Would it come as a surprise if you were managing a small team of people in a large, multi-million pound company who had performed very poorly this year, so the owners decided to fire you? Probably not. What if they then re-hired you that very same evening, immediately after having informed all interested parties of the fact that your performance was unsatisfactory? Is it fair to say you might have a job on your hands motivating and inspiring your beleaguered staff?
Reports suggest that this is the precise scenario Leicester City manager Nigel Pearson was subject to on Sunday 8th February. Football management is, at the very best of times, an uncertain and unstable profession. This is illustrated by the fact that, behind the exception to the rule that is Arsene Wenger, the longest serving manager in the Premier League is Sam Allardyce at just over three years. Players in the modern era know that their managers are likely to have a limited lifespan at their club, so getting a group of privileged and often disillusioned players to buy into your philosophy and tactics, and put their all into playing for you is difficult enough. When the manager has actually been sacked and then re-instated and given the perilous ‘vote of confidence’, it becomes nigh on impossible.
This scatter-gun approach to hiring and firing seems to have pervaded Western civilisation in the last decade, where TV shows like The Apprentice try to convince us that Donald Trump has become a successful billionaire tyrant by having his employees work in near-impossible circumstances, and then sacking the majority of his work force having humiliated them and comprehensively destroyed their self-esteem. Unfortunately, the majority of Premier League clubs are now run on the same basis – encounter a difficulty, sack the man in charge at the first sign of trouble, pay out their extortionate compensation package, and bring in a new man to inherit the same problems. It is vital that a newly promoted club like Leicester does not operate like this – the clubs that have stabilised in the division are not prone to such panic stricken antics. Swansea City are a club of comparable stature and revenue, and they have successfully stabilised in the top half of the league. They have a defined style, continuity of personnel, and despite the enforced management changes from Brendan Rodgers to Michael Laudrup to Gary Monk, they have continued their progression as a club. This is down to the sensible decision making of those running the club. The same goes for Stoke City, Southampton and West Ham United. Each of those clubs have encountered difficult spells in the last few seasons, but have not made hasty and ill-advised decisions on the sacking of managers, and where change has been necessary or forced, they have been able to keep the momentum going. This sort of continuity provides an environment where the players can buy into the ethos of the club and where it is going and inevitably leads to better performance.
Leicester was purchased by the easily-pronounceable Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha in August 2010. He is reportedly the 11th richest man in Thailand and the founder of King Power Duty Free. They sponsor Leicester and are responsible for re-naming the stadium, despite the King Power brand not being based anywhere in England.
Reports suggest that Srivaddhanaprabha pulled the trigger on Pearson during a phone conversation with him following the 1-0 home defeat to Crystal Palace, only to be talked around to retaining his services by his son Aiyawatt, who is more heavily involved in the running of the club. An attempt to smooth this ‘misunderstanding’ over in the media then ensued, but in Pearson’s own words: “In an ideal world I would rather the story not be out there but it is out there and I have to deal with it”.
So where does this leave Leicester? The literal answer makes for bleak reading, as they are four points adrift from safety. The firing and re-hiring of Pearson was farcical in how it was handled, however, when you are managing the club at the foot of the table after 26 games, your position is always going to be under threat. A cynical view would be that his services were retained due to a lack of viable alternatives.
Pearson is clearly a good manager, and partially a victim of his own success. By gaining promotion last season, he was always likely to face a difficult season in the top-flight, and finishing 17th would be deemed a success. He could point to a number of positive indicators, despite their position Leicester have competed well in the division. They have lost 16 league games this season, but nine of those defeats were by just one goal, and no side has beaten them by more than two clear goals. To watch the side, they play well and generally, despite the above narrative, play with spirit and togetherness. He has also had a tight budget to work with and has only spent heavily on two players, Leonardo Ulloa at £8 million and Andrej Kramaric at £9 million. Both have had an impact and could yet score some vital goals.
Conversely, there are signs of mental fragility and a lack of cutting edge. Far too often this season they have given up points from a winning or level positions, often late on in games. Last Sunday at Goodison Park represented a good analogy of their season. They went to a difficult ground, out-played their opponents, led until almost the last kick, but ultimately left with just one point when they badly needed three. You could call it bad luck, but when it happens as consistently as it has to Leicester this season, you have to start asking questions of the side and the buck stops with the manager.
In addition, Pearson has on a few occasions been his own worst enemy. Most notably, the touchline fracas he had on the day before his ‘sacking’ with James McArthur of Crystal Palace. In a completely bizarre incident, Pearson was accidentally knocked over by the player and was subsequently seen to have both hands round his neck, before refusing to let go of the baffled midfielder. The still images made the incident look worse than it was, but his post-match demeanour did nothing to endear him to the watching public or, presumably, his employer as his behaviour was more akin to a disgruntled WWE superstar than a 51-year-old football manager. Earlier in the season, he was also involved in an unsavoury spat with a fan, which caused some high-profile negative publicity.
At this point, Pearson appears set to see out the season as the manager of Leicester City. There is no question his job has been made needlessly more difficult by the club’s owners, who have undermined his position in such a way that it could only have a detrimental impact on the players, fans and club as a whole. Maybe there will be a late season resurgence, Leicester will retain their status as a Premier League club, reap the huge financial dividends, and Pearson’s reputation will be restored. More realistically, Leicester are going down and Pearson is making the best of a bad situation before he is shown the door at the end of the season, with the majority of his players will following him out. The owner’s intentions were unfortunately made very clear.
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