Who’d be a manager???

After a turbulent management merry-go-round period, I can quite comfortably say that there is no formula for the perfect manager, nor the exact circumstances in which the position is maintained, only a guarantee that the job will be unpredictable. There are some in the profession who quite frankly should never have made the leap from playing to coaching, and then there are others who have successfully made the grade. In addition to these managerial inconsistencies, the presence and decisions of club owners have severely damaged the game, and it appears that no one’s tenure as manager should ever be taken for granted.

This past month has been one of the most turbulent for managers that I can ever remember. There have been high profile sackings lacking logic a la Chris Hughton and Sam Allardyce, and managers that quite frankly should have seen it coming i.e the unfortunate Roys: Hodgson and Keane.  It appears that after every game, the futures of under-pressure managers are discussed, and the odds of a jettisoning of management alternate week to week. For example those in most immediate danger appear to be Gerard Houllier and Avram Grant, and to a lesser extent Carlo Ancelotti.

On owners making their management choices for their club, Avram Grant recently said that “when you sign a manager, you sign up to a philosophy and you have to know what you are doing.” This is a statement that rings true at the beginning of a manager’s stint, but if results begin to go awry, it is regularly the manager who takes the wrap for it rather than the incumbents of the shirt on the pitch. Grant’s statement can be used to illustrate the horrendous treatment of Hughton at Newcastle. After a demoralising relegation, where there was a distinct lack of fight and hunger, Hughton was charged with a return to the Premiership at the first attempt, armed with a heavily depleted budget. He worked wonders with the team, eventually gaining them promotion as champions. After clearing the first hurdle, Hughton looked for a period of stability for the club on its return to the top division, but was rewarded with a meagre budget, and the installation of Peter Beardsley to his back room staff, without his say. It was an almost identical situation to the one which forced Kevin Keegan out of the club last time they were in the top-flight. Mike Ashley employed Dennis Wise as director of football, without consulting Keegan, and the Newcastle legend soon left the club after being undermined. Despite Hughton recording victories against Arsenal and their local rivals Sunderland, and in top half of the table security, he was crudely shafted, and Ashley drafted Alan Pardew into the hotseat. Post Hughton, Pardew’s team have continued in similar form, and who’s to say that Hughton could not have excelled if he had remained at the helm.

The most worrying factor in this instance, as well as Sam Allardyce’s untimely dismissal, is that those who have decided that change is needed at the club are not football people, they are business oriented, and are oblivious to the realities of the game, and the capabilities of their teams. One only need to look at what the Venky’s group are requesting from their freshly bought Blackburn: a place in the upper echelons of the Premier League, on an extremely minimal budget. There have also been suggestions that they will infiltrate their new manager Steve Kean’s transfer dealings, and that they want a potentially squad disrupting galactio signing, to announce their arrival at the club. Their mooted deal for the washed up star of yesteryear Ronaldhino was a publicity stunt similar to Manchester City’s pointless pursuit of Kaka, and in reality, there’s not enough money in the world to persuade him to swap Brazil for Lancashire, and maybe the Venky’s group will get the message.

Finally it is important to document why managers have traditionally lost their jobs in the past; because they haven’t been able to produce the results that they promised that they would achieve at their very first press conference. Its a strange situation when a manager has cut his teeth at a club, excelling there, and then has flopped at another club. Perhaps the best depiction of this strange situation was Brian Clough’s struggles at Leeds after his triumphant spell at Derby County and later on at Nottingham Forest. This year however, I believe that the pair of Roys have documented the struggle of a round peg in a square hole. Last season Roy Hodgson managed to guide his Fulham team to the final of the Europa League, where they were beaten in extra time by Athletico Madrid. It documented the contrasting fortunes of the club to that when he took over in a relegation battle. Last season proved that his man-management skills were second to none, as he brought out the best in Bobby Zamora, a player who has been lacking in confidence since his regretful move to Tottenham, and managed to resurrect the floundering career of Damien Duff. He also proved that he had an eye for a bargain by signing the gigantic Brede Hangeland, and was rewarded fittingly last season, by being announced as manager of the year. His luck however changed after he took the Liverpool job. He signed players that on paper were befitting of the club, but have been disastrous on the field, and the players have rarely looked interested this season. After several shocking results, culminating in a heartless 3-1 defeat to Blackburn, Hodgson parted company with the club, leaving it in a worse position than when he took charge. After his disappointing 6 months or so in the job, is it possible to say that Hodgson does not thrive under pressure, and that he needs a smaller stage on which to perform comfortably.

