sensitively bedded in during the season prior. Some long term absentees also return and everyone kicks on with that early season optimism.

Results follow.

And then there’s a spectacular victory against a major rival or a cup tie giant killing. Suddenly, the young boss is flavour of the month, the coming man. And within a year of getting his big chance, he gets a major upgrade, a ‘big’ club job.

And he fails spectacularly. His demise plotted just as quickly as his rise.

Having surfed off the back of his unheralded predecessor’s unseen youth development and teambuilding work, the young guy collapses at the first sign of adversity. And that is especially so if the novice boss comes from a pure youth development background, lacking day to day experience of managing hardened, mature first-teamers.

Having never dealt with internal strife having known only good times and football without pressure in their meteoric rise, adversity is a whole new ball game for our man in the hotseat.

In addition, he’ll never have had to ever really buy or sell players when fortune has fallen into his lap with a good squad to work with and results breeding confidence, and papering over emergent cracks.

If the over-promoted boss has no experience of operating in the higher echelons he’s been promoted too, where the margins between success and failure are finer, then his failings will be further exposed. And his efforts will be fatally compromised. Regardless of his achievements as a player, nothing quite prepares the caretaker boss for the transition to the club’s figurehead job.

The next time you see a caretaker doing well or a hyped up young manager come through your club’s gates on the back of spectacular success in his first job be very afraid. And be very careful what you wish for.

These sorts of appointments usually backfire. And in spectacular fashion too.