He’ll Stoke the fire to make his Mark

To the disappointment of seemingly the majority of Stoke City fans, Mark Hughes was unveiled by Peter Coates as their next manager – cue man in van with giant ‘Hughes Out’ sign. It’s not the best start to a job, and one that would horrify most and have them heading for the door – however, I have an inkling that Lesley Mark Hughes won’t care one iota.

After his debacle at QPR, his stock was at a very low level – less than a year in charge, millions spent, and the club lay bottom of the league. But I think something he said/inferred in his first press conference was very accurate: QPR were a club trying to run before they had mastered the art of walking. Neil Warnock had got them to the Premier League and then new owner Tony Fernandes had seen the bright lights, combined with the rather large wedge of cash in his pocket, and thought “we can make an impact here”.

Ask any other chairman of a recently promoted team what their target for their first season in the big league was and the majority (I would say 99% is a conservative guess) would say without hesitation: “survival”. Fernandes, I believe, aimed for the stars of top-half or even Europe, and barely left the runway. The first error was to throw so much money at the club and then remove the man, Warnock, who had got them there. Stoke need to take heed of the errors of QPR’s desire to run so soon – last season they at times tried to play football, much due to the pressure of supporters growing tired of the attrition wars and long ball, set piece football they had witnessed for the 3 or so years, but this left them trying to deliver via a style which they were not used to and arguably didn’t suit them. For this reason, I think the departure of Pulis was inevitable: he had bowed to the fans, failed (to an extent) and resorted back to the style of play which had delivered relative success, and survival.

What Mark Hughes will bring to the club is fitness, discipline and most likely an element of flair. At each of his previous three clubs he has had at least one flair player who can excite the crowd – a Pedersen, a Robinho, or a Dembele – this usually combined with a team hard to breakdown and beat has in the past allowed him to ‘rough it’ but deliver quality when required, appeasing both sets of supporters: those who want to win at all cost, and those that want to see skill and good football. At Stoke, he already has the players to get stuck in, what he needs to add is the flair.

I think that Stoke will have a relatively indifferent 2013-14 campaign and will likely finish in mid-table mediocrity, which by some may be seen as a failure. However, he needs to be given time to do it his way. You can’t turn a team of battlers in to Dutch maestros overnight. In his first season at Blackburn he kept the side up, battling, and then pushed for Europe in successive seasons afterwards. The Stoke supporters need to give him a year – if he doesn’t keep them up, fair enough, he probably deserves to get the boot; but if he does, he surely has earned the right to a second season where he will have a better ‘stamp’ on the club enabling them to better express themselves?

I think Hughes is a good manager, and QPR was just a blip, not helped by the ability to throw money at the situation. He works best when he has limits and constraints within which he must work (Blackburn, Wales, Fulham) – Stoke should give him money to spend, but not break the bank. In my personal opinion, when I saw Pulis had gone, I was running to the bookies to back them for relegation, but with Hughes at the helm, I will be holding on to my money.

Looking at the other vacancies… : –

Everton – Martinez is the strong favourite here, but he has been the favourite for a job in Merseyside before and not taken it. I think this time, he will take the job, which I think is a good opportunity for him, but big shoes to fill. They play the attractive football Martinez already likes to deploy, so this does look like a good fit.

Manchester City – Pellegrini has almost certainly got the job now, and I think other than Mourinho, he is probably the best candidate. His record at Real Madrid was brilliant, despite him not winning the title, he racked up 36 wins and a win percentage of 75%, showing he can manage and get the most out of the big stars. Secondly, he has Champions League experience, and experience of the stages past the first round groups – something Man City crave.

Chelsea – looking even more likely than Pellegrini to Manchester City, is the return of Mourinho to Chelsea. I don’t think you’ll hear many Chelsea fans complain (both due to his past success and also the fact he isn’t Benitez!), but I think his style has changed since his first stint – yes he used to shut up shop with a 1-0, but at Real, in the big games he did resort to stereotypical European theatricals, and a win at all costs attitude. Put it this way, would Moyes or Wenger put up with being poked in the eye. He’ll do the job at Chelsea, but for how long?

