Tuesday February 8th, 2011

This is an age in which nobody is allowed to make a mistake. Nobody learns on the job any more. A manager loses a handful of games, and he's out. There's no sense that he might learn from his errors, put things right and come back stronger in the future, or at least not at the same club. Everything must be instant.

Imagine now a manager who arrived at an underperforming giant and won nothing until scraping an FA Cup in his fifth season. It wouldn't happen, of course, because such a manager wouldn't get a fifth season, and so the modern culture of sacking would have done for both Herbert Chapman and Sir Alex Ferguson before they'd had a chance to build their empires at Arsenal and Manchester United.

Imagine now a manager who took over a second-flight side that had known great days quarter of a century earlier. It'd finished 17th in the division the season before and on arriving he's promised things couldn't be that bad again. Imagine that at the end of his first season, it'd finished 18th. That manager would be gone, and so Derby County would have sacked Brian Clough, the man who, four years later, would lead them to the league. Imagine another giant, ailing in the second flight who, frustrated by treading-water in midtable, turned one January to a controversial manager with a fine past. Imagine that first season, the club flirted with relegation, and in his second it finished eighth. He wouldn't survive to a third, and so Nottingham Forest would also have denied itself Clough, who within four years would win promotion, the league, two League Cups and two European Cups.

There are examples of managers who win the title in their first season -- Arsene Wenger, Jose Mourinho -- but they have almost exclusively come in the modern era when the uneven spread of resources makes it all but impossible for more than three or four sides to win the title. All the more reason, you'd think, for a smaller club to give its man time to try to build something from the ground up. But that's not the way the modern world of football works.

Which isn't to say every manager should be given the benefit of patience. Sometimes even good managers just aren't a good fit for the club they've taken over. Within six months at Newcastle United, Sam Allardyce, whose record on limited resources elsewhere is excellent, had managed to alienate the fans, the players, the board and the local media. In such circumstances, there's little point hanging on, hoping against all evidence that things will turn round. Similarly at Liverpool, Roy Hodgson -- whose achievements at Fulham, whatever the weird recent revisionism may say, were astonishing -- found himself a misfit in an environment that became increasingly hostile to him. Given what has happened since, few could argue that the board's decision to cut its losses after six months was not the right one.

Which brings us to Roberto Di Matteo, sacked by West Bromwich Albion on Sunday. He took charge of the club in 2009 and in his first season led it to promotion to the Premier League. Back in September, he was named Premier League manager of the month. Five months on, and he's gone. West Brom had lost 13 of its last 19 games in all competitions. It had won only one of its last 10 in the Premier League. The club lies fourth form bottom of the Premier League table, above the relegation zone only on goal-difference. It's very easy for outsiders to preach caution and to urge West Brom's board to give a young manager more time; a club fighting for its life is probably thinking about nothing more than picking up the four wins or so required in the next 13 games to avoid relegation.

What is interesting, though, is that West Brom's fans seem not to have been demanding Di Matteo's departure. There has been grumbling, of course, but the majority of it was directed at the board for dragging its heels when it had a chance to sign John Carew, allowing Stoke City to pick him up instead and so denying the club the sort of attacking focus many believe it needs to make the most of its quality in midfield.

So why was Di Matteo sacked? The logic, presumably, is that some sort of gesture ("we must do something; this is something; therefore we must do it") was necessary to arrest the downward momentum, even if the second-half performances against Blackpool and Wigan Athletic hardly suggested a team that had stopped being motivated by its manager. The phenomenon of "new manager bounce" is familiar, even if the statistical evidence for it is sketchy. The logic, essentially, is that of the scapegoat: load up everything that has gone wrong on the back of the manager, slaughter him, and allow the club to be cleansed by his expiatory blood so everybody can begin afresh.

Sometimes it works: Hodgson, for instance, saved Fulham from what seemed almost certain relegation after replacing Lawrie Sanchez as manager at the end of 2007 (although there the bounce was only felt after about three months). On other occasions, as Iain Dowie found at Hull City and Alan Shearer at Newcastle, it doesn't.

The thought that a manager might be allowed to take a club down, rebuild, and bring it back stronger seems entirely alien now. Peter Reid did it with Sunderland in the late nineties, going down in 1996-97, and coming back in 1998-99 with such momentum his side finished seventh two seasons running, something unheard of in half a century. It's not just football, of course, that pursues a one strike and you're out policy: the likes of William Gladstone, Benjamin Disraeli, Winston Churchill and Harold Wilson all lost general elections but returned to become Prime Minister; now party leaders are expected to fall on their sword the moment an election is lost. Short-termism is the modern way.

Perhaps the blood sacrifice will save West Brom, but the strange thing is that if, before the season, anybody had offered the club 26 points from 25 games, had said that after two-thirds of the season it would be sitting above the relegation zone, would be only seven points off eighth, its fans and board would have happily taken it. Momentum is a strange thing, for the sense is that Di Matteo paid the price for having begun the season too well.

Jonathan Wilson is the author of Inverting the Pyramid; Behind the Curtain; Sunderland: A Club Transformed; and The Anatomy of England.

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