It is also amazing to see that he has gone from the most respected coach in England to Alan Green’s scapegoat. Surely the horror shows that have been witnessed by Liverpool fans this season cannot all be his fault, he might pick the team, but the players have to do all of the work on the pitch. I am often interested as to just how much a manager can do whilst his team are on the pitch; if you watch Alex Ferguson during a game, he spends 60% of the match sitting on the bench chewing, 20% complaining about the officials and then 20% barking out instructions. The only possible solution could have been that Hodgson lost the dressing room, and that the players had lost their enthusiasm for the game under his stewardship. All in all it was a sad end to a reign that had much promise.

The other Roy: Keane has just been relieved from a fitful spell in charge of Ipswich Town. Keane made the step from player to manager seamlessly as he took Sunderland from the bottom of the Championship to the summit of the division, returning to the promised land at the first attempt. When he replaced Jim Magilton in the Portman Road hotseat, he was provided a sizeable fund to build a squad capable of recreating his triumph with Sunderland. For whatever reason however, Keane never truly found his feet at Ipswich, and the team never really responded to his tactics. He was an immensely well-respected footballer, but it appears that now as a manager he is unapproachable for his players, and is perhaps too volatile a man to be in charge of a football club. Towards the end of his Ipswich reign, he began to scrape the bottom of the barrel for excuses: blaming the geographical location of Ipswich for the reluctance of players signing for the club! It just never clicked for him in Suffolk, and its hard to see where he will go from here; maybe it would be better for him to drop down a division to guide a smaller side upwards, and for him to hone his managerial skills before pushing on again.

Who’d be a manager eh?


Well that was unexpected…

What a year 2010 was for Norwich City as a club. They managed to return to the second tier of English football at the first attempt, and then to seamlessly compete for promotion upon their return. Statistically they were the most successful team in the football league during the calendar year: taking 89 points from their 46 games, recording the most away wins, and also scoring the most goals. They have entered into a new year, in similar fashion to the way that they began 2010, with 4 points from their 2 fixtures. They have managed to greatly alter their fortunes in a period of the season that has seen them infamously struggle in the past, and this season has seen them go from strength to strength, including a brief occupation of second place.

They are currently on a run of a single defeat in eleven games, and have beaten the league leaders QPR comprehensively along the way. Perhaps this intensive part of the season is not where promotion is lost and won, but it does lay the foundations for a good season if the results are positive. After 25 games gone Norwich City are occupying the lofty position of third in the Championship, only on goal difference from Cardiff in second. I am not going to get ahead of myself, and jump to any hasty conclusions, but it has been a season of great progress, and they are there on merit. The season is just over half way through, and I suppose that the question to ask is how, according to the quite frankly wooden pundit, Leroy Rosenior, the ‘overachievers’ are doing so well?

Paul Lambert has recruited a team of young, hungry talented footballers, mixed with a smattering of more experienced older heads, all on a shoestring budget. They are a close knit group, and this togetherness can be seen throughout their time on the pitch.  A large number of the first eleven have previously had little experience at this level, and they are eager to prove that they can cut it. Talisman captain, Grant Holt had before this campaign, played a handful of games with Blackpool at this level with very little result, and has looked hungry to show that he is up to the task. He has of course taken the division by storm and has six goals in his last seven games. Of the starting midfield four, only Wes Hoolahan has played significant games at this level, and he is looking a lot more accomplished and consistent than on his last Championship jaunt, finding good goalscoring form in recent weeks. Perhaps most importantly, the back four all have experience at this level and higher, and despite the lack of clean sheets this season (QPR was their first in ten games), they have been outstanding, and have helped to build a solid foundation for the team to move forward. In recent weeks the injuries have been mounting, and against QPR, they were without seven first-teamers, leading to Lambert describing the victory as ‘miraculous’ because of such a depleted line-up. I am more inclined to say that it was a case of Andrew Crofts marking the Hoops heartbeat; Taarabt out of the game, leaving the league leaders unable to make their mark on the match, but both make sense.

In the six games that Norwich have lost this season, they have only been truly outplayed on one occasion: against Doncaster Rovers away. Their performances alone should have at least warranted a point from the home defeats to Hull and Portsmouth, and were unfortunate to lose away to Cardiff and at home to Crystal Palace, and the opening day defeat to Watford can be put down to nerves and the lack of success under the Sky Sports spotlight. This strength and consistency that has been shown throughout the first half of the season has documented that this is a team without fear, and one that does not go out looking for a draw; they have the belief that they can garner three points in every game. This belief must be due a considerable amount to Paul Lambert, and his man-management skills. He is rapidly becoming the best manager that the club have ever had, and currently has the best win percentage in the history of the club: winning 58% of his 77 games thus far. He also has retained the amazing statistic that his team are yet to lose two consecutive games during his tenure at the club, and it shows what great ‘bouncebackability’ he has instilled in his squad. Not only has he restored the confidence of the club, but he is also making sure to keep the players and fans feet on the ground. After being lightly interrogated about the team’s chances of promotion in recent weeks, he has always harked back to his original aim for the season: to retain Championship status. He has however stated that if the team can do this, then they will push on to finish in the highest position that they possibly can.

