Good manager or the right manager?

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By Alex Scott and Jason McKeown

Alex: I’ve had something bouncing around my head for a while now that I’ve wanted to discuss with you, and with Phil Parkinson’s contract situation still lingering, it feels like a good time to bring it up. I’ve had this discussion many times privately, but still haven’t really made my mind up one way or the other. We are all intelligent people, and we all understand that this team has achieved a level of greatness that no one else has ever reached in the history of modern football… so why has this been so difficult?

It should be simple. Is he a good manager? Yes. He is. Ta da. Renew his contract. Let’s move on. My round. We’ve had enough terrible managers by now. We know regardless of pedigree, it’s a crap shoot. Once you get a good one, you grab hold for dear life.

The Parkinson contract has overtaken everything as the primary topic of discussion in the past few weeks, (this side of “Play-offs??? PLAY-OFFS!!!” anyway) but this argument has elegantly evaded the question of whether he is a ‘good’ manager. That conversation lends itself too easily to ridicule. The conversation has evolved into whether Phil Parkinson is the ‘right’ manager. The ‘right’ manager for ‘us’. The fact the board continues to low-ball him in contract negotiations only adds fuel to the flames.

I think this entire conversation is misconstrued. Whether or not Phil Parkinson is the ‘right’ manager for ‘us’ implies that a) we know what the ‘right’ manager is, but also b) we know what we need as a club.

This argument is a few steps removed from where we actually are, what we should actually be asking: What makes a good manager? What characteristics do we actually desire?  It’s tough to judge someone fairly against goalposts we continuously move.

Should managers be judged on the visible skills like in-game management, tactics, substitutions etc…? Is that fair? Or are those skills a relatively small part of a much larger package? Where do long term planning, recruitment, and club building come into this discussion? What is more important? Is one aspect more important than another? What skills do we actually want our club’s manager to have?

So Jason, in my own elongated, circuitous, scatter-gun manner, I’m going to ask what do you think makes a good manager?

Jason: In my view, Alex, the short answer to that question is ‘courage’. Everyone knows that managers are sacked too readily these days, and the average length of time in a post continues to reduce. So the excuses are there to be made – why should a manager concern themselves with anything other than keeping their job? But it’s the easy way out, and is absolves managers from taking responsibility for the bigger things. “Why should I revamp the failing youth set up?” a manager might argue, “if only my replacement gets to benefit from the results.”

Yet if you hire a manager simply to win matches and the manager runs the club in that way, the form table is always going to dictate their future. You can see many examples of a club doing well under a manager (perhaps getting a promotion) and then that manager gets the sack. It is brutal, it is unfair – but what should matter is the legacy that manager has built and will leave behind. Have they done much beyond spending a few quid getting into a higher league? Was Paulo Di Canio – who spent a fortune getting Swindon promoted and then left, upset that his over-spending had placed the club into a transfer embargo and reputedly heavy debt – a good manager for Swindon?

It all comes down to the owners of the club and what they expect from a manager; and here is a fundamental part about the debate regarding Parkinson’s future. The club set him a goal when he joined the club in 2011 – stay in the division. He achieved that in 2011/12, albeit not that impressively; and this season’s target became a top seven finish, supported by increased funds. This goal may not be realised, but something remarkable was accomplished instead. Not just the cup final, but financial stability. Way beyond his remit, but vital to the club (especially if recent rumours are to be believed).

The debate about Parkinson’s contract seems to hinge upon whether it’s acceptable that he might fail to realise the season’s primary objective. Yet it is too narrow and blinkered, the bigger picture really is big this time. And this is where Parkinson has proven himself to have that courage.

Parkinson’s post-match reaction to his very first City home defeat, back in September 2011, has always stuck in my mind. “There is a losing mentality at this club”. It was, to those of us have endured a decade plus of failure, a painfully obvious statement for him to make. But the difference between Parkinson and his predecessors, who oversaw that losing mentality, is that he has addressed it.

Parkinson ripped apart everything he did not like and built a squad that he believed was right. It wasn’t a quick win, and in my mind it led to us making too much of a meal of avoiding relegation last season. And it almost cost him his job (I heard from someone very well connected to the club that Parkinson was close to the sack at one stage), but he instilled his principles throughout the club and got the players to deliver what he demands.

