It’s About Time

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Time waits for no man. It’s even more impatient with head coaches. It’s that precious commodity everyone wants but infrequently gets. The ambitions of wealthy owners, and the pressure exerted by desperate supporters, all put paid to patience. Expectations are rarely anything other than sky high – and if you don’t deliver you’re ditched in the dumpster.

Given this reality, it’s hardly surprising that managers and sporting directors are always begging for time to ‘build a team’. Many even talk about ‘three, four or five year plans’, as if their jobs (for which they’re extremely well paid) should be sacrosanct for a set period of time. In truth the sporting world demands instant gratification. Like it or not top coaches, just like the players they coach, are often only as good as their last game.

Of course the amount of time, and patience, given to head coaches depends on the specific circumstances they inherit. Some jobs are bigger than others. But even then it’s not unreasonable, in my opinion, to expect a top quality coach to make at least some improvements relatively quickly. Why? Because several coaches have proved beyond question that it’s possible to do so in the past.

It’s become a cliché to mention Sir Alex Ferguson’s name every time a coach doesn’t make an immediate impact. However, few faced the cultural problems the red-faced Fergie tackled when he first arrived at Manchester United; and nobody has enjoyed as much sustained success as Ferguson since. In reality, giving a failing coach more time often results in him or her simply digging a larger hole. Time isn’t always a magic ingredient.

What’s more, for every manager that built success rather slowly (and faced the sack at one point) there are plenty of head coaches who have delivered instant results. Arsene Wenger quickly transformed Arsenal’s culture and won the double in his first full season. Meanwhile Jose Mourinho won domestic titles in his first two seasons at Porto, Chelsea and Inter Milan respectively. Time wasn’t so important to these legends of English football.

The examples of instant success are numerous in other sports too. When Jim Harbaugh took over as head coach of the San Francisco 49ers in 2011, the franchise hadn’t had a winning season for nine years. He took a misfiring roster that had just won just six games the year before, and led them to 13 wins in his first year, eleven in his second, and twelve in his third. When he left in 2015 results immediately dropped off a cliff and the team became irrelevant again.

Despite the compelling evidence that top class coaches don’t always need an extended run to improve a team, hearts still bleed when coaches get the boot. I’ve always found this odd. It seems only three things are certain in a sporting life: death, taxes, and sympathisers claiming that sacked coaches should’ve been given another year or two to turn things around.

Although some coaches are indeed sacked a tad prematurely, outsiders have no idea whether said coach was making progress or not. For all we know, the atmosphere in the dressing room was toxic and results would’ve got worse even. I severely doubt team owners would sack their head coach before talking to senior support staff and senior players (or at the very least gauging opinion indirectly).

If a coach hasn’t made any tangible progress in a year or two, why should anyone expect things to improve in year three? It shouldn’t take more than six months to figure out who your best players are and the best way to utilise their collective talents.

It’s slightly different, of course, if a team is starting from scratch with a whole new side of young players. Sometimes head coaches can take a long term view, and accept some short-term pain for long-term gain. If a team is full of youngsters, it’s reasonable to expect them to improve individually; therefore the collective will gradually improve too. However, this probably only applies to international sport, when coaches are forced to select from a limited pool of players. You can’t buy instant success when there’s no transfer market.

How many domestic clubs take the long-term perspective though? Normally the brief is to improve results quickly rather than build something from the ground-up. Most leagues in the UK have some form of promotion and relegation. Few owners will risk a ‘five year plan’ if there’s a risk of relegation, with all the financial implications, in the early stages. One might even argue that playing ‘the long-game’ is actually naïve in itself. Surely there needs to be some kind of balance: to ensure some immediate returns while keeping a broader strategy in mind?

What’s more, I’ve always thought that a head coach’s greatest impact is always felt in the first few months of his or her tenure anyway. This is when core messages and ideas are communicated; this is when new training regimes and fresh tactics are implemented; this is when players pull out all the stops to impress the new man in charge.

The truth is, if a manager’s approach isn’t working after two or three years, it’s probably never going to work. Think about it for a minute. If the team is losing at half-time, what can the coaches say to the squad that they haven’t already tried saying a hundred times before? If the team is on yet another losing run, what on earth can the manager try tactically that he hasn’t already attempted in the past? If a team has been generally misfiring for a while, I’d be flabbergasted if a coach hasn’t already tried every trick in his or her book.

The bottom line is that there’s very little evidence, and very little reason to believe, that incumbent coaches can make a dramatic difference in their third, forth or fifth years in charge. It’s far more likely that things will keep plodding along with the same level of success. Can things get worse if said manager leaves? Sure they can. Getting rid of any head coach is always a risk (you might end up with someone worse).

However, blindly assuming that all head coaches need is extra time to be successful strikes me as rather naïve. It’s surrendering to wishful thinking. As soon as a team starts to flat-line or decline, it’s an even greater risk for owners to do nothing. Once managers start pleading that they need more time, it’s probably about time they moved on.

James Morgan

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