The Championship division this season has been the most open that I can ever remember, and unlike last season there isn’t a Newcastle or West Brom running away with the automatic promotion places. This can only be good news for a fearless Norwich side. They have taken 4 points off of QPR, without conceding a goal, and have the chance to gain revenge from out-of-form Cardiff in their next league game a week on Saturday. As these teams stutter there is every chance that there could be a side that quietly sneaks into the automatic promotion picture, and if the boys in yellow continue their good form, manage to keep their current squad intact, and add to it and of course retain Lambert, then there is no reason why it cannot be them.

And it was all yellow

The thumping victory on Sunday was the one that all Norwich fans have been waiting for. It was the most convincing that the team has played this season, and the first time in a league encounter that they have managed 4 against Ipswich. Not only this but talisman captain, Grant Holt scored his first ever league hat-trick, and led the Ipswich back-line on a merry dance. It was the weakest Ipswich team that I have ever witnessed at Carrow Road, and I was disappointed that a team with Roy Keane at the helm would lack fire and passion.

Before the game, I highlighted that the match would be lost and won in midfield, and I wasn’t disappointed. The Ipswich midfield were unafraid of snapping in with full-blooded challenges, but they were unable to retain possession for large stretches of the game. Ipswich captain David Norris is not a man who’s commitment can be questioned, but his obvious frustration was summed up by a dreadful lunge on the excellent Henri Lansbury. Norris’ partner in the midfield, Grant Leadbitter, did very little other than shoot harmlessly from distance, and the two were over-run by Norwich’s central pairing of Andrew Crofts and David Fox. Crofts and Fox were fantastic as they ran from box to box, blocking shots and getting in dangerous attacking positions. In one such attack it was a shame that Crofts couldn’t get enough power behind the ball when he was presented with a chance in the first half. Debutant, Lansbury however must be singled out for praise. He took a while to find his rhythm, and to stamp his authority on the game, but his pass for the second goal was reminiscent of  Fabregas at his best. Paul Lambert, had the cheek to compare him to Lionel Messi, perhaps a distorted reflection, but it was a pass truly worthy of winning any game, and a great way to announce your arrival. Lansbury is not blessed with blistering pace or especially quick feet, but he manages to find an extra yard to work with, has great spacial awareness and an eye for a pass. He has a very bright future ahead of him, and it is a shame that will not be at Carrow Road.

Norwich showed the chinks in their armour, and were of course undone by a simple set piece for the Ipswich goal. The vast majority of goals conceded recently have come from corners, and it is something that needs to be improved upon if the team are to be competing for the play offs come the spring. Despite the strength in attack, Norwich looked fragile at points in the first half, and allowed too much time and space on the ball, especially for 5 to 10 minutes after they had conceded. After the interval the players seemed much more confident, and had a lot less to do, as they faced a very demoralised and limited 10 man Town.

I mentioned that a hero would come to prominence, and cometh the hour, cometh the man. Grant Holt has played well this season, but due to an injury plagued pre-season, has looked off the pace at times this autumn. He has returned to his flying form of last season, and is finally proving that he can cut it in The Championship. His hat-trick brought him to 9 for the season, and a very respectable 39 in 65 games for the club. He was a constant thorn in Ipswich’s side, and their defenders looked intimidated and scared by him whenever he thundered towards them. He finished with aplomb and guile on 3 separate occasions, and could have possibly ended the match with 5. On a couple of occasions he pressured Ipswich defenders into costly mistakes, with the first resulting in the opening goal, and the second a sending off for Damien Delaney. As I watched the game on I-Player the day after, I was struck by how often the commentary team mentioned Holt’s lack of pace. It is true that he isn’t as mobile as Craig Bellamy or Theo Walcott, but he does have a decent turn of pace, and it is a struggle for his opponent to knock him off the ball. His ability to hustle and harry, and his physicality may well be he most well known attributes, but as his deft chip against Brighton last season proves, he does have finesse in his locker.

This well earned victory has not only presented Norwich with the bragging rights until the return fixture in April, but given the team a chance to build on this result, and push on for the rest of the season. Norwich are only 4 points worse off this season than they were at this point during their title winning season in 2003/04, and although I must emphasise that they will not be promoted automatically, there is a great chance of them finishing in the top 6. Ipswich however, looked devoid of ideas throughout the contest, and trudged off the field in a subdued manner. I am interested to see where they go from here, and although they were victorious against West Brom’s second string in the Carling Cup last night, I don’t see them putting this humiliating derby defeat behind them, and I believe that they will remain in the bottom half of the table for the rest of the season if Roy Keane remains at the helm. His tactics were suspect on Sunday, especially after they were down to 10 men. His strangest decision was to take off the right back Zuiverloon, moving Carlos Edwards from winger to full back. Edwards had been the most promising attacking player for Town in the second half, and was caught out defensively for the 3rd and 4th Norwich goals. Ipswich had nothing to lose after going down to 10 men, and Keane should have been more positive and stuck with two upfront, rather than sitting back and hoping to sneak an equaliser from another set piece.