Parkinson is big on character. He once told me the story of his Colchester days, where he got rid of a prolific lower league goalscorer (one we’d have loved at City) not because of his ability, but because of his character. At City he has brought in a team of strong-minded people – when was the last time the team was accused of buckling under the pressure of the crowd? – and has continued to work with them to improve. People would have laughed at how poor Will Atkinson and Garry Thompson’s first few months at City proved, if it wasn’t so serious. But Parkinson stuck with rather than discarded them, finding what he knew was in them. Write off Andy Gray at your peril.

The club is transformed from the one that Parkinson took over. That took courage, because his start to Valley Parade life was so slow that – had we not just spat out Peter Jackson so quickly – calls for a change might have been acted upon. That to me is a good manager: he has not acted in the best interests of Phil Parkinson, but Bradford City. Sadly, other City bosses have not done the same.

At least that’s my view Alex, but it only scratches the surface and I haven’t yet touched upon the on-field matters. Why as supporters (and the Board) do we consider long-term planning and culture less important than the current form table? Have I been too generous to Parkinson – just because he has earned us a load of dosh, does that mean he should get to spend it? And do Swansea, our cup conquerors’, prove that it’s less about a good manager and more about the right manager for a club?

Alex: Courage is an interesting way of putting it. It’s almost courage to act not your own best self-interest, right? Which is where my issue arises. Is it really fair to judge a manager on this? We will long outlive him, and all the players here, so our priorities will obviously be different, but is it fair to judge these guys by our standards? Is that fair? Are we prioritising the wrong things in our judgement of managerial ability?

I agree with you that Parkinson has been wonderful by your criteria, and in fact when the dust settles, it will a travesty if he’s let go, and these conversations now swirling will be sheepishly swept under the carpet.

Housekeeping aside, I think the key issue here is that it’s difficult to judge people on things we cannot see. As fans, we only see the tip of the iceberg, the end of the spear. We don’t get to see all the background work. We have to infer conclusions from what we do see. And the subsequent apportionment of blame and success is entirely subjective on whatever agenda we wish to promote. I’ve praised Parkinson’s recruitment, club-building etc… but I don’t actually know he did any of that. I’m assuming he has, but I don’t really know.

The first point of judgement for us is always going to be on the field. We all agree it goes deeper than that, but that collective acknowledgement has never really changed anything.

Fans (I) criticise in-game decisions (tactics, substitutions etc…) as if it is the most important attribute of the job. We don’t really have any metrics for this; it’s purely outcome based. If a sub doesn’t lead to a win, it’s a bad sub. Causality be damned!

The closest thing to a metric we have is first half/second half breakdowns. Something which actually reflects well on Parkinson. Prior to Saturday, City were the 20th best first half team, and the 5th best second half team, a note which implies that as an in-game manager, he’s actually pretty good. Although one could argue that he is merely noticing and correcting his own mistakes from before the game, something that I don’t really have a comeback to. It also reflects on player’s fitness levels and squad depth etc… As I say, there isn’t a good stat for this.

Moving away from Parkinson for a second, approaching this discussion at a more holistic level, what characteristics do we actually want from a manager? Taking the emotion out of it seems like the easiest way to solve this issue on whether we think he is ‘good’, or ‘right’.

We say teams are ‘well-coached’; a general platitude to explain success. We all know what it means, without really delving much deeper. Everton, for example, are a ‘well-coached’ team. This by definition implies that their coach is good. David Moyes sits in the pantheon of ‘Universally Heralded Contemporary Managers’. Roberto Martinez is in there, Sir Alex obviously. We think these guys are good, but what actually makes them good? How do we really know?

It can’t just be success; Martinez has never finished higher than 15th in the Premier League. (I adore him, but it is weird that such a universally admired manager is perennially in the mire.) Is it an over achievement thing? Surely that is just a function of our own inaccurate predictions? We have this shorthand of ‘good’ managers. What do we actually mean by that, tangibly? How prepared the teams look? Organisation? Commitment? Discipline? Improvement of players? Management of expectations? Media handling?

