“If a chairman sacks the manager he initially appointed, he should go as well.”
We should be careful of taking Brian Clough quotes in anything other than the timing and pointed context in which they were made, but his point is still valid. There exists a glass ceiling of accountability within every football club. Players are dropped or sold, managers are sacked and whole strategies are torn up. Those at the top stay largely untouched. If the buck is continuously passed around, it rarely stops at the door of the chairman or owner’s office.
If reports are to be believed, Frank de Boer has one game to save his job at Crystal Palace. Lose at Burnley, and his reign as manager could be over fewer than 80 days after his appointment. That would make this the third shortest reign of any permanent manager in Premier League history, after Les Reed at Charlton Athletic and Rene Meulensteen at Fulham.
There is no disputing that Crystal Palace were dreadful in August. De Boer’s team have failed to pick up a Premier League point or even score a goal, and their defending has been haphazard. There have been media leaks about the squad’s difficulty in adapting to the new manager’s tactics, and Palace’s performances reflect those misgivings. It is, to be Frank, a mess.
There is also plenty to be admired in a club admitting its mistake and moving quickly to rectify the situation. Hull City sacked Mike Phelan 165 days into his reign last season, but Marco Silva had insufficient time to turn Hull’s ship away from the iceberg of relegation.
Yet Clough’s old argument still rings true. If you are sacking any manager after four matches in charge, you have failed as much as they have.
“It is about what direction we want to go in from a playing style,” Palace chairman Steve Parish said in an interview with SiriusXM in June, before De Boer’s appointment. “We have got a personnel and a way of playing. It has served us well. Do we try and change that again?”
The emphatic answer from the club was ‘yes’. It is possible to find two more different footballing styles than those proffered by De Boer and Sam Allardyce, but you would have to set aside a morning for the job. One is English, a proud pragmatist and inspirer of men. The other is a child of Ajax, schooled in Totaalvoetbal and a tactical purist. De Boer was the most high-profile coach Palace could have hoped for, but if what Parish craved was continuity, he had his head turned by the shiny name.
“We really want somebody who feels they can come in and help us improve the footballing side of the club over a long period of time,” continued Parish in that interview. “That is what we are looking for.” Eighty days doesn’t quite count as an era, even within a culture of impatience and brief concentration spans.
Parish must learn that long-termism is not a potential destination but a process, a rule to live by rather than an aspiration. Long-termism is about trust and faith in a manager, but also about picking the right guy in the first place.
It is also about giving the manager the tools to succeed in his job, and it is here where Palace have truly failed De Boer. It’s one thing appointing a manager with the opposite playing style and outlook to his predecessor – despite saying that you wouldn’t – but another thing entirely to do that and then fail to back him in the transfer market.
“I had a good feeling about the club and the prospect of managing a team in the Premier League was exciting,” said De Boer at his unveiling. “This club can grow further and further. They spend a lot of money and there is the possibility to do something well with that money.”
Alan Pardew spent close to £100m in 23 months in charge. Allardyce recruited four players in January on permanent deals for around £35m. Parish spoke of long-termism and then allowed De Boer to bring in two loan players, a 20-year-old defender for £8m and made the permanent signing of a defender who had already been at the club on loan under De Boer’s predecessor. That is a spectacular misjudgement on Palace’s part. As ever, the manager will pay the price.
Parish has done a superb job since saving Palace from potential liquidation in 2010 by re-establishing them as a Premier League club; that cannot be doubted. Yet a long-term manager achieving sustainable progression remains out of his reach.
Under Parish’s stewardship, Palace have gone through eight permanent managers and three different caretakers in seven years. None have lasted longer than 90 matches and, of those 20 shortest Premier League reigns, Parish will account for three if De Boer is sacked. Each new coach has new ideas and brings a new list of transfer targets.
“In the past we have had managers like Steve Coppell who have been at the club a long time and helped build the club,” Paris said. “If we could get one of those relationships again that would be preferable.”
Good intentions are not to be dismissed lightly, but Parish must realise that those relationships do not just land in your lap; they are nurtured. Stability doesn’t come from the bottom up, but the top down. Palace’s long-term serenity can only be realised when their chairman sets the right tone.