With the Premier League season put to bed for another year, it is customary to look back and allocate prestigious awards to those who have earned them. But while Vincent Kompany and Alan Pardew must settle for Player and Manager of the Season respectively, the truly coveted awards reside right here, in these words. That’s right, hold your breath and get on the edge of your seat for the first annual Official Unofficial End of Season Awards. Far from being concerned with who scored the best goal, single-handedly won his team the most points or overachieved throughout the 2011-12 season, these awards celebrate the off the field stories that the season has produced. Looking back over the last ten months, many names have featured in the headlines and today, I honour those who got onto the back pages, albeit sometimes for the wrong reasons.
The Sometimes You Can’t See The Wood For Trees Award: Roman Abramovich
In 2003, Roman Abramovich decided that he wanted to change English football forever, while the concept of the foreign owner may not have been new, that of an owner who could buy and sell his own country was one that fans in England were less used to. But unfortunately, Red Rom found that the one thing he wanted most, the Champions League, was tantalisingly situated just beyond the reach of his chequebook. And so began a managerial merry-go-round that could singlehandedly keep every representative of the League Managers Association in work permanently.
Saddled first with “Tinkerman” Claudio Ranieri, Abramovich waited patiently throughout the season before the worst kept secret in football was realised, and Ranieri found himself out of work. Following Claudio was “The Special One” Jose Mourinho, who delivered plenty of silverware, but a cavalier attitude and the failure to land the big one ultimately cost Mr. Modesty his job. Avram Grant proved that sometimes being in the right place at the right time is enough to get you a job as he seamlessly transitioned from his Director of Football role into the managerial hotseat, and in his time in the Stamford Bridge dugout he came as close as you can to reaching ultimate glory without winning anything, conceding the Premier League title to Manchester United on the final day of the season and succumbing to a penalty shootout in the Champions League final, with John Terry’s slippery feet providing all non-Chelsea fans with endless laughs.
What followed was a triumvirate of big names as Roman appointed Scolari, Hiddink and Ancelotti, but none brought the ultimate glory the owner demanded. Finally, proving that even the über-rich are susceptible to media hype, he appointed Andre Villas-Boas, even spending huge amounts of cash on paying for him to be released from his contract, but the highly-touted Portuguese proved little more than a damp squib.
Facing a season of apocalyptic doom, Abramovich took the option of getting to the end of the campaign before appointing a new man, choosing to maintain the extremely status quo by naming AVB’s assistant manager Roberto Di Matteo the caretaker manager for the remaining games. With Chelsea seemingly playing for nothing but pride it appeared that Roman would deliberate long and hard on whom the next kingpin should be. Undoubtedly, Di Matteo must have realised that his appointment was little more than right place right time. He was, after all, a Chelsea legend, but his managerial experience up to that point involved MK Dons and West Brom, with his career highlight being getting The Baggies into the Premier League only to be sacked months later with the team seemingly heading for the drop.
So how ironic it is that after the millions that Abramovich has spent on hiring and firing a succession of experienced big name managers, it was the man who would not have even got an interview for the job had he not already been there who finally landed Abramovich’s most coveted prize. And Di Matteo did not have an easy ride, with his team finishing out the tournament with a two-legged tie against Barcelona before facing Bayern Munich in their home ground.
It remains to be seen if Red Rom will stick with Di Matteo beyond the close of this season, with many believing that Fabio Capello or Pep Guardiola are next for the Stamford Bridge dugout. But with both of these men likely to come at a high price, while Di Matteo would presumably cost much less, Abramovich would do well to remember the old cliché that those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.
Worst supporters of the season: Blackburn Rovers
Relegation battles are never fun for the supporters, even less so if you don’t believe your team should be there. When Venky’s arrived at Ewood Park, they dreamed of signing the likes of Ronaldinho and David Beckham en route to breaking into the top four and The Champions League. As such, then-manager Sam Allardyce was deemed surplus to requirements, his record of building tough to beat sides not being enough to save him from being sacked from his second successive club by a new owner who didn’t want him. Enter Steve Kean, formerly part of Big Sam’s coaching staff; a man the outgoing manager insisted was not the right person to lead a club. Kean was unpopular from the start, but football supporters can be a fickle bunch, and nothing wins them over like winning games, as Alan Pardew can confirm.
