Two down already and with plenty of others feeling the heat, this is what it’s like to be a Premier League manager in 2017, your career dependent on the whim of people who, very often, have no real idea what it is that they want. But they want it now.
First it was Frank de Boer, scythed down just a handful of games into what always looked a slightly unlikely project of turning Crystal Palace into Ajax. No, results weren’t going well, but the change in direction had been something the ownership had decided upon before signing up the Dutchman, so surely they should have had a little more bottle when it came to giving him a chance. After all, you can’t expect to turn Scott Dann into Ruud Krol overnight.
But at the slightest hint that the Premier League gravy train might find itself not stopping at the Croydon station next term, panic set in and they found themselves swiftly reaching for the old school and determinedly English verities of Roy Hodgson. In many ways, you can’t blame them, for if anybody can save them, Hodgson can, but if English football clubs are forever going to cling to the teachings of 1960s and ‘70s Lilleshall, it’s hard to see how the game – and so the national team – can progress and prosper.
Of course, that’s not the preserve of club stakeholders, but it remains a worry within a domesticated game that, beyond the elite, remains largely mired in the past, in the solid, stolid, dependable ideas that will drag you to the magical 40 points and the chance of another year of being cannon fodder for those whose spending comes from another world entirely.
This week, it is the turn of Craig Shakespeare to be ousted by Leicester City for the terrible crime of being in the bottom three or, if you prefer, being a whole four points short of the top half, and this after playing Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea already this term.
It seems early in the day to be sacking someone who guided Leicester to safety last term after the departure of Claudio Ranieri, but it comes as no surprise any more in a game where panic will always trump common sense. That said, you have to feel for Shakespeare, the victim of a football club where things have been going wrong for all too long, pretty much since the moment that they took delivery of the Premier League trophy in 2016.
It certainly appears that for starters, the club is operating under the delusion that they might repeat that triumph sometime soon or, at the very least, find themselves qualifying for the Champions League again. Surely we can dispel that notion at the very outset? Exciting and refreshing as that all was, it was one of those once in a generation freak shows – Forest 78, Ipswich 62 – that do not bear repetition. Those days will never come again for Leicester.
With their title winning run, the Foxes lit the blue touchpaper that has seen Manchesters United and City, Liverpool, Chelsea and others become embroiled in an obscene arms race, spending more and more money to ensure no such embarrassment is going to befall them again, not in the near future anyway.
The spectre of Leicester’s success is also surely the great moving force behind the big six trying to get an even bigger slice of the TV pie, just to reduce the odds of it ever happening again still further. Leicester had best get used to the idea that the world has returned to normal once more and that anything above 17th is the reward they are once again fighting for, along with 12 other clubs.
What Leicester’s current travails also lays bare is the inherent flaw in the system where a manager runs the team and the recruitment is left in the hands of a director of football, a position which, seemingly, means never having to say you’re sorry, nor hand in your notice.
You can see the attraction of the position to owners, able to hide behind the fact that it’s now a global game where you scout the world rather than League 1, but which really gives you a buffer between yourselves and a manager who always wants more players. It is rather harder to see what a manager would find attractive in that system.
When the director of football is on the same page as the manager, it can work well. But if their tastes and requirements when it comes to footballers differ, catastrophe awaits. A manager has to have the final say on player movements because it’s his job on the line if things go wrong. You cannot help but think that if Leicester had got the Adrien Silva deal over the line rather than missing out by 14 seconds, or if they had kept hold of Danny Drinkwater until the Silva deal was done, they might be three or four points better off already. As it is, behind the scenes failings see the axe falling on the man who is front of house, Craig Shakespeare, yet if losing a few football matches to the likes of Liverpool and Arsenal is deemed a sackable offence, how can those responsible survive that deadline day chaos?
And then you have to look at the players, the men who rarely get the blame yet the ones that actually win and lose the games. It’s a shame for the Leicester fairytale that they have so few likeable footballers, certainly not to those of us looking in from the outside. Leicester fans will disagree I’m sure, but to the neutral, there are few footballers who are viewed with such distaste as Jamie Vardy. Unless it’s Kasper Schmeichel.
That’s a little unfair I’m sure, for they were spearheads of a side that saw it’s once in a lifetime opportunity and cashed in on it big style when it would have been easier to fail. But having done it, you are left with two possible views of their exploits in the 18 months since. Either they were the most monstrous overachievers in the history of sport and have merely sunk back to something approaching their proper level or, having reached the summit, they have been happy to coast along on the fumes of their success ever since, not putting in the work, the effort, the sacrifice that staying at the top – even harder than getting there – demands. I suspect it’s a little bit of both, with a dash of transfer market incompetence thrown in to boot.
Like plenty of other clubs, Leicester look as if they are thrashing around in the dark, looking for simple answers to a problem far more complex and deep seated than they would care to admit. But in sacking Ranieri and then Shakespeare, it feels as if they’ve somehow concluded that a simple hair cut is the best remedy for a body riddled with tumours…