What does the appointment of a new manager bring to a football club?
How often have we seen football clubs staging remarkable comebacks from being relegation candidates to a respectable top 10 finish? From being mired in mid-table to qualifying for European competitions? And how many times have we seen teams achieving all this and more under the stewardship of a newly appointed manager? It would be quite the tedious task to start counting the number of instances – it has happened that often.
My next question is, what is the reason behind this common yet intriguing phenomenon? What gift or ability does this new manager possess that the previous incumbent so clearly lacked? Is he better at man-management than his predecessor? Is he more adept at maximizing the resources he is entrusted with? Or is he just plainly a ‘better’ manager than the man he replaced? In fact, the reason (or reasons) is none of the above. It has nothing to do with the abilities of the manager, or of the players. It is purely to do with psychology. The abilities and resourcefulness of the manager come into play later, much later, mostly in his first full season or his second season, where he needs to consolidate the position achieved from the previous campaign. And of course, psychology can only get you so far. Consistency demands much more.
To illustrate the first psychological contribution of a newly appointed manager, I’ll need you to go back to your school days. Remember when you got news that the math or science teacher you didn’t like all that much had left the school and how, when the new teacher entered the classroom, you would do every assignment and devour the textbooks like a Marvel comic in order to become the new teacher’s pet? Well, I’m sure you get the connection now. When a new man is put in charge of the team, all the players try as hard as they can to please the new boss and win his confidence. With all the extra effort from the players, the manager is bound to get a fantastic start to his stint with the club.
Secondly, the manager brings in a breath of fresh air at the club. The moment the previous manager is sacked, all the relationships he had with his players, whether cordial or frosty, go with him. When the new manager arrives at the training ground, the players get a new lease of life, and a chance to put the past behind them and deliver for the new boss, a chance to revive the same career which was going nowhere under the previous manager. Also, the signings made by the new manager create a healthy competitive atmosphere in the squad and a wonderful camaraderie among the players.
But most importantly, the newly appointed manager possesses the one advantage that all managers crave for – the ‘he’s got nothing to lose’ tag. Most clubs sack their managers only when the club is in a position which is completely unacceptable for the fans and the management, and when they know that improvement is possible only if the manager goes. So with the team already struggling, the manager is hardly under as much pressure as the predecessor, because he inherited a team of strugglers and didnt build it. And when the players sense that their chief is breathing easy and isn’t losing any sleep at night, a positive energy overtakes them and, of course, it shows on the field.
Having said all of this, to maintain the same amount of success for a longer period of time like Sir Alex Ferguson or, to a lesser extent, Arsene Wenger and David Moyes, takes more than a brief spell of psychological good fortune. These men, that is, the Fergusons, Wengers, Shanklys, Paisleys, and Steins, they have that x-factor which explains their unparalleled success, a je ne sais quoi, something which cannot be described. And the point that the effect of a new manager fades away in time doesn’t require a better example than that of Martin O’Neill, who took over from Steve Bruce at Sunderland and got off to a rollicking start, only to gradually lose his way the next season and leave his act to be followed by Di Canio.
But then, we did see what Chelsea did under Di Matteo, didn’t we?