Which way will dominoes tumble for Premier League managers?
The pressure on managers to deliver on-the-field success has never been greater
Oftentimes, changing the manager is simply a kneejerk response to any adversity
If Harry Redknapp remains at Tottenham, expect the FA to push for Jose Mourinho
It is tempting to look at the top half of the Premier League table and see rows of upright dominoes. At some point soon, one will teeter and tap its neighbor's shoulder, and then who knows how many, and which, will follow. What if Harry Redknapp takes the England job? (What if Spurs lose to Manchester United this weekend, and Arsenal beat Liverpool?) What if Chelsea does not get back into the Champions League places? What if Roman Abramovich sacks Andre Villas-Boas? What if he's the replacement? Why? When?
Life in the game is incredibly precarious. This week the administrators at Portsmouth, relegated from the Premier League two years ago, have raised the possibility that the club will be unable to fulfill all of its remaining fixtures this season because, simply, it will run out of money by the end of this month. Port Vale, in League Two, has just been served a winding up order by the revenue, and the players were not paid in February. It would be easy to consider these isolated tales of woe if it were not for the huge losses posted by clubs such as Aston Villa, or the fact that even Rangers, which completely dominates Scottish football with Celtic, has been unable to avoid administration and its accompanying issues.
Success and survival have become intimately bound, and the pressure on managers to deliver lucrative on-the-field success has never been greater. Such is the culture of constant hiring and firing that even that is no guarantee; if it was not entirely surprising to see Chelsea relieve Carlo Ancelotti of his duties within 12 months of winning a league and FA Cup double, it is downright barking mad that Sheffield Wednesday, currently third in League One, should sack the manager, Gary Megson, within days of a hard-fought win over local rival Sheffield United. In fact, the chairman Milan Mandaric had met with Megson's replacement before that game; Dave Jones will be the third different manager in the dugout in less than 18 months.
Much of the time, changing the manager is simply a quick-and-dirty response to adversity, and one that represents phony progress -- see the host of clubs where supporters would welcome back former managers: Rafael Benitez to Liverpool, for instance; Martin O'Neill to Aston Villa; Billy Davies to Nottingham Forest; Alan Pardew to West Ham United.
The list goes on, no doubt, to include Chelsea, where Jose Mourinho's return would be greeted with only marginally less rapture than the second coming. The vulnerability of the incumbent's position has already come up -- just the once or twice -- this season, but Chelsea's drop out of the top four, Arsenal's impressive win over Tottenham and an interview given to the Portuguese radio station TSF have all combined to create an interesting week for Andre Villas-Boas. And that's before you factor in Mourinho's trip to London.
In responses that were honest without being the least bit sensationalist or dramatic, Villas-Boas described to TSF a club culture that is jittery from top to bottom: players asked to adapt to the manager's preferred style of play panic when things do not work out, and revert to old habits; the owner appears to believe in a long-term project, but the manager is aware of that itchy trigger finger. "I think I have felt confidence from [Roman] Abramovich, but the pattern of behaviour of the owner has led to a [manager's] downfall in similar situations."
It is interesting that Villas-Boas talked so frankly about all of this, but it is hardly the most revealing interview ever given; of all the things that Abramovich will eventually be remembered as, 'a patient employer' is unlikely to be one. Yet the Chelsea owner is apparently so stung by talk of him overseeing a culture of disposable managers that he is reportedly feeling even more inclined to dispose of a manager who has barely had a chance to make an impact. It is laughable, so long as you are talking about the kind of chuckle most familiar to bartenders and psychiatrists. The sort that morphs seamlessly in to a sob.
Villas-Boas talks in the same interview about the necessary mythology of being a manager -- part of the job, essentially, is telling a grand story about what is to come. At no point has Villas-Boas had the opportunity to narrate his own tale in London, shifted mercilessly swiftly from hero to hapless by the press. His irritation in interviews has at times been used to liken him to a bristling Mourinho, supremely confident in his strategy and disdainful of any expectation that he should explain himself, but the forensic detail in which he discussed with TSF his tactical plans and the difficulties he has faced in trying to re-shape Chelsea suggests that he may simply have grown tired of the questions here.
It was never that way for Mourinho, whose reign at Stamford Bridge has haunted every subsequent manager as it does Villas-Boas. Before he was unveiled as Chelsea manager in 2004, the media consensus was that Claudio Ranieri was extremely hard done by to lose his job, and even that this upstart from Porto would struggle in the self-styled best league in the world. After his swaggering first press conference, however, he was Chelsea's "Man o' War"; his derogatory remarks about Ranieri were labelled by one paper as "cheeky". Initially the Sun stuck to its line -- printing a brief history of braggers the day after Mourinho arrived -- but by Christmas there was not a national newspaper that had not called him "a breath of fresh air".
He has never lost his knack of dictating the story down to every last dotted i. In London this week, apparently looking for a house, he stopped and had his picture taken with numerous smartphone users, filling social networks and the morning's newspapers with shots of him looking delighted to be back in the capital. It is common knowledge that he wants a move away from Real Madrid, that he favours a move back to England. But, he told Chelsea fans at his favourite restaurant, he will not be returning to Stamford Bridge.
Arsenal? Tottenham? England? The dominoes quiver. Arsene Wenger is enjoying the warm glow of last week's derby result but has looked vulnerable to Arsenal fans' impatience this season. The question of what happens after the apparently inevitable loss of Redknapp has gone conspicuously unanswered at Spurs, and expectations elevated by the last couple of seasons demand a big name, someone who virtually guarantees to maintain the club's upward trajectory. If Redknapp stays at White Hart Lane, the FA is under similar pressure to aim high. They don't come much higher than Mourinho.
None would benefit from his management in the long run, however -- because with Mourinho there is almost no suggestion of a long run. Were any of the London trio to appoint him, they would simply be signing up to be a chapter of his autobiography -- a deal worth striking, for plenty, no doubt, but none claiming to be building something. Especially all the while that Sir Alex Ferguson's retirement as Manchester United manager hovers in the mid-distance, for that is the project that will captivate and settle Mourinho. For now, he is a harvester of experiences, a collector of trinkets. He comes with a guarantee of success - but the instant that he delivers it, the job is done. It is no coincidence that he has ruled out managing Chelsea and Internazionale, the two clubs that he says that he loves. Yes, the dominoes quiver.