From the state funeral that was BBC Radio Oxford’s What Next?, to David Connolly’s moment of class, this weekend felt like something of a turning point.
There was an odd connotation to the title ‘What’s Next?’ – the name of the Radio Oxford post-Wilder special on Friday. It implied a sense of desolation and emptiness. It’s the ‘What’ bit; ‘Who’s next?’ suggests we’re talking about people, ‘Where next’ implies direction. ‘What next’ suggests there’s no obvious future, a void.
There was something of the state funeral about its positioning. In most clubs, the change of manager probably wouldn’t demand a clearing of the local radio schedules, but this is the first time we’ve been looking for a new manager for over half a decade. This is an eternity in football, so perhaps there is a degree of public service in providing a platform to share thoughts on the matter. For sure, I viewed the length of Chris Wilder’s tenure; the third longest in English football, with pride. After a decade or so of being the club that changed manager almost every year, to become a paragon of stability – what the ‘thinking’ football fraternity believe is missing from most clubs – was something to be proud of.
The sense of loss didn’t transfer into the programme itself. In reality, it was a group of polite gentlemen who didn’t really know what was going on punctuated by the hysterical rantings of buffoons on the phone who think they did. That was probably a fair reflection of the supporter profile of almost every club. It was a bit like any Radio Oxford post-match phone in, just without the distraction of a game to talk about.
Ian Lenagan seemed to speak with a degree of extra freedom, that’s not to suggest that he was in some way being shackled by Chris Wilder. There was just nothing to defend – managerial appointments, investment, player acquisitions, he simply had to explain what would happen next.
If Lenagan has appeared uncomfortable in the media, perhaps it’s not a surprise. The manager is usually the focal point of a football club. The owner is often portrayed as an evil overlord starving the team of funds.
Although benefitting from there being no manager/owner dynamic to defend, Lenagan seemed in complete control. He will take his time with his appointment, he has not panicked during the transfer window with Nicky Wroe and David Connolly filling positions that were identified as being weak from the outset. The Connolly signing on Friday is, in my view, a good one. People expecting a 20 goal a season striker with resale potential were living in a fantasy. What we needed was someone with the experience to know that 6-7 goals may be enough, who is prepared to fit in and not disrupt.
So, what next?
Brian Clough once said the relationship between manager and owner is the most important in a football club. He also, famously, described his man management style as “We talk about [an issue] for twenty minutes and then we decide I was right all along.” Which you might surmise to say that the owner and manager will get on so long as everyone agrees with the manager.
I’ve also heard is said that ‘if you all agree with everything, then at least one of you is redundant’. So, if the manager and owner must be ‘as-one’, and that makes one of you redundant, does this mean the traditional way of managing a football club is fundamentally flawed?
This brings us onto an interesting question. Do we even want a manager? Or are we looking for a coach with a director of football? Naysayers will reject the notion on the basis it is simply ‘too foreign’. But, Lenagan isn’t afraid of going against tradition; the model he’s working to he founded at Wigan Warriors, he stuck with the manager for longer than most and he’s investing in our youth set-up as others pull out of theirs.
I don’t have a problem with that; it’s how British Cycling and Team Sky work – Tim Kerrison, the mastermind behind Team Sky’s two Tour de France wins is applying principles he developed at Australian Swimming. Stealing with pride. It’s entirely logical; if we all do the same thing then the only differentiator between success and failure is budget. If you can’t be rich, then you need to be different.
It’s certainly true that Chris Wilder needed support in recent months. By his own admission the club seemed to be driving itself. It was difficult to see it changing dramatically from what it has become. And while some bemoaned Wilder’s competence, he was navigating unchartered waters with only Paul Tidsdale – who also appears to be stagnating at Exeter now – having any comparable experience.
So perhaps a director of football with a head coach is a way forward. That would give the club the long term strategy, with the short term impetus. Not relying on a manager’s ability to constantly change and develop in a chameleon like way – the only person who has successfully done this in the modern era is Sir Alex Ferguson. It seems that short of finding a genius to manage us, a different approach may be the future.