The name of Norwich City Football Club has been redeemed once more, and on a day when the result was all that mattered, the performance on live national television proved that they are back with a bang and that there’s no question where the East Anglian bragging rights are going this season.

The return of the Old Farm Derby

Whenever the fixture list is released in the close season, the first one that I anxiously scan for has been Ipswich Town at Carrow Road, and this year was no different. After a season’s break, one of the most passionate and eagerly awaited contests of the domestic game has returned. As I have learnt on past occasions the form book goes out of the window when discussing any derby match, with either side having a chance of victory. It is a chance for heroes and villains alike to be made and a place in East Anglian folklore awaits the victors. This season’s encounter is going to be an extremely difficult one to predict. Although Norwich have been on a seemingly poor run of form (only 4 wins from 12), they have only lost two of those games, and have remained in 8th place, only 2 points off 6th spot. Ipswich however go into the game in worse form (losing 7 of the last 12), and plummeting after a very promising start to 15th place.

In the recent past a couple of the games have held more significance for the winners: in Norwich’s championship winning season, a brace from debutant Leon McKenzie at Portman Road helped the Canaries go top of the the league, a position that they never relinquished, and was immortalised in song: “Top of the League, at Portman Road”. In the last meeting between the sides, Ipswich took great delighted in putting one of the nails into Norwich City’s Championship coffin, by beating them 3-2, and sending them on their way to the depths of League One.

With Norwich’s promotion from League One under Paul Lambert, and Roy Keane’s constant chopping and changing of his squad, this season’s encounter is a first derby for not only both managers, but a large portion of the playing staff as well. The derby atmosphere and pressure tends to bring out the best and worst in players, and will really test the mettle of the debutants. There is every chance that either side could hold a Leon McKenzie; a man tailor made for the occasion. Ipswich have signed a new frontman, Kiwi striker Rory Fallon on loan, but despite his physical presence, only has a goal record of around 1 in 5 games. Goals in previous games have come from some unlikely sources but the bookmakers have their money on the rejuvenated Grant Holt drawing first blood, and in this case who am I to disagree. He has returned to fitness after an injury plagued pre-season, and is finally finding some of the form he showed in abundance last season. Being captain, he will want to lead from the front, and I am expecting him to really pull his weight on Sunday.

The game however, I believe will be lost and won on set pieces and also in midfield. Norwich have a soft underbelly when it comes to defending corners, and this could be the easiest way for Ipswich the get the ball in the net. Norwich have a plethora of dead ball specialist, and after Chris Martin’s excellent free kick against Reading, I expect him to try his luck from range. The Norwich midfield is currently depleted, but still has quality amongst its ranks, and has just acquired Henri Lansbury from Arsenal on loan. It will be interesting to see how his battling qualities and excellent technique fit into an already exciting midfield. The young gunner  has already proved that he has an appetite for  a big occasion after netting against Tottenham for Arsenal in the Carling cup. Holding midfielder Andrew Crofts, will have his work cut out against box-to-box rival David Norris, but I expect him to stamp his authority on the match, and to drive the team forward. There is also the question of whether Wes Hoolahan can step up to the plate, and excel in such a big game, he has a lot of talent in his left foot, but often runs into cul-de-sacs. He has been in and out of the side this season, scoring vital goals, and alongside the trickery, I hope that he puts his foot through the ball when under pressure.

This occasion is one that I have been looking forward to since Norwich were relegated. I missed the last derby game at Carrow Road whilst I was studying abroad in America, having to rely on the minimalist BBC World Service updates, and the snail paced live text commentary on the BBC Football website. Needless to say the match feed was anxious watching, and I have never bitten my nails so much watching a screen with mere words on. Personally I am hoping for a repeat of the last meeting at Carrow Road, a straightforward 2-0 victory for home side. The neutral however would rather it replicated Glenn Roeder’s first match in charge of the club. In the first half  Norwich were just on top, but a couple of defensive slip ups, meant that Ipswich were two up at half time. An extremely unfit John Hartson was an unlikely catalyst for a second half fight back, but the big man had a hand in two excellent goals, and the match finished  all square. Whatever the final result I am sure that the game will be a fantastic advert for both the Championship and East Anglian football, and I am expecting a hero to emerge.