Have any Premier League sack race leaders really failed to deliver?
After all that, the weekend came and went without anyone losing his job, though between them the bottom three clubs -- Southampton, Reading and Queens Park Rangers -- won only two points and scored a single goal. The talk of must-win games and votes of confidence and tested faith goes on for another week, at the end of which Southampton travels to QPR for what may prove to be a farewell match for either manager. There is a strange timbre to this conversation, a hammy solemnity that struggles to disguise a sort of gleeful anticipation of drama; the kind of tone in which your friends will discuss your divorce when you're not there. "Isn't it terrible? Ooh, but did you hear ..."
By his own admission, Southampton manager Nigel Adkins has been the front-runner in this season's sack race. Before the weekend's 1-1 draw with Swansea, his side had won four points from 10 matches. A 4-1 win over Aston Villa showed what Southampton is capable of, but defeat to West Ham United by the same scoreline was not the only result that demonstrated its weaknesses. The Saints are unapologetic in their commitment to an attacking game -- in fact, there is an easily discernible swagger in the step of players such as Adam Lallana -- but find it difficult to go 90 minutes without some kind of defensive mishap. Adkins' side has dropped 13 points from winning positions, including the two surrendered to Swansea on Saturday.
Reading has also had trouble keeping things tight at the back: this weekend's 0-0 draw with Norwich was the first clean sheet Brian McDermott's team has kept this season. It took Reading to six points from 10 games, a record that does not bode well, but one that McDermott is keeping calm about. "To draw six games out of 10 shows how close we are," he said. Reading has conceded late goals (Demba Ba's 83rd-minute equalizer for Newcastle, which he clearly handled, was probably the most heartbreaking for fans) but has also managed to turn ties in to wins, as it did against Stoke with a last-minute penalty at the start of the season and against Fulham, even after Dimitar Berbatov's 88th-minute goal seemed certain to win the match for Martin Jol's team.
It is more difficult to précis QPR's troubles, except to say that this has been a wildly inconsistent start to the season. The home crowd has watched Rangers lose 5-0 to Swansea and seen them hold Chelsea to a goalless draw; Mark Hughes' side counted itself unlucky to lose 1-0 Arsenal last month but had been equally lucky to take a point from Norwich earlier in the season. QPR's starting XI is constantly changing, which makes performance predictions near impossible. At the start of the season my reservations about the side had to do with the recruitment policy -- "the scale of the changes at Queens Park Rangers give it all a bit of a hotchpotch look." And so their early campaign could be described.
That is not to claim for myself any great powers of prediction. Quite the opposite: what we are seeing is what anyone might reasonably have expected to see. I doubt it gave too many people a jolt when I suggested that Southampton "is likely to be right in the thick of it for much of the season," or that "there is just something a bit green about Reading." Southampton arrived in the Premier League two seasons after being promoted out of the third tier. Reading earned promotion off the back of an unexpected streak in which it won 15 games and lost only one, keeping 10 clean sheets in the process -- that was never likely to be repeated at the top level, especially given the low-key player recruitment of the summer.
Given Southampton's comic defensive bungling, Adkins has been criticized for the fact that the club spent a great deal more money than usual in the summer but failed to address the team's key areas. Except that Adkins said all along that he wanted to continue the club's policy of bringing youth players through (which he has), sign a goalkeeper (which he did) and sign a center-half (which he also did). Much hot air has been parped about tensions between Southampton's chairman, Nicola Cortese, and Adkins, but the manager has hardly sprung a surprise on his boss. In fact when Maya Yoshida, the center back who has taken a lot of flak for Southampton's vulnerability, arrived, he made a point of mentioning Cortese's pivotal role in persuading him to sign.
McDermott, meanwhile, has been derided for his cheery outlook. "If there is a positive out there," said the
For Hughes things are slightly different. His record after taking over from Neil Warnock in January was extremely mixed, and Rangers only survived because Bolton Wanderers could not beat Stoke City on the last day of last season; to say on that basis that Warnock's sacking was vindicated would be to abuse the word rather sorely. Still, chairman Tony Fernandes seemed happy enough to keep Hughes in place and sanction all those summer signings, so it is little wonder that he has so far backed him as the right man to turn things around. To do otherwise at this stage of the season could be read as an admission of poor judgment. Best to wait until later in the season, when the unhappy fans will thank you for sacking him.
Such is the bind in which clubs find themselves in this era when each professes to want stability and common sense and a club ethos and a five-year plan and all those lovely sounding things, but many are still smitten by the perfume and pearls of short-termism. There is a bizarre lack of perspective in any suggestion that (at least two of) these managers have failed to deliver, which should be the only real case for dismissal.
"He's a lovely bloke," said Paul Merson of Adkins this weekend, "but he took [Southampton] up too quickly." In a parallel universe, Southampton just about survived in the second tier last season and Adkins is completely secure in his job.