The paradox of loyalty and success

The paradox of loyalty and success

Ask football fans what characteristics they demand from their heroes and you can be sure that loyalty, alongside success and effort, will be high on most lists.

However, for the man, or woman, in the hot-seat, the very act of demonstrating loyalty and success is a scenario that too often sows the seeds of their own destruction.

This is a fact of football life that will not have been lost on the now ex-Leicester boss Claudio Ranieri as he awaits his P45 from employers who hailed him as a genius just 13 short months ago.

He will be wondering what he might have done differently. Did he go wrong in the transfer market? Could he have behaved more ruthlessly towards the squad that won him the title last May? Given Leicester’s against all odds title win last season, Ranieri remains a hot ticket manager and will not have to wait around too long for the phone to ring. We can only hope that Ranieri’s decision to eschew the overtures of other, more high profile suitors in the summer, to carry on his unfinished Leicester project, will be karmically rewarded with an exciting new role at a club befitting his qualities.

But of course, most managers who have fallen into ‘the Ranieri trap’ of showing un-reciprocated loyalty will not enjoy the luxury of being either choosy or indeed in demand.

No winners, just survivors

Tommy Docherty, the maverick former Chelsea, Man United and Scotland boss is an authority on the subject of managerial insecurity. An engaging after dinner speaker, he is not ‘everyone’s cup of tea’, but it is hard to disagree with The Doc’s assertion that football management is “like nuclear war: no winners, just survivors”.

Loyalty will protect you for a while. Flamboyant success will protect you indefinitely. But that is only if, like Sir Alex Ferguson or Arsene Wenger you enjoy iron control over every aspect of your role. And what managers working today can claim the level of surety that the Scot enjoyed at Man United or Wenger has had at Arsenal?

So as it stands, as in all walks of public life, the only people for whom a management beat is an appealing prospect can be filed within three categories. They are the true believers, the craven egotists and the eternally optimistic.

So, what if you are cut from good cloth and belong in the true believers camp? If you are a club man first and foremost rather than an ideologue or rampant self-promoter, what then?

As in all jobs, quietly successful, loyal people always get the sharp end of the stick.

And whoever you are you will quickly be eclipsed by newer, shinier rivals with too-tight jackets, laptop presentations and a flair for talking a good game. That’s just the rules of the road currently. And it is so because these interlopers are most ‘suits’’ idea of what a football manager should look, feel and smell like.

And that’s also why, rather counter-intuitively, success combined with loyalty can be such a toxic combination for bosses.

A cautionary tale

Imagine this real-life example of a lower league manager working in a mid-ranking football nation.

Over a five year period, he has quietly nurtured a conveyor belt of youth to first team talent with a peak market value of somewhere around £10-£12m. He works for a salary of around £30,000 a year – no sort of king’s ransom – and excels with players produced from a superb youth system and overlooked cast-offs from bigger clubs. His share of those players’ subsequent sales or add-ons is exactly zero.

Those within the game know the constraints he has been working under and that he literally gives unproven talents a platform to progress to the higher levels.

One of the players he developed is now an established international. Others he’s brought through populate his own domestic league at higher levels and another former charge has carved out a very nice niche for himself in European domestic football.

So far so good. But let’s fast forward 18 months.

After three successive play-off seasons this manager has become a victim of his own success. But the fans don’t see the reality of the achievement and focus instead on how their small squad have failed ‘yet again’ to scale the final obstacle between their club and promotion. Already they are wondering if a new man, with fresh ideas, might be able to supply that X-factor, that edge that can get them ‘over the line’ next time.

And so it begins. With each passing close season the boss is not quite so new, not quite so shiny. He has also, on account of another season of shoestring success, lost the experience of 1,000+ first team appearances to summer transfers. And this has left him with little to work with bar kids not quite ready for the first team and some lesser light squad men.

The fans puff themselves up proudly as the latest crop from the ranks are whisked away to bigger, better stages. This, they say, demonstrates the effectiveness of their club’s commitment to talent ID and player promotion.

But they don’t quite make the connection between success and its negative consequences for succession planning. Wherever there is talent there are predators. And wherever there are predators there are carcasses picked clean. And even the best boss in the land can’t fashion his sides from bare bones in perpetuity.

And so it is that whenever the manager defies the odds to see his club enjoy another successful season the noose gets ever tighter. Each time, the team had to be completely rebuilt in a two month period, virtually from scratch. And that, as a recurring motif each May, is a project that is doomed to failure – sooner rather than later.

At their 70s and 80s peak, Liverpool became past masters at succession planning, signing and producing players who could make a seamless transition to the first team. Each season, no more than a couple of big signings would be expected to replace first team players as they moved on or retired. It reached its apotheosis of course with the more than ‘business as usual’ signing of Kenny Dalglish as the direct replacement for HSV Hamburg-bound Kevin Keegan.

This is the perfect model for managed transition, but once you get into the realms of requiring more than two to three replacement signings in the close season you inevitably enter into a guessing game. How will the squad respond to the new additions? How will the new guys bed in and how quickly will normal service be resumed?