Wigan – losing Martinez is a big blow, and will most likely put them on a level playing field again and see them having to punch above their weight to succeed in the Championship, but if the influence of Martinez lives on and they continue the attractive football they will be okay and could push for promotion, their downfall will likely be the number of games with a smallish squad. Although Schteve McClaren is the favourite for the job, I think a better and safer appointment would be Owen Coyle.

Other Managerial Bets: –

Owen Coyle to be next Wigan Manager = 9/2
Next Everton Manager = Slaven Bilic – 50p @ 66/1; or Perreira £1 @ 9/1
Next Millwall Manager = Alex McLeish – 10/1
Next PSG Manager = Leonardo – 33/1; or Laurent Blanc 8/1

Circus Master Bowyer

As expected in many circles, this week Gary Bowyer was named as the permanent manager of Blackburn Rovers, on a 12 month rolling contract. Becoming the fourth man to be given the role in the last twelve months, and following two relatively successful stints as caretaker during the 2012-13 season.
For many Blackburn fans, this is seen as a good decision, seeing Bowyer, a Blackburn Rovers man, given the job on a more permanent basis. During his seven years at the club he has been successful as both a youth academy coach and then reserve team coach, before his time in the Ewood hot-seat. Think back to twelve months ago, and these same fans had a very different view of the then ‘coach’ Steve Kean – with many arguing that Blackburn needed an experienced manager and not just someone who had a good reputation when it came to putting out and collecting cones (and later driving penalty points!). So why is it different this time, and is Bowyer the best man for the job?
The 2012-13 season started so brightly for Blackburn, but turned sour after the summer and ended in a nightmare which very nearly resulted in a second consecutive relegation; with Bowyer being the man to steady the ship twice. Kean had long been the villain at Blackburn, and the fact he had originally been a coach, and then given the manager’s job with no previous experience, angered many fans. Then the appointments of Berg and Appleton, two men with relatively no experience of managing at the top levels, did nothing to win the fans around – with many sections of the crowd again asking for experience, over what was perceived as the cheaper option (in the case of Berg, this did not turn out to be the case).
With the above in mind, it does seem somewhat fickle, strange and contradictory that these fans then want the appointment of a Bowyer – a man with 13 games experience of being a manager, and little experience of direct first team coaching at any club. You could arguably say that the size and detail of content of a man’s Wikipedia page says a lot about their reputation, success and experience – Bowyers is just 460 words long.
Then again this is a tough situation for the Blackburn fans that have been pillared for voicing their opinions around a manager in the past. Do they stick to their guns and continue their pursuit of experience? Or do they give the man who steered them to safety the chance to show what he can do? It is a catch 22 situation.
I am personally of the opinion that Blackburn missed a trick by not appointing Mick McCarthy when he was free before he took the Ipswich role – or at least another manager of similar experience. But as said, I do believe Bowyer should be given the chance – I think the 12-month rolling contract he has been given perhaps reflects that the owners are of a similar view. At least on this occasion they do not seem to have rocked the boat too much.
What Bowyer will bring to the team, as we witnessed last season, is a togetherness, a view on playing attractive and attacking football and a chance for the more technical players to be given a chance. For a start, this appointment could, and should, mean a return for the two number 10’s Ruben Rochina and Mauro Formica, who should thrive under his leadership. It should also spell the beginning of allowing younger players experience in the first team – what Bowyer needs to do though, is ensure that the youth is blended with the right experience and at the right consistency. Last season should have served to show the team and bank account holders that paying large wages to players perhaps on the cusp of the hill, is not the way to do this.
One thing that has to happen is that Bowyer must be left to do it his way. He cannot be told who he can or can’t sign and who he can, can’t or must sell. Similarly, he should be able to pick any of the players on the books at Ewood to ensure the team that is on the pitch is the best eleven players in those positions at the club – not the eleven players who don’t have appearance bonuses or contract extension requirements. In my opinion, Shebby Singh needs to disappear in to the background again and maybe buy a Spurs season ticket to keep him out of trouble – something tells me that he won’t.
Bowyer needs to be given time and support – he may not be the most experienced manager in the league but everyone needs to start somewhere. Perhaps, for hope and inspiration around the appointment Blackburn should look to the careers of Jose Mourinho, Andre Villas Boas, Roberto Di Matteo and others who have achieved success in the early parts of their managerial careers.