But therein lay the problem, because wins were exactly what Steve Kean seemed unable to secure. Try as he might, his Rovers continued to look less and less like a Premier League team and by the beginning of the 2011-12 season, the supporters were showing their frustration. When fans buy their tickets, they have every right to voice their opinions at what is happening on the pitch, but something that seemed to pass the Blackburn fans by was that no matter how much abuse he received, no matter how exposed he was to criticism by absent owners and no matter how hostile Ewood Park became, Steve Kean maintained his dignity throughout, never failing to push forward on his quest to lead his team to safety. He was, of course, ultimately unsuccessful, and Rovers will be playing their away games at the likes of The Riverside Stadium and Bloomfield Road next season as a consequence, but the fact remains that Kean attempted to motivate his side for a full season despite playing half of their league games in front of arguably the most hostile home crowd in the Premier League.
Home form is usually key to any team battling relegation, and the fact remains that Ewood Park was not a friendly place for its team to play throughout the season. It would be unfair to suggest that the blame for relegation lies solely at the doors of those who organised seemingly endless protests, but when a team is battling adversity on the pitch, support from the stands can be vital. This was something largely lacking in Blackburn this season. I can only hope those hostile crowds reel in their abuse next season as they face up to life in what is a very tough division.
Most unfit and improper owner of the season: Steve Morgan, the Wolves chairman
A relegation battle is tough. It takes a special kind of manager to get through it, as has been proved by the incredible success of Roberto Martinez at Wigan. Arguably the most important trait for a manager to possess when battling relegation is experience. It doesn’t matter if you’ve won titles in every country you’ve managed, helping a team under pressure to survive is a different animal.
Mick McCarthy probably isn’t everyone’s cup of tea as a manager. No-nonsense and straight-talking, he might not have the gift of being able to entertain a crowd, but he does have the experience of fighting relegation from The Premier League, having been in that situation with both Wolves and Sunderland. Admittedly he may not always have succeeded in his quest, but he is surely a man who knows what to expect in the scramble to avoid the relegation trapdoor.
After an encouraging start to the season, Wolves slipped ever closer to the bottom three and, eventually, Steve Morgan decided to act. In mid-February he wielded the axe and McCarthy became just another victim of the managerial sack race which blights/excites supporters every season and Wolves were in the market for a manager to pull them clear of the gaping chasm that was staring at them. A few names linked themselves with the job: Alan Curbishley, Steve Bruce and Neil Warnock were said to be interested, but one by one they faded. Warnock rocked up at Leeds, Curbishley ruled himself out after talks with the Wolves board and Bruce just faded from the discussion. It seemed that nobody wanted to attach themselves to what appeared to be a sinking ship so, in a move of apparent desperation, Morgan appointed Terry Connor to the position on a caretaker basis.
Now the writing was surely on the wall. Connor is Wolves through and through, having served as a part of the backroom staff since 1999, but he was no manager, and to jump in to the shark tank of a relegation battle with no previous experience was a move on par to committing Premier League suicide. There could have been no surprises when Wolves failed to capture a single win in the thirteen games they played with Connor in charge, taking only four points from a possible thirty nine. However, the blame lies far from the door of the now former caretaker manager. After all, he did the best he could but experience was against him. The guilty parties are surely the men who made the decision to fire McCarthy without any prospect of finding a suitable replacement, and for alienating the men who were interested with an apparent lack of ambition or money. With Wolves fans far from ecstatic about the appointment of Stale Solbakken as new manager, it remains to be seen if the club can bounce straight back under the stewardship of Morgan. Personally, I doubt it.
I never saw that coming award for most obvious incident of the season: Alex McLeish is sacked by Aston Villa owner Randy Lerner
Gordon Brown being named Prime Minister, naming David Hasselhoff as a judge on Britain’s Got Talent, that new Battleship film; some ideas are just doomed to failure. And another example would be the appointment of Alex McLeish as Aston Villa manager at the beginning of the season. Villa fans had been restless throughout the entire previous season, with Gerard Hoillier proving to be the wrong man to take over the reins from Martin O’Neill, but what possessed Randy Lerner to shop for a new manager from within the ranks of fierce rivals Birmingham City?