(Is Parkinson a good manager by these ideas? I’d say yes to everything bar ‘Management of Expectations’ — and the only reason that has gotten out of hand has been his own ludicrous success.)

An interesting case study at the minute is Martin O’Neill. He used to be in that pantheon. Now he’s out of a job, and what’s worse, I’m not sure anyone thinks he’s good any more. Has he changed? Has he lost what used to make him good? Or have we mis-evaluated him somewhere along the line? Are we mis-evaluating him now? Does luck and random chance and momentum play a much larger role than we think?

As someone who has watched a disproportionate amount of Sunderland this year thanks to my now perma-depressed, straw-clutching, Mussolini-studying housemate, I can attest that they have had none of those attributes I listed above, but I’m not sure that’s why I’d have sacked him. I kept picking up on the body language of the players, and that the Sunderland players weren’t playing for their manager any more (and actually haven’t been for a while). O’Neill had lost his Coach Taylor-style inspiration which made him famous, and had nothing left. Perhaps the key attribute of managers is the key attribute of leaders: the ability to inspire?

Regardless, I’d argue that the in-game decision making, whilst obviously of value, is one of the least important aspects of the job. As a manager, you can make bad decisions with a good team and still have it work out. But you can’t pick bad players and have them unexpectedly be good.

Judging managers at this level feels myopic. Would you rather a great tactician and in-game manager, or the guy who can build a team to get you into the position to take advantage of that game-winning decision? Is it that you actually need both? Are they in fact two different jobs? Should the guy who sets up tactics and corners and substitutions be the same guy who makes the long term strategic decisions and player evaluations?

Could a manager who is great at the background stuff just bring in a guy to do all that stuff? At what point does a manager stop being a manager and become something else?

When you mention all these attributes you’re after, the courage, boldness and selflessness required to succeed, aren’t you really describing a good ‘General Manager’? Is this what we actually want?

This organisational structure which minimises the impact of these on-field decisions in fact serves to accentuate the fungible nature inherent of football managers. Look at Swansea, they’ve a revolving door of managers there, but above it, an overarching stability which minimises the impact of change. Was Brendan Rodgers good there? Or was he merely an executor? How can we tell?

Surely Phil Parkinson, or any manager who instilled such a philosophy with long-term thinking and courage, would just be undermining his own value. Why would he do that? And can we fairly criticise him for not doing so?

I totally agree with your points about what you’re after in a manager, and why Parkinson should just be retained, but I’m not sure it’s fair to judge a manager on something he may not necessarily be trying to do.

For example, Peter Taylor, he was the short-termiest of all our guys recently. He wasn’t trying to build something; he was trying to win games. Turns out he was painfully, historically, comically terrible at that. Should we be judging him by our terms, or his? He was a failure by his own standards; he was a failure by ours. Which is the fair yardstick?

Is it fair to judge a manager on something he may not necessarily be trying to do? And if not, what can we fairly judge him on? How should we expand on the shorthand of what a good manager is?

Jason: I’ve long believed that the best way to judge a manager is the team, shape and tactics employed from the start of matches – which is probably a summation of what “well-coached” might mean. A manager spends a week on the training field with his players, and studies the opposition long and hard to assess their strengths and weaknesses. So how well does the team they send out match up to the requirements?

I remember Peter Taylor going with a central midfield two of Tom Adeyemi and David Syers – neither what you’d call ball winners – in a home game against a soon-to-be-relegated Lincoln City. They were hopelessly outgunned, and the visitors won. That was a badly organised team shape, and Peter Taylor was – for Bradford City – a bad manager. There were many other examples of Taylor getting it wrong that season, and his failure as manager was defined by a failure to find the right balance and shape to a team that included many good players. Either inherited or brought in by him.

But a manager also needs to be reactive and make effective changes, as the pattern of a game forms. Gary Neville argues that the claim managers can’t influence anything when players cross that white line is a myth. He spent his career playing for the best manager of our generation – not to mention some very good England bosses – and should know what difference a football manager makes to winning football matches. In his autobiography, Neville talks of how Sir Alex Ferguson’s attention to detail during matches was incredible; it would be shared either from the touchline, at half time or after the game – there would be no escape for the players. And it made them perform better.

