The Shape of Things to Come?


False Nine editor, Andrew Belt, looks at the recent sackings at Blackburn Rovers and Nottingham Forest, and laments the diminished role of managers and greater emphasis on owners in the modern game…

Were you at London Road on 17th November?

The recent sequence of events dictates that you would be in line to wear an ‘I was there when Henning Berg’s Blackburn won a game’.

57 days after appointing the Norwegian, Blackburn Rovers decided they’d had enough and the ex-title winning Rover departed Ewood Park, as a club representative, for probably the last time.

Prior to being appointed, Berg’s experience of football management was limited to his time in the Tippeligaen – Norway’s top division – as boss of Lyn Oslo and Lillestrom.

Neither spell in charge was deemed worthy of international acclaim but, no matter. When Venky’s are in charge, bringing in a popular ex-player with no experience of managing an English team is preferable to sticking with the current boss who had Blackburn comfortably entrenched in the Play-Off positions or plumping for someone who knows what it feels like to be successful in a notoriously tight division.

That Berg made the unlikeable Steve Kean look world-class by comparison clearly didn’t help his cause.

But, 57 days and 10 games is no yardstick by which to be thinking about swinging the axe in spite of a dismal record of one win, three draws and six defeats during his reign.

Glum: Managing Blackburn brought Berg little joy

Glum: Managing Blackburn brought Berg little joy

If you’re going to appoint a rookie in the English divisions then surely you will need some time to bed in and analyse the situation. Chris Powell, for instance, took to the Charlton Athletic hotseat without any experience of managing a club before and endured a sticky patch of no wins in 11 in his first season in charge which led to the Addicks falling out of the League One Play-Off places.

Allowed a summer to reorganise, Powell stormed to the League One championship, amassing a club record 101 points and is currently steadying Charlton back into second-tier football. Powell’s success story isn’t the rule but a bit more patience from Venky’s might have aided Rovers’s cause.

You can’t help feeling some sympathy for Berg. Appointed on 31st October, amidst an outpouring of relief all around Blackburn that one half of the terrible twosome in charge at the club had been culled, he made a good impression on the assembled journalists by calling a press conference for the very next day at an early time.

He wanted to give the impression that he meant business and made all the right sounds in his opening public address. To the English press, as a manager, he was a virtual unknown and what would really back up his words would be results on the pitch.

A defeat to Crystal Palace before successive draws versus Huddersfield Town and Birmingham City preceded the 4-1 win away at Peterborough United which put Blackburn sixth in the table – one place lower than when he started – and it appeared to be a case of so far, not bad.

Berg’s fifth game in charge produced a 2-0 home defeat to Millwall and proved to be the catalyst for a run of five defeats out of six which ultimately cost him his job, with Blackburn languishing in 17th.

During this six-game period, Berg dropped former England goalkeeper, Paul Robinson, for 21-year old stopper, Jake Kean, took to Ewood Park for a home game against Cardiff City which attracted just short of 12, 500 fans and most recently, and embarrassingly, left the club Christmas party after becoming vexed by the tricks being played on him.

In a story that was unfailingly humorous, it was revealed that Berg was made to go up on stage and wear a Christmas stocking. By the time someone attempted to place a Michael Jackson wig on the boss’s head, after having been made to dance, he ripped off the stocking and walked off the stage.

Cool: A model wears a Michael Jackson wig but Berg was left insulted by the prank

Cool: A model wears a Michael Jackson wig but Berg was left insulted by the prank

Sadly, it’s this image that will probably endure when recalling Berg’s time in charge of Blackburn in the future. A proud man reduced to a laughing stock.

Presiding over this unsightly mess and the chaos that came before are Indian owners, Venky’s. With Blackburn Rovers Global Advisor, Shebby Singh, epitomising everything that is wrong with the club, they appear to be in pole position for the title of English football’s worst-run club.

How ironic then, that before arriving back at the club, Berg rescinded this comment upon being handed a presumably handsome contract: “There are no real managers with credibility who would accept a job like that.” Views made known when asked about Venky’s administration before being contacted about the role.

If he had resisted Venky’s advances then maybe he would have retained some of that valuable commodity: credibility.

Moving further south and Nottingham Forest fans would have been delighted by their Boxing Day outing at home to Leeds United.

