Monday, December 20, 2010

The Damned Rovers?

Cindy and I watched the movie "The Damned United" this weekend and I couldn't help but draw an analogy between the topic of the movie -- Brian Clough's brief, unsuccessful reign as manager of Leeds United in 1974 -- and the current situation that my Blackburn Rovers find themselves in.

To make a long story short, Clough was a young, brash, self-confident manger in England who led lowly Derby (that's pronounced "Darby" for all you American readers) County from the depths of the second division to the championship of Division One in England (what is now called the Premier League) in two short years. Along the way he first admired and then came to loathe the manager of Leeds United, Don Revie, who was an "old school" manger (read: his players played hard, arguably dirty, soccer).

Clough had a habit of buying the rights to players without the approval of the Chairman of Derby and, at least according the to admittedly fictionalized movie account depicted in The Damned United, became more arrogant in his dealings with the Chairman after his initial success. Ultimately, he submitted his resignation to the Board in an attempted power play to leverage his running of the club without the Chairman's involvement. Unfortunately for him, the resignation was accepted.

After a brief stint at a lower division club in Brighton, Clough was offered the manager's position at Leeds. Revie had accepted the job as England's manager and the club targeted Clough as his replacement.
Clough's reign at Leeds lasted exactly 44 days, but during that time he managed to alienate its board, the media, Revie, and most importantly his players. Whether Clough was right or not (and the movie suggests that he was) it was hardly the way to start a relationship when he supposedly told his players (who had won the first division championship in 1973-74, the year before Clough led Derby to the title, and the FA Cup the year before that) that they could "all throw [their] medals in the bin because they were not fairly won."

Brian Clough leading Leeds onto the pitch before the 1974 FA Charity Shield match. 

Predictably, the players did not play hard for Clough and he was ousted after less than a month and a half in charge.

The comparison to Blackburn is that this week its new owners sacked their manager, Sam Allardyce. While many Rovers fans were not admirers of Allardyce, they were almost unanimously surprised by his firing since Rovers were mid-table at the time -- a standing about as good as most fans expect given the club's limited resources. There was talk of a protest by fans before the match this past Saturday against West Ham and many have speculated that the firing, the reasons given for it (essentially, lack of ambition and an unattractive style of play), and the expectations that the club's new owners have all demonstrate that they are naive at best and will endanger the club's Premier League life at worst.

I suspect that just as Clough failed to appreciate how his words and attitude would affects his new players at Leeds and their desire to play well for him, so too Allardyce may have overestimated the weight his belief in his own managerial style and abilities would have with Rovers' new owners when compared to how his message was delivered.

Sam Allardyce, cutting a somewhat less dashing figure than Clough.

Allardyce, although admittedly somewhat successful in a previous managerial stint at Bolton and in keeping Rovers afloat, seems (inordinately) impressed with his own managerial ability, which to the casual observer is exclusively comprised of one-note football built around long balls and set pieces. To his credit, his players did seem to genuinely like playing for him. But the players weren't footing the bill.

This is pure, unsupported conjecture on my part, but one can easily imagine Allardyce communicating with his new bosses in a manner that was both self-congratulatory and condescending in informing them of his previous work, what their priorities should be (almost exclusively Premier League survival), and how they should go about achieving them (leaving him alone and letting him manage the club the way he wanted to).

Like Clough, Allardyce entered a new situation in his job and probably thought that the way he had handled such a relationship in the past would be good enough -- particularly since it was his way. You should always consider before speaking to any audience not only the message but how it ought to be conveyed. Particularly if your job is on the line. And if you're a manager, it always is, isn't it?

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