Hughes laughing now?

With the curtain drawing on Alex Ferguson’s amazing managerial career, many highlighted Moyes’ potential to succeed him, many moons ago – Sir Alex himself is said to have shown an interest way back in the late nineties – but was he always going to be the man to replace Ferguson?

Over the years, many a manager has been linked with taking over from Ferguson, but his longevity as the United boss has far exceeded what many could have predicted back in 1990 when Mark Robins allegedly saved his career with a headed goal against Nottingham Forest and put them on the path to Ferguson’s first piece of silverware for the Manchester club. You’d be hard pushed to find any sane person who would have predicted that he would go on to win another 37 trophies in those 23 years.

Interestingly, many a former United star has moved in to management: Bruce, Keane, Berg, Solskjaer, Robson, Hughes; as well as number 2’s: McClaren, Queiroz, Kidd; all have which have at some point been touted as the Ferguson’s replacement, and many of which have been wanted by the fans. Looking at the list, each has been unique in their achievements since retiring from playing, but one, in my eyes, stands out as, at one stage, being the best fit for United, and having had the potential, at one point, to match Moyes’ key attributes of longevity, relative success, and a small budget (we’ll come back to this one later) – and that is Mark Hughes.

Following his retirement from an illustrious playing career which spanned England, Spain and Germany as well international football with Wales, culminating in 15 trophies across 10 competitions, and an induction in to the English Football Hall of Fame – Hughes managed the Welsh national team and took them as close as they have been to qualifying for a major tournament in 2004, where they were beaten by Russia in the play-offs for the European Championships. Following this disappointment, Hughes resigned as manager of Wales and took up the position of Blackburn Rovers manager in September 2004 – charged with the task of Premier League survival following a poor start to the season and the departure of Graeme Souness to Newcastle – similar to the task taken on by Moyes at Everton in 2002. Hughes achieved this task with the club finishing 15th. The following season he looked to resolve Blackburn’s main issue, a lack of goals, by bringing in Craig Bellamy, who scored 13 goals in 27 games, sealing himself a move to Liverpool – arguably having had Hughes revitalise his career in English football.

In his first full season at Ewood Hughes guided Blackburn to a top 6 spot and a UEFA Cup place, beating Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal in the same season – and taking Rovers to Wembley in the FA Cup semi-final where they lost to Arsenal.

In the following 3 seasons, Hughes took Blackburn to league finishes of 6th, 10th and 7th; another semi-final in the FA Cup where they were inches away from beating Chelsea at Old Trafford, a league cup semi-final against Manchester United, the last 32 of the UEFA cup, and another quarter final in the league cup – not bad for just 4 years working with the team. A team he assembled spending little money on the likes of Bellamy, Santa Cruz, McCarthy, Bentley, Nelson, Samba, Warnock – altogether costing around £13 million (and average of around £3m per season).

In the summer of 2008, his head was turned by the opportunity at free spending Manchester City to prove himself as a true top club manager – and it is this decision which can be argued to have ruled him out of the United job for life; regardless of his success or lack of it. A Manchester City manager, can never move across the city to become the Manchester United manager, it just never happens, not even for a player as loved at United as Mark Hughes.

