TWENTY-THREE miles separate the Stadium of Light and Victoria Park but the emotions this week have been a world apart.
While Sunderland toast their gladiatorial Roman boss after he oversaw their first derby win on enemy territory in 13 years, Hartlepool are preparing for life in the basement division after their survival drive finally ran out of steam.
The thing that links these two disparate North East clubs? Both changed manager mid-season. Both, to some extent, got a new boss bounce. But while Sunderland might just have injected new life into a campaign that was pushing them towards the Championship abyss, Hartlepool’s dugout decision has proved fruitless.
Now John Hughes might argue that with what he inherited, merely becoming competitive was some achievement. Given the shambles of a season that Pool were having, he has a compelling point – but the wider issue of whether changing things actually works is an interesting one.
Hartlepool are not the first team to find their hopes of turning the season round hit the buffers. The Journal’s research draws a quite staggering conclusion on this point: only eight of the 47 clubs that changed manager during the season saw a stark upturn in their fortunes.
To qualify for that they would have to record a league placing greater than three positions from where they were when they parted company with their previous boss. It has happened at a few clubs: most notably Ipswich, where Mick McCarthy has kept the Tractor Boys in the Championship despite taking over when they were bottom of the second tier, and Bolton – who have a shot at the play-offs after dispensing with Owen Coyle.
On the south coast, the greatest example of a decisive change prompting better fortunes can be found at Dean Court. Bournemouth sacked Paul Groves in early October to bring in Eddie Howe and are now on the verge of joining the Championship.
But so many other clubs recorded moderate changes or even stark downturns in their fortune. Hartlepool’s demise might have been expected but in the Championship Huddersfield and Wolves both acted to try and arrest their slides towards League One. Both are worse off and it looks likely that one of these two big spenders will probably go down. Yet the reflex reaction when things are not going well – among supporters, it must be said, as well as boards – is to ask for the removal of the man at the top.
Collecting opinions on Twitter can be a dangerous game, but we witnessed ‘Pardew Out’ trending in the days after the Tyne-Wear derby. Would that really achieve the instant gains that those proposing it expect? As you’d expect, the League Managers Association is a passionate advocate of stability and has tried to encourage boardrooms to think more carefully about how they appoint managers.
Their argument is that any change in manager needs to be done with an eye on the new man understanding their philosophy and what is expected of them. Too often changes are made in haste and a ‘flavour of the month’ is employed based on success with a completely different model. This is a relevant argument when it comes to Newcastle, where Pardew is part of a culture that is increasingly becoming the norm – especially at the top level. The manager does not have a dictatorial role when it comes to recruitment or contracts, he is merely a key member of the decision-making team.
In Newcastle’s case Graham Carr has influence but so too does Derek Llambias. It is left to him to work out the economics of the advice put to him by Carr and Pardew.
When Pardew’s critics talk about replacing him, they should also think about who would work more effectively than him in the structure Newcastle have in place. The experience of other clubs who have changed managers suggest that this is the difficult part: working out what isn’t working is easy.
In any case, Newcastle supporters advocating a change may be disappointed. It is a club that wants stability and continuity, having seen in 2009 what happens when managerial changes go wrong. Llambias remains staunchly against removing Pardew from his position. Yet against all of this, we have the pressing example of Sunderland and their decision to dispense with Martin O’Neill. So far it looks a masterstroke but caution is required, for Di Canio is yet to achieve anything more than one fine win. It could yet come crashing down around Ellis Short’s ears.
If it doesn’t – and the energy Sunderland have been imbued with suggests they should just about do enough to stay up – it probably stands alone as a curious analogy. It was a heck of a risk by Short but he was privy to the lacklustre nature of O’Neill’s stewardship; to the day off culture and the hands-off approach that was harming the Black Cats.
Sometimes, gut instinct can be the right one. Just not very often, as our research shows.