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Jun 27, 2013

Managing expectation

The manager is the face of the club. He is figurehead and de facto ruler alike, a coach, tactician and transfer-market strategist rolled into one. His words are heard most often and carry the most weight. His authority is unquestioned. Those who cross him tend to be cast aside because the manager can overpower and outlast his rivals.

Or that is the entrenched image, anyway. For as long as Sir Alex Ferguson reigned supreme at Manchester United, the omnipotent manager lived on. It is not just at Old Trafford that an era ended with the news of the Scot's retirement. The role of the manager did. Twin developments showed that his is a more precarious profession and one where he can expect to exert less influence.

It is hard to relegate him to the ranks of just another employee but this has been a summer where the manager has become a cog in the chain, albeit a big one, rather than the entirety of the wheel. The long-predicted invasion of the directors of football has gathered pace. The strange element, for those who have always viewed them as managers' enemies, is that they have been invited in.

Andre Villas-Boas, very much a manager of his generation, actually requested one, Franco Baldini, at Tottenham. Unlike others, he arrives with a reputation. Roberto Di Fanti and Mark Cartwright are sufficiently anonymous that they might be able to walk down the high streets of Sunderland and Stoke without being noticed, let alone stopped, unlike their respective clubs' previous architects of transfer policy, Martin O'Neill and Tony Pulis. The latter's departure was rather overshadowed by bigger-name managerial changes yet had he remained the dictator of the Potteries, he would have become the longest-serving British manager in the Football League.

Because, as United replaced Ferguson with David Moyes, at a stroke two of the three paradigms of permanence in the country were removed. After almost 17 years at Arsenal, Arsene Wenger is very much the anomaly. The next most durable is Exeter's Paul Tisdale, appointed in 2006, followed by Carlisle's Greg Abbott, who is yet to celebrate his fifth anniversary at Brunton Park.

Now the culture at Chelsea, where players seem to expect to survive multiple managers, may be contagious. Ferguson and co held the forces of short-termism at bay in most of the upper echelons of the game, but not in the lower divisions. As the League Managers' Association are keen on pointing out – while rather overlooking the number of those sacked re-employed as managers, assistant managers, first- and reserve-team coaches, directors of football and scouts elsewhere – the average tenure in the Championship is now little over a year.

It is brought down by certain clubs. Wolves, having passed through the second tier on their plummet through the divisions, are on their fifth manager in 16 months. Blackburn were much mocked for having five last season, incorporating reigns of 57 (Henning Berg) and 67 (Michael Appleton) days.

If the English have long cast amused or aghast glances at some of Europe's more trigger-happy chairmen, the superiority complex should be shed. Carlo Ancelotti lasted eight years at AC Milan, a Ferguson-esque feat but Palermo have had 11 managers (or eight, given that Gian Piero Gasperini, Delio Rossi and Giuseppe Sannino have had two spells in charge) since the start of 2011.

Yet, including caretakers, Leicester have had 17 bosses since 2004 and QPR 15 since 2006. Southampton, who had two managers between 1955 and 1985, have had 15 since 2004. Instability has long figured highly on the reasons for failure but Saints have prospered over the past four years.

West Bromwich Albion and Swansea, two of the Premier League's best-run clubs, have a high turnover of managers; in part, because others sometimes poach them but also they have seen opportunities to trade up. The continuity has come behind the scenes, not in the dugout.

Yet their predecessors among success stories tended to operate the same formula for overachievement: longevity. Dario Gradi's first spell at Crewe lasted 24 years, Alan Curbishley's time in charge of Charlton was 15 and Joe Royle ruled at Oldham for 12 years. Sam Allardyce and Neil Warnock survived for eight apiece at Bolton and Sheffield United. Now, Wenger apart, they have no modern-day equivalents in the top two divisions.

The job security belongs to the powerbrokers in the shadows; the first men of their respective clubs are also now the first to be fired. Managers as different as Jose Mourinho, Roberto Mancini and Rafa Benitez were drawn to England in part because they envied Ferguson's dictatorial powers and hoped to acquire as much influence.

Each has learned now that is impossible. Mancini's days at Manchester City were numbered once sporting director Txiki Begiristain was appointed; Mourinho has to work with Chelsea technical director Michael Emenalo and, in any case, has acquired a reputation as a short-term manager whose confrontational nature means he rarely lasts long anywhere; Benitez dreamed of ultimate power at Liverpool and ended up an interim manager at Stamford Bridge.

But, if few others get such an unhelpful job title, perhaps the footballing world is populated by interim managers now. The managerial front line doubles up as the firing line.

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