As it turned out, his time at City was relatively short-lived, where he lasted just over a year and a half later, after guiding City to 10th in the league, with one of the best home records, but worst away records in the league. In that season he spent a lot of money on the likes of Robinho, Jo, Adebayor and Sylvinho. However, what people forget is that he also brought in Carlos Tevez, Vincent Kompany, Pablo Zabaleta, Joleon Lescott and Gareth Barry – all players who played a key part in City winning the title in 2011-12. However, finishing 10th after spending the money he had done, was not good enough.

From his time at City he then had a year at Fulham, guiding them to 8th in the league and a place in the Europa league through fair play – a stark comparative to his disciplinary form at Ewood which saw Blackburn finish bottom of the fair play league for all Hughes seasons in charge. Surprisingly, Hughes quite Fulham after just 11 months in charge stating that he was ambitious and needed to move to further his experiences. That move, took him to QPR half way through the 2010-11 season, where he just about kept them up on the last day of the season, despite losing to old club Manchester City; following which he uttered the words: “this club will not be in this situation again next year” with him in charge.

Fast forward 10 months, and following QPR’s worst ever start to a Premier League season (which ultimately saw them relegated) Hughes was again sacked, this time having spent close to £40million – in less than a year.

So where did it all go wrong for Hughes? Arguably, you would have to say it was his decision to leave Blackburn Rovers for Manchester City. At Blackburn he had turned them from a relegation threatened team, to a comfortable mid-table at least side, who had at times knocked on the Champions League door. By moving to Manchester City, he not only slammed the door shut in his own face, but heaped the pressure to succeed onto himself, a decision which has back-fired spectacularly on more than one occasion. At Blackburn there was a stable club, an understanding chairman and board, and a level of trust with the money he was allowed to spend. What he spent, he more than returned in transfer fees and tournament prize money along with ticket sales.

If Hughes had looked down the M6/M62 at what Moyes had done at Everton, going quietly about his business, building a team which consistently challenged for Europe each season, without making eyes at other jobs, despite rumours, and spending little money in return for what he got on the pitch (*despite an underlying public conception that Moyes has spent very little at Everton, and operated on a shoestring – he has still spent near to £200m during his reign, with hefty sums spent on Fellaini, Jelavic and Bilyaletdinov to name a few*) – he would have seen the correct way to do things. Build slowly but securely and consistently and stick to your guns. Don’t jump at the first opportunity of money to spend and money in the bank – and more importantly, don’t p*** on your chips and rub Fergie up the wrong way, it’ll only result in one thing, not getting the job that most in football look at with seductive eyes, more so if you have played on that Old Trafford pitch, have become a part of their history, and have once been loved by the prawn sandwich brigade.

Safety first

As the curtains close on another Championship season, Blackburn Rovers just about avoided a second successive relegation – just about. But does this reflect a very poor season? A season reflective of the off-field antics? Or a season of consolidating?

At the beginning of the year, before even a ball was kicked, most Blackburn fans would tell you that the Play-Offs where an absolute minimum, with many eyeing up second place and automatic promotion. Fast forward to February/March time, and those same fans would happily have taken finishing 21st on goal difference. The Championship is the most gruelling league in the world, and it can be the cruelest, as Peterborough found out yesterday when they were in the bottom three for three minutes – unfortunately for them it was the last three minutes.

