TEN games into the Premier League season and the managerial witch-hunts by the media are well and truly under way. Martin Jol, at Fulham, and Norwich City’s Chris Hughton are the team bosses coming under pressure, not just because of results but through speculation in the media. My heart sank on behalf of the aforementioned when I saw TV reporters shoving microphones under their noses and asking: “Did you hear fans chanting for your head?” and “are you the man to turn this situation around?” The TV people spark the debate and then the Press ramp up the speculation. And it really is quite ridiculous. Okay, Norwich suffered humiliation when getting thrashed 7-0 at Manchester City and Fulham were beaten 3-1 at home by Manchester United, results that leave both clubs near the foot of the table and some fans – a minority I’m sure – venting their frustrations on the managers. But, frankly, what do people expect of the managers of clubs like Norwich and Fulham? Do people not accept that both Jol and Hughton are proven practitioners of their profession, conscientious and knowledgable men who work hard at the virtually impossible task of out-performing the biggest clubs? The supporters of every club in the Premier League outside the ‘top seven,’ i.e. Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham, Manchester City and Manchester United, Liverpool and Everton, simply must be realistic and accept that their teams are not going to contest the title, let alone the top four Champions League qualifying places.
It is a harsh reality of modern, money-soaked Premier League life that the richest of the rich are in a league of their own and that the rest are involved in a dog-eat-dog fight to keep their place on the gravy train, albeit occupying the rear carriages. Success for clubs like Norwich and Fulham is staying in the Premier League, keeping alive the dream of breaking into the elite group, like Southampton have done this season. And ten games in, just a quarter of the season, is no time to be screaming for the head of your manager. Jol and Hughton are paddling upstream and they must be given time to cope with the strong current. Bear in mind, Southampton have broken the mould having spent £34million in the transfer market last summer, the biggest spend outside of clubs like City, Tottenham Chelsea and Arsenal. Norwich and Fulham, Hull and Sunderland, West Brom and Aston Villa, Stoke and Swansea et al…these clubs could not sign the superstars from Italy, Spain and South America even if they had the funds. Why, because the biggest players in the world will only go to the biggest clubs. And, if you are a manager at one of the biggest clubs, a Mourinho, a Guardiola, an Ancelotti you are on a big club merry-go-round that it is nigh on impossible to fall off. It would be interesting to see how these guys would cope at Norwich. Guardiola presided over a phenomenally successful Barcelona team, but I’d back my wife to do well if she had Lionel Messi and Andres Iniesta in her side!
Look, I’m not knocking the Guardiola’s of this world. What I’m saying is that a manager can only work with the players at his disposal and that a manager needs time to do that work and to get the best out of what he’s got. Former Manchester United boss Tommy Docherty said some daft things in his time, but one of his truisms was: “When your team is going well you can manage it from a deckchair on the beach. When it’s going badly, you find out how good a manager you are.” To sack your manager after 10 matches would be, for the most part, an ill-judged decision and I hope that the people in charge at Norwich and Fulham turn a deaf ear to the media hype surrounding the current difficulties of men like Hughton and Jol. If you like, a plea for sanity in an increasingly insane football world.
THERE will be only praise for Steve Bruce, who is doing a marvellous job at promoted Hull City, a club that typifies the “to survive is to succeed” philosophy. Hull, up there on the unfashionable east coast, cannot hope to compete with the big city clubs at attracting top players and Bruce has cut his cloth accordingly, assembling a big, physical team of players who work to their nickname of Tigers, while playing football when the opportunity arises. I saw them lose with great credit at Everton recently and, if they maintain the level they showed then, they will stay up. Hull sit proudly in tenth place this morning but, bear in mind, they have only four points more than Fulham, six more more than Norwich. Early days, indeed.
Hull beat second-bottom Sunderland yesterday in a match sadly notable for the sendings off of the visitors’ Lee Cattermole and Andrea Dossena. I must say, Sunderland manager Gus Poyet was way out of order when suggesting midfielder Cattermole was harshly done by and a victim of his own reputation. Well, Gus, the latter part of that summing up is certainly true…the lad has now been sent off SEVEN times! Cattermole, who is only 25, went in very late on Ahmed Elmohamady and referee Andre Mariner made the totally correct decision. If this was the first, second, maybe even the third, time Cattermole had seen red in his relatively short career you might have had some sympathy with Poyet’s case for the defence. But his seventh! Do me a favour, Gus. You cannot defend the indefensible. Cattermole is a talented footballer, but he needs to control his aggression because by failing to do so he is letting down his team-mates. There can be no sympathy for a player who spends so much time suspended through his own recklessness. As for Cattermole’s team-mate Andrea Dossena, he should have had two red cards for his shocking, over-the-top tackle on Hull’s David Meyler. That was a potential leg-breaker if ever there was one and Poyet didn’t attempt any mitigation in Dossena’s case.
SO, Joe Hart finally paid the price for his recent errors, dropped and reduced to watching from the bench as his replacement, the big Chilean Pantilimon, had a day out as Manchester City ran riot in the 7-0 hammering of Norwich. I have staunchly defended Hart and I am not going to knock him now, believing as I do, that he remains England’s best goalkeeper. However, a spell on the sidelines will do him no harm, not if he is as dedicated a trainer as people tell me he is. Hart’s timing was all wrong when he rushed too far from his line at Chelsea last week and got too close to team-mate Nastasic, who headed beyond him and gifted Fernando Torres Chelsea’s winner. As my former Oldham keeper Andy Rhodes, now a successful coach, says: “Don’t go looking for work!” In other words, don’t rush from your line unless the situation is crystal clear and demands it. The biggest potential problem if Hart stays on the City sidelines will be for England. Manager Roy Hodgson will probably give either Norwich’s John Ruddy or Celtic’s Fraser Forster a chance in the upcoming friendly with Chile, knowing that Ruddy might have done better with one or two of the goals that flew past him at The Etihad and that Forster plays in a weaker league in Scotland. Still, if one of these two performs well for England, he will give Hart the competition maybe he needs.
ON the subject of goalkeepers, let me send a Happy Retirement message to my old Merseyside rival Ray Clemence, who has finally quit the game at the age of 65. Ray, who played for Scunthorpe, Liverpool (with whom he won five titles between 1972-1984) and Tottenham won 61 England caps, a feat made all the more remarkable when you consider he was in competition with the great Peter Shilton. Clem went on to work as England’s goalkeeper coach and he has stood down from the FA, following some health issues in recent years. Clem was famous for the way he stood up in one-on-one confrontations and he was renowned as a superb kicker. Clem was a top player during a golden era for English goalkeepers.