In the present climate of club owners from outside the local area, it is unfortunate that occasionally they ignore the desires of the supporters who pack the stands week after week, but Lerner had never seemed to be such an owner, with Villa fans generally seeming quite happy with his leadership of their club. On the blue side of Birmingham things weren’t quite so rosy. Alex McLeish had been with Birmingham for two-and-a-half seasons and in that time he had presided over two relegations from the Premier League, although he also had a promotion back to the Premiership and a Carling Cup to his credit. Despite this, unless McLeish was able to lead Villa to instant title-winning glory, it seemed unlikely that the Villa fans would ever take to the former manager of their most bitter rivals.
It seemed that Randy Lerner saw something in McLeish that others didn’t, and in fact Villa’s start to the season was mildly promising. But as time drew on, the bottom fell out for the team and the supporters grew unhappy. Even so, it seemed unlikely that Villa would be dragged into a relegation battle. After all, teams such as Wigan, Wolves and Blackburn were performing woefully in the league and Villa, for all their struggles had what looked to be a comfortable points cushion between themselves and the lower echelons of the league. But as the season marched into its latter months something unexpected happened as all of the bottom-dwelling teams began to pick up points here and there, and Villa’s position began to come under scrutiny.
And so it came to pass that on the final day of the season Villa were in the unfamiliar position of not being mathematically safe. As unlikely as it seemed, the Birmingham team could still be relegated should other results go against them. And while Bolton failed to secure the win they needed for Premier League safety, and QPR shockingly capitulated to Manchester City in the dying minutes, meaning that Villa survived, it proved to be too close a call for the Villa hierarchy, and Alex McLeish became the first post-season managerial casualty within twenty-four hours of the curtain falling on the domestic season.
With Villa no longer the team they were in the Martin O’Neill days, it remains to be seen who will be interested in taking up the post of manager of a struggling team in need of reform. But if Randy Lerner has learned anything from his gamble, Chris Hughton shouldn’t expect his phone to ring anytime soon.
The Kevin Keegan You Can Never Go Back Award: Kenny Dalglish
Never go back. That’s the mantra that many in football live and die by. When you return to the scene of your former glories it’s never the same, you will only end up tarnishing your legacy. When Kenny Dalglish returned to Liverpool as the successor to Roy Hodgson, the Kop rejoiced, but some suspected it may be a mistake. This was a different Liverpool side to the one King Kenny had previously managed, and Kenny had not held a managerial position in the Premier League since being relieved of his duties at Newcastle in the late 90s. Others suggested that the Kop held Dalglish in optimistically high esteem, with the assertion that his greatest successes had been when he inherited a great team and when he had bags of cash to spend freely. These doubters pointed to his failures at Newcastle and Celtic as proof that Dalglish was a man who needed some sort of advantageous position to be presented to him if he was to be successful and that should he start on a relatively level playing field he would struggle.
The 2011-12 season will divide opinions among Liverpool fans. They struggled through the league and dropped way too many points at home for a side that was until recently part of the so-called Big Four. However, they did win the Carling Cup, they reached the FA Cup Final and they secured European football, albeit in the form of the second tier Europa League. But considering they had missed out on a continental competition completely the previous term, any trips abroad seem to be a bonus.
Prior to the arrival of Rafa Benitez so many moons ago, Gerard Houllier was disposed of as Liverpool manager when the board asked themselves “Do we see Liverpool challenging for the title under Houllier?” The answer was no, and the Frenchman bid au revoir to his job. While the hierarchy at the club has significantly changed since those days, perhaps it was a similar question that doomed King Kenny. After all, it’s not so long ago that Liverpool missed out on winning the title by two points, but those heady days seem so long ago now.
In addition, it seemed that Dalglish was unable to negotiate favourable deals in the transfer market. His major signings included Andy Carroll, Jordan Henderson, Stewart Downing and Charlie Adam, with those four men alone arriving for a combined total of over £80 million. With an outlay like that, you would expect performances to match the price tags but you would be hard pressed to find a Liverpool fan anywhere who would regard these players as anything other than flops up to this point. While it is fair to suggest that they could come good given time, a manager is rated on present successes, not potential future ones. The big question that remains is can anyone else do any better at Anfield right now?
The Rupert Murdoch Award for triumphing over the media: Roy Hodgson for being named England manager despite everyone in England (i.e. the press) wanting Harry Redknapp
England did not play well in the 2010 World Cup. I’m just saying, in case you didn’t realise. And some people decided that the fault lay not with the players, but squarely at the door of Fabio Capello. While many screamed for the Italian to be shown the door in the immediate aftermath of the tournament, few were quite so vocal as Harry Redknapp.