Blackburn started the league well with wins and draws keeping them in the top six up until September, albeit the performances did not warrant this, then the merry-go-round started with Steve Kean claiming his position was untenable with people calling for his head after a home defeat to Middlesbrough, who at the time were flying, and them him resigning. This was followed by a consolidatory period under Eric Black were we didn’t win so many games, but we didn’t lose too many. Then in came Berg and the hopes of a romantic relit love match with him being the man to guide us back to the Premiership – but it wasn’t to be and he was sacked after a poor run of results seeing him pick up one win in ten and then his P45 after just 57 days. Step up Gary Bowyer, reserve team manager. He did what he was asked and steered Blackburn through to the next round of the cup, and to three wins and a draw in his four games – a feat which it seemed would see him remain in the post indefinitely, potentially until the end of the season – within the week, Michael Appleton was poached from neighbours Blackpool. Appleton’s reign resumed much of the mediocre performances that were witnessed under Berg – except, he removed a lot of players sending them out on loan or cancelling their contracts – the result of which was a return to Allardyce hoof-ball tactics, to a striker who plays best with the ball to his feet. Appleton’s reign last a lengthy 67 days and consisted of four wins, five draws and six defeats, including a poor showing in an FA Cup Quarter final and last-minute equalizer against Burnley. Step up again Mr Bowyer – with the team dropping towards the foot of the Championship at a rate of knots, Bowyer was again asked to steady the ship and set a course for dry land – a task he completed with a game to spare with the club finishing 17th, four points above the drop. Other items of note during the season on the pitch are pretty much confined to Jordan Rhodes, who equaled a consecutive scoring club record, and finished second top goal scorer with just one behind Glenn Murray; another shining light was the performances of Scott Dann who featured in all Blackburn’s games, and the progress made by the young Scot Grant Hanley.

So that is on the pitch, what about off the pitch? It can be argued, with some ferocity, that the reason for Blackburn’s poor league showing was the off the field issues – starting with Shebby Singh setting Steve Kean an ultimatum, through to the dragging of the club’s name through the Courts as the owners defended their right to not pay Henning Berg all his compensation for an early holiday. Sandwiched inbetween these two incidents included: a slander case as Kean made accusationary comments about former boss Allardyce; resignations; sackings; the appointment of a general manager and an operational director; claims of agents running the club; fan ownership issues; chickens on the pitch; the managing director told to stay away from the club; the managing director offering contracts he didn’t have the authority to and issues ‘untrue’ press statements on the clubs website; release of the details of players wages; managers being sacked by PA letter – the list goes on.

I think you could easily argue the case that regardless of the performances on the pitch, the club was never going to get an instant return to the Premiership, and arguably, they didn’t deserve to given the way they were being run.

So what is the solution to get Blackburn Rovers fighting at the top of the league for promotion? I don’t think the answer is the removal of the owners – they have the commitment and they have proved this through the amount of money (rumoured to be £20m) that they have pumped in to the club, but I think they have been very poorly advised – by whom, I’m not too sure. Given the amount of money it takes to run BRFC a fan owned club could be a disaster from a financial point of vie. Here is my 5 point plan for promotion in 2013-14: –

  1. Keep Jordan Rhodes, and keep him fit;
  2. If the Venkys are staying, they need to appoint a CEO to run the club properly at this end (I’d personally start grovelling to John Williams now);
  3. Transparency – make clear who is making the decisions at the club – to often statements have been released with muddy the water around who is actually running the club and making the decisions;
  4. Attend more games and show more commitment – you can hire as many PR companies as you want – the best form of PR in this instance is commitment and open communication;
  5. Hire a manager proven in this league to get the wheels turning from the start and push towards the play-offs. This needs to be done quickly, as they don’t hang around for long*;
  6. Let the manager do their job – from picking the team, to scouting and buying players, to offering new contracts – if the Venkys are committed to getting the club back up, they need to let the manager do things his way with pressures around contracts.

It sounds simple, and it should be, but it is a measure of how far from grace the club has fallen, that these things need to be spelt out to the club. Another season of turmoil off the pitch could very realistically result in relegation.

* Although point 5 states that a proven manager is required, there are rumours that Jorge Jesus, current Benfica manager, would like to manage in the Premiership, or at an ambitious Championship club. Given the number of young Portuguese players, and the alleged ambition of the clubs owners, could this be the ideal fit for him? Given that he has guided Benfica to the Europa League final and is unbeaten in the league this years says the man knows his way around a tactics board – but does this also mean he is hot property around ‘bigger’ clubs in Europe?

Divine intervention: Jesus wants to move to the Premier League.. after leaving  Benfica