Watching games, none of us are privy to this type of insight from the manager, but allow ourselves to second guess (or, foolishly, give too much weight to press comments), which somehow turns into fact. How many City managers have been accused of giving poor half time team talks when we had never actually heard any of them give one? Some managers rant and rave, whilst others quietly lean on the dugout writing notes. There is no right or wrong way, just as long as the appropriate message gets across. And though some managers will posture on the touchlines and scream like a lunatic – winning favour with fans, because it looks good – if the players aren’t listening it means nothing.

Substitutions matter, but their influence is over-played by lazy pundits offering little more insightful than stating that a manager losing a game “has to change it”. Early subs look brave, but taking a player off should not be considered a punishment, more a way to affect the outcome of the game. On Saturday Parkinson replaced Garry Thompson with Zavon Hines – a more attack-minded player – and after the game talked about the importance of offering Northampton a threat on the counter attack. That is the type of change I like best – considered, influential and staying one step ahead of his opposite number.

As you say, if a team doesn’t win a game then the subs made are considered wrong in hindsight, but is that really the full picture. The first half/second half stat you provide is very interesting, but it perhaps shows how misleading stats can be. Parkinson’s way – right from day one taking over the club – is to first contain the opposition and establish authority, then go on to win the game. It is why we have so often seen his players up the tempo in the second half of matches, very often delivering positive results.

It’s often questioned why we can’t start games in such a manner, but to do so would be for us to run out of steam in the closing stages – think back to when David Weatherall tried such an approach during his ill-fated caretaker reign, and how often we folded in the closing stages, dead on our feet.

Parkinson’s start-slow, end-fast is by design not accident – it happens too often for it to be anything but that, and it has been proven to work as a matter of routine.

The general manager point is excellent, and different clubs have tried different things. The ill-fated title “Director of Football” has not been tried at City, the closest being appointing Archie Christie to oversee the playing budget and suggest transfer targets. Ultimately, which player to sign should rest solely on the manager, but help identifying targets isn’t a bad thing. Parkinson himself appointed Russ Richardson in January to find him players for consideration. A very public acknowledgement that he needed time to focus on other matters.

Ultimately, I want a manager to set the culture of the club – but what that culture is to be has to be identified and considered by the people responsible for recruiting the manager. Taylor seemed to be hired with the aim of simply winning football matches, but it was too singular to work and doomed to fail when he didn’t win football matches. Meanwhile other parts of the club suffered.

Someone close to the club told me the story of Taylor playing his assistant, Junior Lewis, in a reserve team game and Lewis accountable for both goals the team lost to. In the dressing room afterwards, Lewis casually apologised “my fault lads” and Taylor applauded the team’s bravery for playing in a certain style, stating the result wasn’t important. Watching coaches shook their heads. How can a club with a losing mentality hope to change, if the youth and reserve teams are not taught the importance of winning every game?

The contrast to Stuart McCall – taking the time to learn every single youth player’s name – is evident. And though a manager is indeed responsible for what happens on a Saturday afternoon, a good manager must surely recognise that everything else that happens at a football club revolves around that Saturday afternoon, and they must attended too also.

Bravery to understand that the reasons they were hired as manager are not and should not be restricted to where the club appears in the league table.

The idea of making a club so successful that you can be taken out of it is interesting, but dismissing the fear of being undermined might be what separates a good manager from an average one. And besides, we are Bradford City and need to be aware of our own limitations. Does it bother me that Parkinson might jump at the chance for a bigger job than City? No, because to get that he will have to be delivering on the remit he was brought to Valley Parade to do.

Make yourself dispensable to the club by building it so successfully they can go on with or without you. Martinez may have finished no higher than 15th with Wigan, but Swansea’s ongoing success is partly due to his template.

Alex: It’s interesting that accumulating points on the board has barely been touched upon by either of us. You criticised Taylor there, rightly by the way (not that any criticism of him would be invalid), but praised McCall in the same breath, both collectively viewed as failures around the club. There are obviously degrees of failure (The Taylor Paradigm), but it seems certain actions can mitigate against perceived failure in a way.