Clearly Harry has the kind of personality that people respond to. He has a rapport with the media that would have ensured quite a few sound bites and, being a long time columnist for The Sun, he would probably have enjoyed a slightly less rough ride from that notoriously anti-England publication than most other managers could expect. But for some people, it was Harry’s tabloid soapbox that in some ways ruled him out of contention for the job. For two years, he had used his journalistic platform to repeatedly undermine Capello while positioning himself as the supposed heir apparent waiting in the wings, and almost everyone was buying it. You could barely take part in a conversation with anyone about football without somebody voicing the opinion that only Harry Redknapp could save England from an international abyss. And why was Harry championed by so many? Was it because he has won so many trophies? Not exactly; to date his list of honours in an almost thirty year managerial career reads thusly: one FA Cup, one Inter-Toto Cup, one Football League Trophy, and single wins of the old Divisions One and Three (now The Championship and League Two). Hardly the work of a managerial genius. No, it appears that Harry’s big qualification was that he is, of course, English. And as everyone knows, England can only be successful when managed by an Englishman. Never mind the fact that in the last twelve years (a period that covers four managers, not counting caretakers) the two non-English managers performed significantly better than the two English ones.
Of course, Harry is a very talented manager. His record shows some good successes with teams that are far from being top of the table clubs, and his work at Tottenham is very impressive, having taken on the club with them battling relegation and turning them into a Champions League side. What left a sour taste in some mouths was his campaigning for a job that wasn’t even available at the time.
And there are other talented managers out there, even talented English ones. The appointment of Roy Hodgson may have disappointed some, but he is a tried and tested international manager with proven pedigree. He has managed big and small teams alike and usually found success. His international coaching includes taking Switzerland to the last 16 of the 1994 World Cup, their first major competition since the 60s, and leading Finland to their highest ever FIFA ranking. This is not the work of a bad coach.
Whoever the FA chose to appoint as Fabio Capello’s successor would inevitably be judged by results and while Harry’s media-friendly personality may have kept the wolves from the door for a while, it is only a matter of time before the press start baying for blood. After all, you can’t sell papers by telling people that everything is going great. Inevitably in English football, controversy creates cash.
Product Placement Award for most mentions of a sponsor: Owen Coyle, whose most used words are “Barclays Premier League”
Cash is king. That is the unwritten rule in business that everyone lives and dies by. Football in the UK is big business and sponsorship is a big earner for all concerned. It seems that everything in sport can be sponsored. The last great bastion to hold out against the sponsorship machine was Barcelona, but even they eventually gave in to the money train.
In England, every football competition is sponsored by somebody, and that has been the way for a long time. Whether it’s the Barclays Premier League, The Carling Cup or The FA Cup sponsored by Budweiser, if it has a name it can be sponsored. Corporate selling out appears to be everywhere with company names adorning shirts and stadiums; perhaps it’s only a matter of time before we’re greeted by players being referred to as “American Express presents Gareth Bale”.
Sponsorship frequently divides opinion. Some love it, some hate it and some embrace it like a long-lost sibling. Owen Coyle definitely falls into the latter category. Name dropping is far from a new phenomenon, but generally it involves someone dropping the name of a celebrity they have partied with into conversation. Owen Coyle is slightly less glamorous and instead drops the phrase “Barclays Premier League” into conversation as often as possible. A standard interview may follow the pattern of: “This weekend in the Barclays Premier League we’ll be playing Barclays Premier League team Stoke City who have been in the Barclays Premier League for a few years now. It’ll be a tough game but every game in the Barclays Premier League is tough and if you want to stay in the Barclays Premier League you have to pick up points against Barclays Premier League teams like Stoke.”
It remains unclear whether Barclays actually sponsor Owen Coyle’s press conferences, but unless the Scottish manager rocks back up in the top division with a new club, the bank will need to find a new name drop extraordinaire double time. However, one corporation’s loss is another’s gain. By this time next year the phrase “nPower Championship” will be so common you would think it was trending on Twitter. And it’ll all be thanks to Owen Coyle.
So this year’s Official Unofficial Awards have been handed out to the many grateful winners. With the coveted trophies taking pride of place in many a display case, I can only comfort those who did not win with these words: same time next year. If I remember…