Tue. Mar 21st, 2023

Premier League managers are regularly on a hiding to nothing. Their long-term futures often depends on how well they are received and supported by the fans they work for.

All hell broke loose at 4.30pm on Sunday when Leeds United tweeted a video of their head coach Jesse Marsch speaking about the 3-2 embarrassment to Fulham.

The replies were instant and unforgiving – “out of your depth”, “how is this bloke still in a job”, “no clue, no motivation”, and some irate fans tagging in the club’s chairman, Andrea Radrizzani. They wanted him to know their anger, their views on Marsch. Elland Road had already reverberated to “sacked in the morning”.

On social media, and on the terraces, fans have an inescapable voice, more than ever. It’s not always heeded, but it is heard.

Marsch is a decent man, passionately committed to doing well for Leeds, and an enthusiastic communicator in press conferences. But he struggles to win the fans over, always difficult for any successor to the beloved Marcelo Bielsa. Even those impressed by how Marsch kept Leeds up seem to have had enough. The Leeds board remains supportive, but for how long amid the chorus of disapproval?

The clock ticks on Marsch, Anfield looms on Saturday (in a senselessly timed evening kick-off), and he could become the fifth Premier League manager dismissed so far this season, following Scott Parker at Bournemouth, Thomas Tuchel at Chelsea, Bruno Lage at Wolverhampton Wanderers and, last Thursday, Steven Gerrard at Aston Villa.

Less than a third of the way through the Premier League season, we could be halfway to equalling the record ten sackings.

Not something England’s elite football should be proud of, and also considering the pain on the individuals involved and their families, even with the softening cushion of a pay-off. Like the others, Gerrard has professional pride and will be hurting. Those critical Villa fans will look at Sunday’s response, a 4-0 win over Brentford, and feel vindicated.

When Villa posted “full time” at their previous game, the 3-0 defeat by Fulham, at 9.21pm on October 20, they were inundated with splenetic replies, the inevitable barbs against Gerrard, such as “only Liz Truss could have done a worse job”. Fans are impatient and, more broadly, society seems a more angry place nowadays. But when podcasts with large followings, such as The AVFC Faithful, weighed in with “Gerrard out now”, the claret-and-blue tide had clearly turned. Some Villa fans simply posted pictures of Mauricio Pochettino.

Experienced football operators such as Christian Purslow, Villa’s chief executive, know their own minds, make their own decisions, but fans’ chatter, their concerns and fury, form a significant noise. Purslow is close to Gerrard, appointed him, willed him to succeed, but the results and performances were only going one way: downhill. Purslow, and Villa’s owners, Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens, ultimately did what they believed was best for the club, put sentimentality aside, and sacked Gerrard. There was little sympathy among fans.

One of the issues for some Villa fans is they felt emotionally disconnected from Gerrard. The “stepping stone to Anfield” narrative never helped the Liverpool legend, however much he played it down. Gerrard will have to refocus, scrutinise his mistakes at Villa: removing the captaincy from Tyrone Mings, giving the armband to John McGinn, not playing Danny Ings more and having an excessive faith in Philippe Coutinho. At 42, Gerrard is still young, and definitely still has a future in management. Bonding with fans more should be one of the priorities, not always a natural step for someone quite reserved.

Not everything in England comes down to a comparison between Gerrard and Frank Lampard but Everton fans have clearly warmed to Lampard, keeping the faith through three recent defeats, and rewarded with Saturday’s effervescent win over Crystal Palace. Gwladys Street could see what Lampard was doing, and also appreciated how he engaged with them emotionally. They see how much this means to him.

All of this is neither to exaggerate nor to over-romanticise fan power. Boardrooms are full of hard-nosed individuals, some of whom have risen to the top purely through belief in their own decision-making and, of course, better understanding of club dynamics and finances. Some Leicester City supporters railed against Brendan Rodgers but the board stuck by him, being fully aware of the impact on squad strengthening of post-pandemic financial structures in place at the club, and the chairman, Aiyawatt “Top” Srivaddhanaprabha, took to his program notes to underline his support.

Channels of communication between club and fans have undeniably grown, accelerated by seismic events over the past 30 months, and facilitated by ease of message-sharing on social media platforms. The soullessness of games behind closed doors during the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021 reminded boards of the vital importance of the match-day backdrop and soundtrack provided by fans. Appreciation of fan power intensified during the European Super League fiasco in April 2021, when protests outside grounds ended the scandalous concept (for now).

Many issues persist that vex fans, late changes to kick-off times and excessive prices for seats and shirts, and their rightful complaints still get ignored. But fan emotion is difficult for a board to avoid. During a week of speculation about Steve Cooper’s future at Nottingham Forest, and headlines screaming names of several potential successors, including, inevitably, Rafa Benitez (who still has many supporters in the media), Forest fans had their say, eloquently and powerfully.

Even after five defeats on the spin, the City Ground still sang Cooper’s name, leaving the board in no doubt about their belief in the man who performed miracles in taking them up. Board members such as Nicholas Randall, a respected KC with long involvement in English football, and the film director and passionate Forest fan Jonny Owen will have heard the fans. Hard not to. You’re getting backed in the morning. Cooper soon emerged with renewed boardroom support and a new contract. It’s clearly not just the fans’ say and sway – the owner, Evangelos Marinakis, doesn’t work that way – but the Trent End definitely contributed.

Was there ever a particularly deep connection between Lage and Wolves fans? During the defeat away to West Ham United on October 1, Wolves fans assailed Lage with the time-honoured chant of “you don’t know what you’re doing”. At 9.21pm, Wolves tweeted an innocuous short video with Ruben Neves, and the replies were peppered with “Lage out”, “has to go” and advising the person running the account: “Don’t tweet until you sack Lage.”

The club’s next tweet, the following day, confirmed his exit. Wolves fans aren’t stupid; they also know the malaise runs deeper than Lage. After Sunday’s 4-0 humiliation at home to Leicester, they questioned their technical director, Scott Sellars. The club failed to bring in Julen Lopetegui and Mick Beale, so announced that caretaker, Steve Davis, would continue. Davis is doubtless capable, but an ambitious club such as Wolves need more. And fans voiced that loudly.

Tuchel’s dismissal at Chelsea on September 7 was more complex. The decision by the club’s new co-owner, Toddy Boehly, divided fans. In the wake of the September 6 defeat away to Dynamo Zagreb, forums went into meltdown, and the “needs time to bed in new players” rhetoric was replaced by plenty of “time to go” posts, yet there was also sympathy for a drained Tuchel.

He was sacked the following morning, but Boehly soon explained that it was a longer-term decision, that they didn’t share “the same vision”, whatever that is, but it was clearly easier given that many fans had turned. Tuchel’s name was sung at subsequent games, not really out of disagreement with Boehly but more a “thanks for the memories”.

In the run-up to the announcement of Parker’s defenestration at 8.45am on August 30 a “back him or sack him” poll on the Up The Cherries fan forum on August 28, the day after the 9-0 loss to Liverpool, was split 50-50.

One pertinent point made by a fan about Parker was that “we don’t expect him to be Shakespeare”, but they did want more convincing public utterances, especially in defeat. Fans’ views and voices matter.

– The Times

Originally published as Backed in the morning: How to avoid the sack race by keeping fans onside

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