If you are adding seven, eight, nine or 10+ new players then you are wholly exposed to the vagaries of chance, luck and hunches. This is because when the turnover of staff is so high there is no opportunity to do the requisite level of due diligence on each and every signing target.

And in this instance, our manager’s problems are exacerbated when the key players that he’d hoped to re-sign and build a new side around, change their minds late in the day, chase the money and move on – as is their prerogative. This has left the boss fatally short of time to bring in viable quality options or do anything resembling considered team-building.

Fast forward now to late July and the opening games of another campaign.

The new players have taken time to gel and understandably, given the low level pool of talent being fished here, a couple have completely failed to shine at all. These flawed players historic weaknesses are undermining some otherwise good qualities. These boys need time, and to be in a stable, settled, winning side. Perhaps if they’d come last season and been bedded in gradually things would have been different. But it is what it is, a fait accompli.
And the fans, as they always do have scapegoated the boss’ new signings and then turned on the boss ‘whose fault it all is’ after all.

Bored with the familiar and with fans unreconciled to the reality of their club’s place in the scheme of things, there is a palpable mood for change in the stands and on social media.

Results have failed to scale previous heights and within six to eight games the manager’s position is becoming untenable. Despite that inevitable vote of confidence from a publicly supportive but privately split boardroom, everyone knows the boss is a dead man walking and the fans smell blood and embrace ‘the theatre of change’.

Once the suits in the Directors’ box seats are exposed to the naked aggression of fans nearby then the game is up. A change of manager is inevitable.

“…the next Jose Mourinho or Sir Alex Ferguson is always ‘just around the corner’; perhaps we can find him and ride on the coat-tails of his success?”

Football is a law unto itself as a business and most club chairman, having made their money in other behind closed doors professions, are wholly unprepared for the level of scrutiny and abuse that comes with the territory. And when you scratch the surface, you see that for a variety of reasons most of the boardroom suits really, really just want to belong, to be loved by the rank and file supporters. That impulse warps the judgement of even the most impeccable of professional decision-makers.

In this fashion-obsessed game, based on expediency masquerading as decisiveness, good, low-key managers are at a distinct disadvantage when set against the novelty factor of untested change. It is a logic that says: “the next Jose Mourinho or Sir Alex Ferguson is always ‘just around the corner’; perhaps we can find him and ride on the coat-tails of his success?”

So it is that a thoroughly decent human being, a genuinely talented manager, coach or assistant who lives for family and football gets done in by a combination of a weak board who can’t bear to be disliked and by restless fans for whom the grass is always greener in someone else’s stadium.

But in truth, the executive division within clubs are just as likely to be inclined towards wrong-headedness when it comes to other football decisions too.

Paying the cost to be the boss

I once worked for a club where the inexperienced chairman thought he’d pull a fast one, and save a few quid, by offering player contracts that ended in the final week of the regular season.

His bluff was called when the club qualified for the play-offs despite expectation after a late season unbeaten run. What this meant was the club had no-one bar kids under contract to contest the knock-out games.

The out of contract team held the club to ransom (which was only fair given the chairman’s bad faith). They asked for increased wages to sign up and long deals.

They got promoted but as the club basked in the publicity of a positive end to the season, the manager was saddled with players he didn’t want and who were not good enough for the step up.

The chairman’s wise ass move cost the boss his job within a matter of months. The internal morale was awful and the squad were far too comfortable on their secure deals.

The sacked manager has never got back in again – through no fault of his own. The chairman is still in situ and a very visible presence around a club he treats as his private fiefdom. It is the definition of rough justice.

But football is a game that is devoid of a functioning short-term memory. It is a game that treats its casualties like the contagiously ill. While you are out in the cold in football there is precious little support from colleagues, once the initial flurry of commiserating phone-calls and texts dies away and the news agenda moves on. The press, the fans, even the group of players whose careers you developed, whose platform you provided, seldom take so much as a backward glance.

On borrowed time

Football lives in an eternal present. It is a shifting sands present too, and it is always predicated upon a glorious, imagined future.

Memories are short, perspectives are skewed and everyone lives on borrowed time.

This is something that is never lost on me whenever I see some poor sod manager running the gauntlet of fickle fans who were singing his name just weeks before. It’s the same when a good man is cut adrift by a chairman whose instinct for self-preservation is greater than their sense of both decorum and perspective.

It is on these occasions when I wonder what qualities managers themselves would hope to see exhibited by their fans and board at the outset of a new adventure together. Again, loyalty, you’d have to assume would be top of the list. But, such is the erratic nature of fans, suits and pressmen that any notion of a two way street is only ever paid lip service to. Fans, clubs and the press demand a standard of conduct from football people that they do not demonstrate themselves, being tendentious, hysterical and often, just plain wrong.

As a fan, perhaps the kind of fan who shouts and bawls in the stands, you should think about that the next time your manager or star player looks out for their family and takes the money and runs when their stock is high. From a professional standpoint it is the only rational decision to make.

They may not choose to hear it, but the reality is that as clubs and as fans you get the football you deserve.