It is known as one of the safest jobs in the game. The previous incumbent had been there fifteen years. Yet, a mere fifteen games into his tenure at Charlton Athletic, Ian Dowie is sacked. His precipitous departure informs us of the pressures a new manager faces when replacing someone who has helped define a football club’s culture, its DNA.
The next coach of Crewe Alexandra or Manchester United would face similar difficulties: the longer a manager serves a football club, the tougher it is for their replacement to shape it in their own image. Longevity is not, of itself, a virtue, but so many customs and practices become ingrained in the club infrastructure that to alter one thing has a domino effect which can impact so much else. And increases the risk of creating disharmony.
If the new incumbent is a strong minded individual, not a mere puppet, with his own methodologies, then the challenge is doubly difficult. The temptation is to make a mark straight away. Show that you are your own man. In fifteen years, Alan Curbishley will have established an ethos at Charlton. This is the way we do things around here. Players will be comfortable with both the mores and their role in the scheme of things. Change is a threat to that status quo. Ian Dowie’s ‘modern’ approach, his academic qualifications, his embracing of sports science and psychology, may be seen as a burden rather than a boon.
The Change Of Psychology…
At The Valley, rumours of dressing room unrest and disquiet amongst senior players abound. It has echoes of Paul Sturrock’s departure from his job at Southampton, where Premiership players seemed closed to the psychology that served Sturrock so well at Plymouth. Do certain systems serve Championship players well, but are antipathetic to Premiership players?
Clearly, Dowie is a bright, competent and innovative manager. His work with Crystal Palace showed us there is intellectual vigour to meld with pragmatism, tactical acumen and a balanced overall strategy, all of which would, however, take a long time to implement in a new environment. The paradox, of course, is that you are expected to provide instant success.
So, what are the challenges a manager with a change agenda faces and how can he best deal with them? Whilst it is tempting to launch into immediate transformation, it is better to start slowly. The first few months are a time of assessment and balance. Tread carefully. It is essential to listen to the language of the incumbents. Assess behaviours.
Initially, make the status quo your default mode, then introduce small changes, simple routines. Be patient. This doesn’t make you weak. It’s simply a long-term strategy. The first nine months, a gestation period, are a time of assessment for the players as well. They need to feel comfortable with the new way of doing things. Make them appreciate what you are trying to achieve, make it comprehensible. When you have their trust, then agreement can follow.
Also, it is critical to get what in known in sports psychology parlance as ‘the cultural leaders’ on your side. They will be strong-minded and influential and might undermine your authority if you show weakness or undue diffidence. This is why, generally, it is good practice to bring in your own team, but ensure they don’t exacerbate divisions. Together, these are the people who help define the new club. The ones the others look up to. If necessary give them a specific role. You might, for example, want to change the club captain. Give them some responsibility for the work environment. Alienate them and you start to lose the dressing room.
The Sports Psychology Summary…
For the strong-minded new manager building his own future, this transition can be difficult. For the club, it will be a project for a new direction. He will be hired to bring about change and improvement. But that brings its own dangers, particularly from those who fear for their careers or want instant results. And he will want to show he is making a difference.
When a club culture is brittle, when success has been elusive, then it is straightforward for a new manager to come and create a positive, winning outlook. He will be welcomed. But when a club has a well-defined status and structure, change can seem like a threat. Thus, the wise new manager learns that strength can come from what you won’t do, not what you will do.