Steve Bruce among several Premier League managers on the hot seat
The international break is a time for contemplation and reflection in the domestic leagues. It's a chance for the owners of football clubs to pause and take stock of their season so far. Frankly, that's the last thing that three beleaguered managers at the wrong end of the Premier League need right now. Owen Coyle, Steve Kean and Steve Bruce are all just a couple of bad results away from spending considerably more time with their families.
Of this tortured trio, Coyle, manager of bottom club Bolton Wanderers, is arguably in the best position. Although the Trotters have offered up all the resistance of wet toilet paper in the six defeats that followed their opening day slapping of Queens Park Rangers, five of those games were against members of last season's top six. The itinerary for the coming month does look far more encouraging, though in soccer sometimes it's hard to tell whether that glow is really light at the end of the tunnel or just another fire that needs extinguishing. After all, Bolton's defense has shipped an eye-watering 21 goals in its last six games, that's more than a third of all the goals it conceded last season.
This is probably the first time in Coyle's managerial career that he's actually heard the squeak of his own bottom. A Scottish First Division winner with Falkirk, he led St Johnstone to the Scottish Challenge Cup Final before leaving to shake Burnley out of its slumber and drag it blinking into the bright lights of the Premier League. His efforts at Turf Moor attracted the attention of Bolton chairman Phil Gartside, whose decision to lure him to the Reebok Stadium was rewarded with a thoroughly decent showing in the league and a clear aesthetic improvement on the style of his predecessor, the Prince of the prosaic, Gary Megson. But an end of season slump saw Coyle's men drop to 14th on the last day and that form, combined with this start, leaves him with one win and eleven defeats in his last 12 league games. With the Trotters in hock to the bank to the tune of approximately £100 million ($157M), it may not be long before Gartside feels compelled to swing the ax, if for no other reason than to save his own skin. If Bolton slips out of the top flight, there's a good chance you'll hear a very loud pop as they vanish in a puff of IOU notes.
Less than a year after taking control of Blackburn Rovers, manager Steve Kean is already circling the plughole. The Scotsman finds himself in the unenviable position of working for employers whose view of soccer seems confused, alongside advisers whose view might be less than objective and for fans whose view is that they want him tied to a rocket and launched into the center of the sun. Alarm bells rang at Ewood Park last year when new owners Venkys sacked Sam Allardyce and promoted Kean, announcing by way of explanation that he, "works long hours." They went on to say that they wanted to finish, "fourth or fifth," an endearingly laid-back approach given the huge gulf in rewards for the two positions. Advising Venkys on their takeover and beyond was agent Jerome Anderson, who just happens to represent Kean and whose efforts to claim impartiality were hampered slightly when Blackburn signed his son, Myles Anderson from Aberdeen. Anderson Junior has yet to make a league appearance for his new club.
A fans' protest before Blackburn's match against Arsenal on Sept. 17 was ruined somewhat when the team went on to beat the Gunners 4-3. Fortunately for the dissidents, normal service was resumed the following week at St James Park, where they were comfortably bested by Newcastle. After another defeat, the fifth of the season, at the hands of Manchester City, the embattled squad spent the international break in India, playing a friendly against Pune FC. If results don't improve on the team's return, and there's no reason whatsoever to believe that they will, Kean may not be able to survive for much longer. Rejoicing Rovers fans however, would do well to reflect on the view that their manager may very well be the least of their problems.
But it's over at the Stadium of Light where the Sword of Damocles hangs from the thinnest thread on the wonkiest nail. Sunderland Manager Steve Bruce was furious to find the media speculating on his future last month, and why shouldn't he have been? His team finished 10th last season, their highest position since Peter Reid's back-to-back seventh spots in 2000 and 2001. In fact, if you take Reid out of the equation, last season was Sunderland's best finish since 1956. And yet there are still grumblings of discontent in the stands and worrying maneuvers in the boardroom.
The feeling on Wearside is that Bruce has underachieved, given the resources made available to him, and there certainly isn't much on the pitch to contradict that view. Sunderland has won just once this season and has lost three times, most critically at home to hated rivals Newcastle. The standard of its soccer veers from the sublime, its second-half display against Liverpool, to the slapstick, its wretched capitulation to Norwich. A host of new players are struggling to jell and there's a general incoherence in the team's play which makes it difficult to see exactly what Bruce is trying to achieve. Hardly surprising, of course, given that he has been forced to relinquish the services of talismanic striker Darren Bent, homegrown midfielder Jordan Henderson and record signing Asamoah Gyan who to all intents and purposes retired from professional soccer when he forced a move to Al-Ain in Abu Dhabi last month.
More ominously, chairman Niall Quinn has been shuffled aside to make way for owner Ellis Short, who has stepped out of the shadows to impose his authority on the club. Typically, Quinn's final act as Big Cheese was to ease the pressure on Bruce, assuring reporters that, "he will get time." How much time though? Quinn, a former player and, for five desperately unsuccessful games, a former manager, was invulnerable to hysteria and hyperbole. Short knows only that he has handed over a very large sum of money and, thus far, has received very little back in return. Of the three unfortunates wishing that the international break could last forever, Bruce is perhaps the most vulnerable of all.