Tim Gallimore's thought-provoking article from our last issue, looking at Stoke City and the various management models in The Championship

In the last Duck, you may recall that I wrote a piece titled The Formula for Success. I hadn’t intended this to be the start of a mini-series, but Michael O’Neill’s post-match comments after the recent defeat to Coventry City, and his press conference ahead of the Nottingham Forest game, have provoked me into writing a follow-up. Like the last one, it’s not about providing an opinion, or any solutions, but serve only as a thought-piece. It also tries to set discussion in the context of the game right here and now.

This new piece, and those that may follow (I’m not sure how many yet), are designed to inform, and maybe provoke fresh thinking. It’s a time when a few myths are being exploded. What does stability mean? Is a manager merry-go-round a bad thing? Does a lack of spending power necessarily mean you can’t compete? The news of the for-now-doomed European Super-League, an entity that lasted barely 48 hours, may add further to the mix of issues that are worth a discussion at least, and whilst Stoke City may be a little more removed these days from the immediate fallout zone, the ripples will go way beyond the middle of the Championship. It is a watershed moment in the game, just as the forming of the Premiership was almost 30 years ago. And not forgetting that football has been impacted massively by a global pandemic, as supporters know better than anyone.  

If my last piece was about football leadership, the role of CEO’s and Sporting Directors, this piece gets much closer to performance on the pitch. It’s not about talent management, player pipelines and recruitment. It’s about getting deep down and dirty and getting as much as you can from the players you have at your disposal, rather than those you don’t. It’s about making the most of what you have, in some cases, to use the old saying, making a few silk purses from a few sows’ ears!

The question that I have seen asked a few times now is how Barnsley, a team technically relegated last season, and surviving the drop by virtue of Wigan’s points deduction, are 20 points ahead of Stoke City as I write this piece and guaranteed a play-off spot comfortably. And with a lesser squad of players than a few below them arguably. And that old chestnut, of how the revolving door that is Watford, with its turnover of coaches, still competes effectively at the top end of the Championship, and for decent periods of time, in the middle reaches of the Premier League. They are an example perhaps of a successful yo-yo team, which I suspect is part of their thinking. They are not the basket case some supporters seem to think they are. They just do it very differently.

So, back to MON and some recent comments that provide some fascinating insights to the way things are managed at Stoke City. Firstly, after the recent Coventry defeat, MON repeated his view that his hands are tied until contracts are up in the summer of 2022. With the pressure of FFP that still hangs heavy over the club, it’s certainly not an unreasonable, or indeed unpopular, view. These contracts are a burden and stop him operating as freely in the transfer market as he might want. Team re-building is primarily focused on the exciting young crop of players coming through, the best for many seasons, and on out of contract players. When money allows, we have seen a punt on a young player from a lower league. The loan market is the final component, though this has been impacted by Covid as Premier League clubs hold on to players who might previously have been sent out to the second tier for experience. There is stiff competition for those that are made available. For each one, there are at least half a dozen clubs trying to secure their services. Next season will be no different.

In his following press conference, ahead of the Nottingham Forest game, the scope of the manager’s job was discussed. From what MON said, it’s wide-ranging, looking after everything from player welfare, to managing a large team of people, including medical staff and performance analysts. It’s also clear he has a big influence on recruitment and creating a pathway from the Academy, though his preference is for a Souttar-type loan before being ready for the first team. He said in response to a question over player mental health. “It’s a big part of management. It’s not just about picking the team and the how the team plays. That’s Championship Manager. There’s more to it than that. I have to deal with a lot of staff and support staff and the players as well”.

It seems like he has a lot on his plate and the appointment of a new Assistant Manager, Dean Holden, suggests the need to give him more support, specifically in the area of young player development.

