When Ipswich Town parted ways with Mick McCarthy as he neared the end of his contract in April, many fans were looking ahead to a new dawn under his replacement Paul Hurst. Five months later, though, Hurst is gone and the Tractor Boys are looking for their third manager in under a year.
Ipswich sit bottom of the Championship table — having only won once this season — and a 2-0 defeat to Marcelo Bielsa’s table-topping Leeds on Wednesday proved the final nail in the coffin of Hurst’s attempts to bring glory back to Portman Road.
It’s only October and Ipswich are just four points off of safety. With 32 games left to play, it begs the questions: Are managers given enough time time to enact change? Are clubs victims of their own impatience and unrealistic expectation?
Too often we see managers sacked for not over-achieving. Yes, for not over-achieving, a perception deriving from short-lived periods of mild success above the norm.
Clubs in all leagues enjoy these periods, breeding a false sense of security about where the club belongs — rather where they think they should belong — or what they should realistically achieve. Once those high standards are no longer met, the club will panic, fearing a lack of progression, and ultimately make impulsive decisions that lead to long-term negative results.
Take Southampton, for example. Claude Puel was sacked after finishing eighth in 2016/17 and have been battling relegation ever since. Swansea City, too, sacked Garry Monk in December 2015 while sitting somewhat comfortably in 15th. They eventually lost any semblance of their previous identity and were relegated from the Premier League last season. Southampton — currently 16th in the top-flight — aren’t too far behind.
Crystal Palace also replaced Alan Pardew while the club were 17th, mere months after leading the club to an FA Cup final that witnessed the birth of his infamous celebratory dance routine. Sam Allardyce did what he does best and ‘steadied the ship’ before the erroneous arrival of Franck de Boer.
The Dutchman was, too, sacked after 77 days. His record was as follows; five games, zero points, zero goals scored. Clearly a progressive step.
What we should be asking is why Southampton felt Puel had let the club down by finishing eighth? Did he under-achieve? Had Monk and Pardew both done the same? Did the positions they left their clubs in merit the sack or just not live up to previous standards? Standards, mind, that were significantly above the status quo expectations.
The sad reality is that managers are rarely given the benefit of the doubt. In de Boer’s case, he was given an incredibly difficult task, one many warned would take a lot of time to achieve.
He arrived with grandiose ambitions of changing Palace’s entire footballing culture and introducing an attractive style of play. This wasn’t an overnight transition and it certainly wouldn’t happen in five games. However, the fear of relegation proved too high a risk for Steve Parish and the Palace board.
Monk, in fact, did manage to associate Swansea with a distinctive style that led them to eighth in 2014/15. While results deteriorated the following season, 15th isn’t poor. It was perceived this way only due to an unsustainable high finish beforehand.
And then we come to Ipswich. Consistently comfortable in the Championship throughout McCarthy’s reign — including a playoff appearance in 2014/15 — it seemed a strange decision to move on. But Hurst, who himself worked wonders with Shrewsbury Town, was tipped to usher in an era of success, though he’s been denied the time to break from the six-year McCarthy culture.
Jay Tabb — a former Ipswich midfielder who played under McCarthy from 2013 to 2016 — offered an explanation as to why this was the case.
“Managers get treated so harshly and the game has changed hugely with social media now. The pressure is huge. Everyone wants so much success, but people forget that only two teams get promoted, four reach the play-off, and the rest miss out.
“Who’s to say a club couldn’t go and win four on the bounce and turn things around? The rate at which managers are fired or wanted out is bonkers if you ask me really.
“Some fans moaned about Mick McCarthy, but now he’s gone and look where they are now. They’ve got the new manager and it takes time to change stuff, but he’s not been given the opportunity to do that”.
Tabb also touched on another potential explanation, noting the increasing growth of player power. Arguably it’s grown to a point where players escape criticism for poor performances, with blame deflected onto the manager.
“Since I played, players have so much more power now. I always think what the manager says, goes. You wouldn’t step out of line with Mick. He’s in charge and you’d be scared of him.”
Ultimately, it’s easier to change manager than it is a group of players and it’s part and parcel of the job. As a manager, you’re culpable. Who else is there to blame? In Hurst’s case, perhaps no-one.
Ipswich would not have expected results to go as badly as they have, but they’ll have known that improvements wouldn’t happen quickly either. The point is, too often clubs make impulsive decisions simply because they see potential for short-term success.
Frequent hiring and firing, as per Watford and Chelsea, is considered a good practice because it provokes a reaction from the players.
Ipswich have acted quickly, and they could find a manager to improve their fortunes. However, their lack of fight to keep McCarthy at the club initially — despite the drop in performances at the time — could cost them.
Perhaps they believed his methods had turned stale after six years and they needed to refresh. Maybe, but that doesn’t entitle them to then expect what only he could deliver.
His average league finish over his tenure was tenth, and the club finished 15th twice and 13th in the three seasons prior, failing to reach the playoffs since 2005.
Patience no longer exists in football and recent history tells us that often this doesn’t lead to any long-term fix of the problem whatsoever.
Hurst was brought in to make big changes at the club and hasn’t been given the chance to do so, despite sitting just four points from safety. They let McCarthy go far too easily, and now they’ve not given his permanent replacement any time to shine.
Perhaps, in Tabb’s words, they should be “careful what they wish for.”
Featured photograph/Geograph/Bob Jones