Grant, Martinez among managers most in danger of a holiday sacking
Christmas is a time for sharing, a time for caring and a time for firing your manager before the yawning jaws of relegation snap shut. Since the weather put paid to seven of the weekend's nine fixtures, let's have a look at who's in the danger zone:
West Ham will be bottom of the pile on Christmas Day, as it has been every day since the start of October. In fact, Grant, who was in charge of Portsmouth at this time last year, has spent 39 of the last 42 game-weeks in charge of the Premier League's last-place club. Portsmouth, which was relegated, actually had more points last Christmas than the Hammers currently do.
Grant managed to exude an air of dignity and competence at Portsmouth, but in the end it would have been relegated even without the points deduction for entering administration. His credibility has taken a beating in the first half of this season: West Ham didn't put a single point on the board until the fifth attempt, and has won just 11 percent of its matches. Even for a club that has flirted with relegation so regularly as West Ham in the last decade, these are not numbers to inspire confidence.
Though the coach has denied it, rumor has it that West Ham's owners have told Grant he must win at least once before the new year to keep his job. David Sullivan and David Gold haven't made a habit of sacking managers, and it's difficult to see what difference it would make -- West Ham lacks real quality in the squad and doesn't have the money to significantly change that. The club's been linked with a move for Sam Allardyce, who could tighten things up at the back, but defensive rigor won't help an attack that's averaging less then a goal a game.
Junior Stanislas has said the players are behind Grant, but there's a head of steam building behind this. Owners like to be seen to be doing things, and the clock is ticking. Grant's recent comments -- "[People] think they can push a button and everything will come good. If Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger were starting in this era ... we could have missed out on the two best managers in the world" -- sound a bit like a last roll of the dice.
Wolves have lost more than half of their matches this season yet somehow managed not to look too bad -- and two of their three wins have come in the last three matches, which suggests progress. Against Birmingham the weekend before last, they kept their first clean sheet of the season. Yes, there were a few hairy moments as the game wore on, but the result kept Wolves in touch with the chase.
What is more, McCarthy has had to contend with a lengthy injury list. He has yet to go into a game with all his first-choice players available and has recently moved Stephen Ward (usually left back) up into the center of midfield and then played him as a striker to plug gaps. The weekend's postponements at least give Wolves more time to get players like Matt Jarvis and Kevin Doyle back to fitness.
Ordinarily, getting a vote of confidence from your chief executive as you languish near the bottom is cause for concern, so often has it preceded a sacking. But McCarthy is as popular with the club's board as he is with the fans (who were delighted to hear that he shouted back at a West Brom fan who took him on from his car last week), which makes Jez Moxey's recent backing entirely believable.
Martinez is the 13th man to take charge of Wigan since Dave Whelan bought the club 15 years ago, which tells you something of the chairman's patience -- but it's actually (some of) the fans who are itching for a change of manager. Wigan had an odd 2009-10 season, beating Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea but losing 5-0 to Manchester United (twice), 9-1 to Spurs and 8-0 to Chelsea on the last day. It started this season by conceding 10 goals in its first two games and has won one match in its last 10.
Frustration seems to be creeping in at the gap between Martinez's ideals -- he wants Wigan to play free-flowing, attacking soccer -- and the capabilities of his players. There are those in the dwindling crowds at the DW stadium who would happily watch a sterner defensive effort if it meant survival; Martinez's repeated insistence that the team is only missing a spot of luck has started to grate.
But there are green shoots -- Wigan's resilience against Stoke (in a 2-2 draw earlier this month), when it could easily have crumbled, was reassuring. It has survived similar circumstances (particularly in 2007-08, when it was in a similar position at Christmas with fewer points), and there are individuals capable of turning games, loanee Tom Cleverley and Charles N'Zogbia in particular. Their contracts probably weigh heavier on the owner's mind than Martinez's.
Fulham has lost only a handful of games this season (better than a raft of teams in mid-table, and equal to Arsenal), but having drawn 10 out of 17, it's struggling to pull away from trouble. Under Roy Hodgson, Fulham wasn't much good away from home but punished teams at Craven Cottage. Since Hughes took over, only Wigan and Wolves have left west London with nothing. After the recent goalless draw at home with Sunderland, the final whistle prompted a chorus of boos.
There have been suggestions that this is "classic Hughes" -- he was sacked by Manchester City after eight draws in nine matches, and though his win rate during four years in charge of Blackburn was 44 percent, in his first season, Rovers drew more often than they won or lost and finished 15th.
Hardest of all on Hughes is the inevitable comparison with Hodgson, who led Fulham to the Europa League final last season, a significant highlight in the club's history that has raised expectations. But Fulham didn't finish as strongly as it started, and people forget that Hodgson lost nine of his first 17 league games at Fulham. Hughes has been without forwards Bobby Zamora, Andrew Johnson and Moussa Dembele for much of the season, which has made turning draws into victories rather more difficult.
Clint Dempsey has been a voice of reason, backing Hughes and, while admitting that the players expect better from themselves, reminding critics that two of the past four seasons have been "backs to the wall" efforts. Hughes was sacked by City exactly a year ago while in sixth place, so he's no stranger to Christmas twitchiness, but owner Mohamed al Fayed has reportedly offered him (limited) funds in January. One question, though: Will the sudden availability of Martin Jol, the manager he tried to appoint in the summer, distract al Fayed?
The Blues have remained relatively tough to beat this season, but they're finding it tricky to beat opposition keepers. City is only two points off the relegation zone, with nine draws in 17 matches and just one win in the last six. But defeat to Wolves last time out was worrying because the Blues played
McLeish, who recently signed a three-year contract, will be comforted by the fact that the last managerial sacking at City was nine years ago, under the previous owners. His relationship with the board appears to be healthy; acting chairman Peter Pannu has urged supporters to back the team, saying it's "too easy to criticize Alex McLeish." Though he's been given no cash to spend next month, McLeish is trailing a handful of youngsters (and Galaxy's Edson Buddle) looking for loan moves.
Moyes himself has admitted that Everton is in the relegation scrap this season, and that was before it went on a run of seven games without a victory. Everton's away form is the difference between 15th and the relegation places, which has led to a fidgety atmosphere at Goodison Park. The club's traditional bad start to the season has now become something worryingly less temporary.
But if supporters are unhappy with results, they're split over whether it should cost Moyes his job. He's been at the helm for almost nine years, which makes replacing him a messy process -- not one for midseason, especially while there's a cushion, however small, between Everton and the drop zone. Given the money made available to him, he's generally overachieved. It's unlikely that the board will lose patience now.