Stoke City has always favoured a Team Manager, rather than a continental-style coach. Whilst I’m not a sports coach, I am a qualified business and personal coach and passionately believe great coaching can be the key to unlocking performance and potential. The roots of my coaching are not dissimilar, with the world of positive psychology underpinning much of my work as well as sports psychology. Indeed, many of the corporate coaching models begun life in sport, shaped by people like Timothy Gallwey and John Whitmore, and influenced more recently by sports psychologists such as Damian Hughes and Steve Peters. My favourite coach is Vince Lombardi. All coaching needs time and space, and I had to go freelance to focus on my coaching.

As in football, senior leaders in the corporate world are often spread too thinly. It’s often the development of people that suffers as operational issues dominate their time and effort, as well as managing the politics. At SCFC, the only thing that’s changed is just how much control the First Team Manager has over other activities. Under Tony Pulis for example, in his first few years, there seemed to be total control over every aspect. Then, in 2012, that dynamic shifted with the appointment of a Mark Cartwright. Now Cartwright has gone and been replaced by the less visible but highly-rated Alex Aldridge, it will be interesting to see whether MON re-engineers the Manager’s role. Time will tell.      

In my last piece I discussed the different models employed at the top 6 clubs. With the exception of Bournemouth, all those clubs have a Head Coach focused solely on first team performance. Norwich, for example, have all other support functions reporting through their Sporting Director, allowing Daniel Farke to focus on getting the team playing. So, whilst Michael O’Neil is right to say that being a Manager these days covers a lot of areas, not every club has a Manager. It’s like comparing apples with oranges. Different horses for different courses.

The question is not whether we have the right horse necessarily. MON is a very good manager. It’s whether we have the right course. What is even more interesting is that 3 of the top 6 have changed the Manager/Head Coach at some point in the season, for different reasons. Same group of players, different voice. Bournemouth took some time to regain their place in the top 6 under Jonathan Woodgate, but a late surge has seen them secure a play-off spot in decent form. They are in transition though since the departure of the all-powerful Eddie Howe.

Watford are, well, Watford. As they have done many times before, they changed things up with a new Head Coach, Xisco Munoz, taking over just before Christmas. He bought with him an Assistant Coach and a Fitness Coach. Everything else stayed the same. His job is solely to coach the first team. He has an interesting background too, coaching in Tbilisi and indifferent clubs across Spain. Not a household name at all, chosen simply as a coach. Same players, and he’ll be handed a few more no doubt next season to mould into the Watford way.

Back to Barnsley then…..

When Valerian Ismael took over from USA-bound Gerhard Struber in October last year, I had never heard of him despite the fact he had played a season at Crystal Palace back in the late 90’s. He had coached mainly at Wolfsburg B and Wolfsburg first team, before a successful spell at LASK in Austria. A left-field appointment, he has been hugely successful at improving performance, aided by one coach who he brought with him to work alongside the existing group. His focus was purely on first team performance, and with a win rate of 62.5%, almost identical to his 12 months previously at LASK, what a job he has done.

My instinct is that neither Ismael nor Munoz will have particularly long careers at their current clubs. That seems to be the pain in the model. They deliver success, or they go. It would be unlikely that either employer would have the patience for a run like we have had since the turn of the year. That’s not to judge MON, merely make a comparison. Brentford seem to be trying to ride both horses, a continental system and stability. It will be interesting to see though if Thomas Frank will survive another play-off disappointment. MON himself has talked about the unforgiving nature of the league. It looks like the next 12 months will be more of the same regards the squad transition, waiting for players to go. It will be another relentless year.

If MON can’t get the players he wants, then he will need to focus on getting a tune from this group. He and his coaches will need to improve performance. If MON is indeed the right horse, the club may need to help him find the right course. That may mean better coaches to support him or providing more time and space for him to work with his existing team and the players, to be creative. This season, with midweek games, quick turnarounds, injuries and without crowds, it’s unfair to judge. Next season will be different and the time to see if the SCFC management model can start to work again to deliver sustainable performance improvement. If not, there may need to be some fresh thinking.