Your last point I feel is the key to the whole discussion. A great manager requires the courage, and boldness, to make himself dispensable. To build something greater than him. Something that will last beyond him, just like we will. But in the landscape of incentivised, one year contracts, why would anyone ever do that? All the incentives are pointing in the opposite direction. They’d have to be insane, or have enough capital built up pointing both upwards and outwards.

That this debate even exists proves that the last point may be impossible. What would Parkinson have to do to force the fans to trust him, and be OK with an eighth place finish because of the bigger picture?

Genuinely, what? Win the League? Would that even do it? How long would the grace period be? Every year managers get teams promoted before being ushered off the plank for some new guy.

Is it possible for a manager to pull off what we desire, without winning the league four times in a row? (And then the Champions League obvs) Surely this has to come from the top rather than the middle?

And this is the crux of the debate in my eyes. When we speak of the desire for good managers, what we really want are good owners. Good owners that allow good managers to flourish. Good owners that stack incentives in a way that promotes the kamikaze insanity good managers need to build a good club.

There’s no debate over whether Phil Parkinson is a ‘good’ manager, only whether he is the ‘right’ manager. Maybe we’ve got the whole thing backwards. Maybe we’re not the ‘right’ club for him. Maybe it’s the club who isn’t good?



Categories: Opinion

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2 replies

  1. You pose a number of questions in your debate about whether PP is a ‘good’ manager or the ‘right’ manager. Whether he is a good manager is imo, requires a wider analysis of his success or otherwise at other clubs and some insight into the constraints or expectations he was working with. From the outside and based upon his exploits with Colchester, Hull etc, he looks to be an OK manager, and certainly it could be argued not as ‘good’ as say Peter Taylor. Conversely, he had a better track record than McCall, largely because McCall didn’t have a track record but now given McCall’s success with Motherwell, we might that McCall is a good manager despite his lack of success at VP

    The more interesting debate is whether PP is the ‘right’ manager at the moment. And that requires some further debate on what the club, or more importantly, the club’s owners were wanting both short term (staying out of the the Conference last season and longer term. And here I don’t just mean promotion in the current season. This is the missing part to the debate. What is the vision of the owners for Bradford City? For one, I’ve never seen or heard it articulated other than Lawn’s desire 6 years ago to be in the Championship in 5 years time. Since then, and despite Archie’s comment about his vision of City reaching the Championship in 4 years (a more stretching target than Lawn’s!), I and I suspect most City fans haven’t a clue of the vision and the strategy of the club’s owners. And without that, it’s very difficult to assess whether PP is now the ‘right’ manager. Last season, he appeared to take an important decision to terminate the Development Squad. Whatever any of us might think about the merits of a DS, the decision to scrap the DS was a strategic decision for the future of the club especially in the context of the new EPPP arrangements. It says much about the way in which the club is managed that it was the 1st Team Coach who took that decision and not the owners. And without being disrespectful to PP, it can easily be argued that he had a conflict of interest and would rather see more resources being allocated to the 1st Team squad to the detriment of longer term development of the club.

    I can understand why some clubs distinguish between a 1st Team Coach whose priority is the performance of the 1st Team and a Director of Football type appointment who has broader football development responsibilities, including whether there is a need for a DS or something similar and player recruitment in the round. So until the club is more open on what its own longer term vision is and moving away from the here-and-now of increasing the playing budget one year whilst reducing it the following year, it’s difficult to assess whether PP or anybody is currently the ‘right’ manager. In my opinion, and despite what we all observe from the outside, only the owners would truly know that.

    • Totally agree with that Dennis.

      At the end of the day we can be a little bit guilty of over analyzing stuff and I think your last sentence is correct – only the owners really know the dynamics between the board and the manager and the job the manager is doing.

      There is some implied criticism of the owners in your comment and some of it may be justified. However I would point out that the perilous financial state of the club in recent years have not allowed the owners or board to think strategically. Their energies have been consumed in tactically thinking, trying to make ends meet day to day, firefighting the latest crisis rather than planning for the next 5 years – whatever they may say.

      Hopefully the cup windfall can take some of the day to day pressure of these guys and allow them to plan ahead. They must be capable of it. Lawn built a multi million pound business – he can’t be daft!

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