Football clubs have funny structures; at their most important point – the interface between the machine that funds the club and the machine that delivers the benefit is one person; the manager. If it were a car, it would be like having a single screw holding the engine to the chassis.
Clubs are beginning to wise up to the idea that they have this single point of failure. A club like Watford, for example, have changed their manager almost annually in recent years, while the machine the sits behind them has remained fairly stable. Despite this apparent flux, they have progressed year on year.
Managers don’t last very long; yes, owners are often hasty in their decision making and sometimes managers attain positions they are barely capable of leading on the basis of their connections or playing record. But, it’s not always a simple question of competence.
Being a manager is a ridiculously stressful job and often its that, not their ability, which results in their departure. They’re the aforementioned single point of failure, they have to explain everything to the media, they are in an occupation which has only 92 positions in the country of which no more than one or two are vacant at any one time. With the odds stacked against you; it’s surprising that any manager is wholly rational and logical in the first place; if you applied logic to football management as a career choice, you wouldn’t choose it in the first place.
Stress comes from being overwhelmed with the information you’re expected to process. Sometimes there’s too much, sometimes it makes no sense and you can’t find the links and logic. The log-jam of unprocessed information causes your brain to go into overdrive trying to process it day and night, or sometimes shutting down and pretending its not happening.
Karl Robinson is stressed. Not because he’s stone cold incompetent; what he achieved at MK Dons and Charlton both show he is capable of managing a football club to a degree of success. But, his current situation hasn’t happened to him before. Injuries, performances that don’t produce goals or results, an owner he struggles to communicate with, fans that don’t trust him; all at the same time, one overlapping another like waves.
Even if he has been given assurances, there must be some part of him that knows his job is under threat. Add to this the knowledge that reputations are rapidly crushed in football; one failure and your reputation can drop like a stone. It’s not just a question of proving your competence, it’s also that your failures make you toxic from a PR perspective.
The signs are there – last week he skulked his way through his interview feeling sorry for himself, yesterday – after the defeat to Wimbledon – he was even less coherent. There was something about him doing his job by preparing the team in the middle section of the field, it was, he said, down to players to put the ball in the back of the net. The subtext was that it was them to blame, not him.
I think I know what he meant, when you’re in front of goal, someone has to take a risk and shoot. But the idea that once the ball reaches the penalty box, the manager’s job is done is clearly nonsense. Anyone who saw Liam Sercombe score 17 goals from midfield in 2015/16 – frequently following up missed opportunities – knows that you can increase the chances of scoring through a pre-defined way of playing.
If you add to this his decision to take the captaincy off Curtis Nelson or drop Cameron Norman because – as stated publicly – he’s not playing well (not because Sam Long did well against Manchester City), suggests to me that he might be being honest and straight forward, but he’s not thinking about how his actions might impact the players or the fans.
It’s important to separate out Karl Robinson, the person, from any stresses he is currently experiencing. I don’t believe he is an incompetent charlatan, who has managed to trick his way through his career. I do believe that he’s struggling to process the problems he has and I question whether he will get the support or headspace to recover his rational side. And, for that reason, you have to question whether – for him and the club – the relationship is sustainable.