Thursday, 27 December 2012

Football Bingo

Football cliché bingo is a game that is far too easy to play. But the reason those well-worn lines, like “there’s no substitute for experience” are trotted out with such regularity is that they are largely true.
In life, as in football, sayings such as “a fool and his money are soon parted” provide a window on the world. And both these parables are as valid in the football club boardroom as they are on the pitch or in the City.
The goings-on at Blackburn and Nottingham Forest over recent months, culminating in the sackings of Henning Berg and Sean O’Driscoll, illustrate the point. New owners, successful in other walks of life, think the experience that amassed them untold wealth can pay instant footballing dividends. To some extent, they can’t be blamed. You or I would back our own decision-making if it had made us rich. But football really is another world.
When I worked for a football club, I saw for myself how it took wealthy and successful new directors a period of time to understand the completely unique world in which football operates. What Venkys have shown vividly at Blackburn is that, however much you think you know it all, experience matters. Having dispensed with respected, long-time football administrators available when they took the club over, their chickens have come home to roost. The most damning faint praise of their appointment of Henning Berg is that it made Steve Kean look like a good manager.
Forest’s owners took the opposite path, by actually listening to sound advice in hiring Sean O’Driscoll. Time will tell if their wealth and ruthlessness will propel them to the top as quickly as they’d like. But with Roy Keane in the frame I wouldn’t bet on it.
One owner bucking the trend (and his own reputation) for firing and hiring is Sheffield Wednesday’s Milan Mandaric. Three successive wins either side of Christmas have made a virtue of his patience with Dave Jones after a run of 15 defeats in 18 games, seven of them in a row. Whether Milan’s patience was to do with blind faith in Jones, a lack of available alternatives, or sound judgement we will never know. But he has long experience of running English football clubs, and made the unpopular but, as it turned out, perfectly-timed decision to dispense with Gary Megson a year ago. Wednesdayites, he deserves the benefit of any doubt.
Like bingo, football club chairmanship is a game of luck. But it is also a game of experience. Wednesday are only one win away from dragging the likes of Blackburn into the relegation mire. Most neutrals would be happy to see a brave decision to back a manager when the sack seemed the easier option rewarded with the Owls’ Championship survival. And most would put it down to experience if the “House” came down on Blackburn owners with a second successive relegation.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

The Turning Point?

@chris_brookes kindly asked me to comment on his tub-thumping piece about the joy that has been Sheffield Wednesday's promotion season. He's prompted me into my first blog for a year, addressing some of the insightful and interesting points he makes - notably wondering aloud whether the Owls are on the way back for real after the false dawn of 2005.

If you don't know, I was the Communications Manager at Hillsborough from the summer after relegation from the Premiership in 2000 to February 2007, just after the appointment of Brian Laws. I've never written about my time at SWFC before and don't intend to break any confidences. But, having been left for five years now, and with virtually everyone who I worked with also gone, I don't feel there's any harm in comparing our prospects for success now to those after that unforgettable play-off final win.

Off the pitch - the truth is, I don't think there is a huge link between how a football club is run on a day-to-day basis and results on the pitch. We endured relegation in 2003 when I felt the office was managed competently by people who had the club's best interests at heart, even though they would admit they made mistakes. We won promotion in 2005 against the backdrop of a Monday-Friday environment which I would describe as being in almost complete disarray. I don't know what things are like behind the scenes now but Chris is right when he says we know what we've got in Milan Mandaric. His past history would indicate he will sell the club on when he believes he can make a good profit, probably in a better league position than the one he inherited. I believe his financial wellbeing is his only real priority but he knows that Wednesday's success on the pitch is directly linked to his profit margin, and he is astute and experienced enough to ensure we don't struggle like the last time we went up to the Championship.

Manager - in 2005 we began life in the second tier with a manager who openly admitted it would take him time to learn how to get success in that division. Results would indicate it was perhaps a step too far for Paul Sturrock, although my view is that he was working with one hand tied behind his back. It sickened me to see the disgraceful way he was undermined behind the scenes. Perhaps Gary Megson may have a similar view of his treatment, although I was in a tiny minority at the time who thought Mandaric was ruthless but right in dispensing with his services. As to Megson's successor, I'll hold my hand up to being in the 'anyone but Dave Jones' camp and, for that, I unreservedly apologise to both Dave and Milan. As Chris acknowledges in his piece, it was the right decision at the right time, and it took balls. Going back to Sturrock's lack of familiarity with the Championship, history also tells us that Jones is likely to take us to the top half of the Championship but not the Promised Land of the Premiership. We should be grateful for that, if we look across the city to see what happened when they tired of Kevin Blackwell's decent but promotion-less performances.

Fans - a huge factor, year after year, is the fans, and they will be needed next season. Chris points out in his article that SWFC's form over the last three months was un-Wednesdaylike in its consistency. There will be some tough times next season - some bad displays and horrible defeats - and those are the times your support will be needed more than ever. It really can turn the odd defeat into a draw, the odd draw into a win. But if you ever feel tempted to slag off your favourite whipping boy, please remember all the times when you've seen the Hillsborough crowd turn and the confidence visibly sap out of the team - it has happened enough times over the last few years.

The biggest thing that comes across in Chris' article is just what this club means to its fans, and how it brightens or darkens your days with few shades of grey in between. The supporters are appreciated, even if it doesn't seem so at times, and by some people. To reassure you, I walked over that bridge into work for over six years and there wasn't a single day when I didn't think about that thousands of people would give away limbs to do my job. I'm sure there are people working at Hillsborough now who love club and its fans like I grew to.

Finally, I upset a couple of Wednesdayites over the weekend when I said it was embarrassing to accept a civic reception for finishing second in League One. It might be a celebration achievement for a smaller team like a Chesterfield or a - dare I say it - Sheffield United. But Wednesday are a 'massive' club, promotion was our minimum aim, and civic receptions should be reserved for outstanding success. In some ways it shows how far we have fallen to view promotion from the third tier as being worthy of a such a reception.

I'd gladly support one if we were to do a Norwich and go straight up next season but, after the pain of the last few years, we should all be happy to embrace the coming together of a chairman who knows what he is doing AND a season of mid-table Championship mediocrity. It hasn't happened at Hillsborough for a while.