Trailing to an early Leeds goal, Forest blitzed their opponents in a terrific half-hour burst that began before half-time and continued into the second-half, cruising to a 4-2 win. The result put them a point below the Play-Off places and in the right position to make a go of promotion under Sean O’ Driscoll.

Bizarre then, that O’ Driscoll was sacked just hours later.

Sharp shooter: Billy Sharp celebrates scoring against Leeds

Sharp shooter: Billy Sharp celebrates scoring against Leeds

The man that new Forest owners, the Al-Hasawi family from Kuwait, had appointed in July after sacking Steve Cotterill almost immediately after taking over was now deemed not good enough for the job, despite edging the club closer to where they wanted to be in his five months at the City Ground.

Forest chairman, Fawaz Al-Hasawi, said, “He can count himself unlucky to have lost his job with the team just one point away from the top six.” This statement seemed to echo the thoughts of the whole football community so what about the explanation?

“But we have a responsibility to look to the future for this great club because we have huge ambitions for it. We knew when we bought the club in the summer that it would take time for the players we bought in to settle but that process has taken longer than anticipated…with the January transfer window approaching we feel it’s the right time to make a change.

“We are looking to bring in an ambitious manager with Premier League experience.”

On the Nottingham Forest official club website, there’s a positive news item with joint-owner Abdulaziz Al-Hasawi describing how much he enjoyed the Boxing Day football on his first visit to watch his newly-acquired team. Above that story is the more ominous looking ‘Club Statement’. A baffling case of ‘thanks, Sean, for the day out, now it’s time for you to go’.

The explanation demonstrates how the Kuwaiti owners are looking for a quick fix to achieve their ambition of Premier League football. They further try to justify their decision by saying how they’ve been disappointed not to win two games in a row this season – proof of consistent performing. But, anyone with experience of the Championship, would realise what a demanding division it is with consistency extremely hard to come by.

Though, of course, the Al-Hasawi family probably wouldn’t be the best judge of knowing the quickest route out of the Championship.

So, to that man with ambition and Premier League experience. The man to lift Forest from the doldrums and who, evidently, was summoned even before the Leeds game. Of course, Alex McLeish would fit the bill.

Bearing a name that sends shudders to most football fans in the West Midlands. Now, taking on a club in the East Midlands, he could be the man to take the club up to the Premier League but much of his experience in the top division is turning clubs into relegation candidates.

New man in charge: Alex McCleish is a manager of a Midlands club again

New man in charge: Alex McLeish is a manager of a Midlands club again

To be fair to McLeish, he did get Birmingham City up to the Premier League and, in terms of the decision made by the Al-Hasawi family, there were Forest fans who appeared happy for O’ Driscoll to go, but the move doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in the current regime as a disturbing trend was growing.

Managers have always had short shelf-lives but the recent sackings at Blackburn Rovers and Nottingham Forest seem to bear more resemblance to the erratic running of a club more common at Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea.

That Chelsea have achieved great success with Abramovich as owner shouldn’t serve as inspiration for other new foreign owners – particularly those outside of the Premier League.

Fans cry out for rich sugar daddies to save their club but the reality can often be that the club you have followed for years become playthings of those who don’t understand the game.

The sackings also follow the trend of clusters of managerial changes taking place which was witnessed earlier in the season. The longest-serving manager at a club currently plying their trade in the Championship is Kenny Jackett of Millwall, closely followed by Derby County’s Nigel Clough and Brighton & Hove Albion’s Gus Poyet. All three clubs are starting to reap the benefits of their ‘long’ associations with these men, not least adding to some sort of cultivated identity the teams that play under them produce.

Every Championship chairman dreams of making it to the top-table. If new club owners were to look carefully at the team currently seven points clear at the top of the Premier League they would note that the manager has been at Manchester United for all of 26 wonderfully successful years.

It wasn’t plain-sailing from the start but the board stuck with him and Sir Alex Ferguson is widely considered one of the best football managers of all time now. Look to another Championship club, and Peterborough United virtually owned up to the mistake of dropping Sir Alex’s son, Darren, by reinstating him as boss and, again, results improved.

Still want that rich, foreign owner to take over your club?

Football owners invariably end up wanting to control matters on the pitch but they only understand business.

Once upon a time, managers were trusted with controlling all football matters. Given time they can revolutionise a club.

With Chelsea’s standard business practice possibly being taken on elsewhere, are football managers, in the true sense of the job, a dying breed?

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