Football fans woke up this morning to very unsurprising things. First of all, Britain had come to a halt due to our inability to deal with ‘adverse weather conditions’ (snow to you and me), and secondly, a football manager was in line to lose his job. A manager being relieved of their duties for one reason or another has become a weakly occurrence in modern footballing times; 29 have now left their club this season in England’s top four leagues, either through sacking, resignation or moving to another club. Chairmen have no patience and managers aren’t willing to turn down a lucrative new contract higher up the league ladder. It’s the norm.
Today’s departure was a little different though, and genuinely was a surprise to all. Nigel Adkins, not dismissing his remarkable achievement of taking a team from third bottom in the third tier to the Premier League via back to back promotions, had just overseen his Southampton side pull off a remarkable comeback from two goals down to draw 2-2 against European Champions (in case they haven’t told you enough) Chelsea. The Saints were on a run of five league games unbeaten, including three away draws, a draw at home against Arsenal and a crucial victory away at Aston Villa that has helped to move them three points clear of the relegation zone. All of this is made ever more remarkable considering they began life back in the Premier with just four points from ten games and a squad without a great deal of world class talent. Sacking Adkins at that point, although rash and short sighted, would have been easier to justify. Sacking him now is ludicrous. Yet, that is the decision the Southampton board have chosen to make. Unjust, unfair and heart breaking to both Adkins himself and the club’s fans, one even suggesting he ‘should be given the key to the city’ for his part in their dramatic rise up the Football League.
There is little point crying over spilt milk however, as Southampton fans must now get behind their team and the new man in charge. They’ve moved quickly to replace him with Argentinian Mauricio Pochettino, previously manager at Espanyol and largely unknown in this country. He’s got a good record; it must be said, keeping the Spanish club in La Liga on a shoestring budget, but it would appear to be a huge risk. Adkins looked to be guiding Southampton to safety if recent results were anything to go by, whilst Pochettino has never managed in England before. Will he be able to understand the principles of our game quick enough? Will he appreciate the qualities of Southampton’s fine young English players? Will his dealings in what remains of the transfer window be suited to the English game, and if not, will they adapt? He also seems to have troubles with the English language, conducting his first press conference via a translator. A relegation dog fight needs a communicator, someone who can lift heads after a run of bad results or a hammering, can that be put across successfully through a middle man? Look at Harry Redknapp’s appointment at QPR, an Englishman who knows this league well with a fine understanding of what makes a player suitable for the Premier League, along with being an incredible motivator and excellent manager as a whole.
Southampton chairman Nicola Cortese, now vilified by fans, including club legend Matthew Le Tissier who believes Cortese’s actions have left Southampton as the ‘laughing stock’ of English football, will no doubt support his decision by emphasising a desire to move on to the next level. In his view, he may feel Adkins had done all he could for the club; taking them back to the Premier League is all well and good, but can he help to make a real impact in the top flight? Premier League safety didn’t seem to be enough, he’s probably hoping Pochettino will provide much more than that. The thought of this is, of course, crazy. Before the season started, staying up would have been an achievement for Southampton, and that is still the case. Does Cortese not understand football? Does he expect another title challenge from a squad of players largely from the lower leagues? Or is this just a case of a business type medalling with the game we all love and killing its soul? Nottingham Forest fans have been left angered this week after club stalwarts in the backroom staff were unceremoniously shown the door by their Kuwaiti owners, Blackburn’s Indian owners have left fans fuming with the way they run the club whilst, despite the success, Roman Abramovich has angered Chelsea fans with the sacking of Roberto Di Matteo. Football has gone nuts.
Events like this have led to football fans young and old taking to social networking sites to voice their view that they’re ‘against modern football’. To some extent, they have a very valid point. Football has changed for the worse. Would Nigel Adkins have been sacked 30 years ago? Would Forest have removed club legend Frank Clark as ambassador by post? Would a Champions League winning manager have been given his P-45 just months after such a success? The answer to all of these is no. Premier League clubs are spending millions on transfer flops whilst clubs down the ladder on the brink. The Alan Hansen led ‘tackling is a dying art’ club have had more fuel added to their fire following Vincent Kompany’s red card at the weekend, whilst in the same game (Arsenal v Manchester City), the cost of football was highlighted with Man City fans choosing to boycott the game over the price of their £62 tickets. This was all shown on Sky Sports to millions of armchair fans; some have probably never seen their team play live in their life but still claim to be as loyal as any season ticket holder. The majority still watch their local team play, and often for a fair price in the lower leagues, but the Premier League internet stream loving bandwagon is gathering pace by the second. Speaking of loyalty, there’s the issue of footballers having none. Danny Graham, a lifelong Newcastle fan and serial criticiser of Sunderland, has been linked with a move to the Mackems and some sources say a deal is in place. Players chase the pound rather than the pride.
But is football really so different to how it was decades ago? No, not really. Clubs struggled then too whilst others thrived. Clubs went bust. Bristol City went from the top flight to Division 4 and almost went bust, saved at the last minute after eight of their players, some of whom were still on top flight wages, agreed to have their contracts terminated with a few sweeteners thrown in. Why didn’t they do it earlier? Because football is a job like any other for footballers, they’re not going to sacrifice their earnings they need to feed their families. Football players moved clubs to get pay rises, much like they do now. The laws of football have changed, but the occasional strange red car decision is better than broken legs every other week. The only thing that really stands out is the way owners go about sacking their managers, but with the likes of Chelsea and Man City dominating as a result of foreign investment, they can’t all be mocked.
As a fan experience, I take the controversial view that it is now a better one. Yes, we’ve all seen the pictures or the Arsenal ticket for the game against Spurs which cost around the same as a Bayern Munich season ticket; ticket prices are too high in some cases, but not all. The majority of Championship clubs, a high standard of football, offer reasonable prices. Safety has improved beyond recognition: football violence is rarely heard of, tragedies within in the stands are completely unheard of whilst the quality of football on show is vastly improved with better pitches and foreign players. Football is now a family outing, not just a fight zone for ‘hard’ men. Bring in safe standing and lower ticket prices in the top flight, and the fan experience is perfect. Germany is a lovely model, but it will never work here. Clubs are debt free in Germany, clubs are debt burdened in England. Ticket prices will remain high to cover that. Football clubs are businesses and need to make as much money as possible, football fans are consumers, there’s no getting away from it, but we always have been to some extent. Clubs are nothing without their fans, and more specifically their money, much like HMV or Jessops are nothing without their customers’ money.
Whether you’re for modern football, against modern football or don’t want to get involved in the discussion, there’s two things we can all agree on: Nigel Adkins shouldn’t have been sacked and every last one of us, no matter what happens, will always love football. Oh, and I guess we’ll agree this country doesn’t cope well with snow too.