I sometimes wonder whether I have my head in the sand when it comes to our current position. However, it is almost too easy to write a football blog when things are going wrong. It seems, like Eskimos and their hundreds of words for snow (a fallacy, btw); in blog world, there are far more words available for moaning than there are for being rational.
Being rational is a bit boring. Heroism and villainy are a simple narrative. The morass of people in the middle of that spectrum; who are trying their best to do a good job, but perhaps not precisely in the way you’d like, are too difficult to define and pigeonhole. Heroes and villains is also language of mass media; where deadlines are tight, turnaround times are fast and people are under pressure to perform. The fans speak the binary language of the media because the media speak the binary language of the fans. It’s not healthy, but rationally, it’s understandable.
Our current form threatens to blow our chances of the play-offs, and the villain in this piece is the manager. I understand the view; especially if you’re schlepping around the country following the team in expectation of success.
The chap in the photo is Bradley Wiggins, 3 times Olympic champion and one of the favourites for this year’s Tour de France. The photo was taken at 9.30 on the morning of the prologue to Paris-Nice one of France’s biggest stage races. The prologue, or first stage, is a 6 mile time trial. Wiggins was due off the ramp at 3.30pm. His preparation lasted six hours for a ride that lasted 11 minutes.
I recently heard Matthew Pinsent giving advice to those doing the Sport Relief Mile. Professional sportspeople, he said, talk of ‘process over product’. Wiggins couldn’t control the product i.e. the win, because he couldn’t control the weather or the performances of others. What he could do was meticulously follow a process to deliver his best possible personal performance. He came second in the stage, scuppered by the rain on the day, but ultimately won the overall race 8 days later.
The problem with replacing Wilder for failing to deliver the product of promotion is that you have to start over the process of continuous improvement. The other problem with product focus is that there are too many uncontrollables from one season to the next. In League 2 there are 1,104 performances (24 teams playing 46 times). You can control only 46 of them, your own. The manager, therefore, has 4% control over his league position.
League positions themselves are an irrelevance. We will view 7th place as a definition of success. In every other national league in the country, 7th is a failure as it falls outside the play-off places. The line between success and failure in any division, although important, is ultimately arbitrary.
Firoz Kassam focussed on product all the time; each season brought more promises of promotion and with it a new manager and philosophy. Each season he fell short and, in response, he started the process again. From Mark Wright’s chaotic pub team, to Ian Atkins’ regimented long ball, to Graham Rix’s hopeless Barca fantasy, to Ramon Diaz’s bogsnorkling tippy tappy, to Brian Talbot’s hapless brawlers. One plan after another, written, failed, torn up and started again.
What we can control is our own performances against our previous performances. With two games to go, we have scored 1 goal more and conceded 17 goals less than last year, we have 5 more points. Last year it would have got us a play-off spot. So this year’s ‘failed’ performance (which, to some, should cost Chris Wilder his job) would have been viewed as a success last year.
But last year didn’t have the likes of Crawley and Swindon skewing the competitive arena with their big spending. You could, therefore, argue that those two clubs are forcing Wilder’s removal. Is that what we really want?
This year we have had to be better to stand still, which is massively frustrating. Whether the improvement is fast enough, is open for debate. However, as we get better, we have to develop the infrastructure to help these players perform. People talk about a striking coach and a more effective medical team that can keep the likes of Peter Leven performing at a level that allows him to be that extra bit special.
But in reality what we’re talking about takes a lot of time and money to find the right people. For all the frustrations about potentially missing the play-offs, money being generated from increased season ticket sales (another objective definition of customer satisfaction) needs to be invested wisely. But that can only be done by people who know precisely where that investment is needed. Take any of the current decision making team out of the equation and you introduce a whole world of uncertainty and, with it, far greater risk of failure.
If we were in a failing situation, the risk of further failure from changing things is less important. As a club we have options; we can continue to steadily build as we have done for the last three years. Or we can hope that we can find a manager who can help us progress more quickly. Hope is not quite a stab in the dark, but it’s not far off.
As fans we look for the product; a win on a Saturday, a promotion, a spot at Wembley. Our frustrations when we don’t achieve those targets are evident. However, if you want a guaranteed happy ending, then go to the cinema. If you want to support a football team; scream, shout and holler in frustration; but if you’re not getting the product you’re after, beware of throwing out the process that is most likely to give you success in the first place.