Patience is a virtue, or so we’re told, and particularly in club chairmen. When yet another manager gets the quick axe, we nod sagely, tut-tut about how cruel modern football is, and go back to our television screens to watch it happen again.
But sometimes patience isn’t quite what the doctor ordered. When Bob Bradley was terminated after only 11 games at Swansea City, the board were praised for decisive action, and after Paul Clement came in, the club stayed up. When Frank de Boer was dispensed with after only four matches, Crystal Palace were laughed at long and loud, but under Roy Hodgson they’re steaming towards a likely mid-table finish.
Which brings us to the curious case of Mark Hughes, former manager of Stoke City. Although Potters fans have a well-earned reputation for (here’s the word again) patience, supporter discontent was building as early as March of last year. Although results weren’t disastrous, the fans could see the side was regressing, and as Stoke dropped from 9th to 14th, with only eight points from their last eight matches, calls for the sack increased.
But nothing happened, because Peter Coates, the chairman of Stoke City, also has a well-earned reputation for patience. Hughes had delivered three good seasons and only one bad, and there was never the slightest hint that he would lose his job. It was business as usual in the summer, although by and large the transactions were solid rather than inspiring.
Good early results against Arsenal and Manchester United offered some hope. Not long afterwards, though, it became abundantly clear that things weren’t going to turn around. The Hughes of 2017/18 was the same as the Hughes of 2016/17, only worse. The sharp-bladed instrument has finally fallen, Stoke are in the relegation places, and have just suffered one of many humiliating recent cup defeats.
Hughes is the seventh Premier League manager to lose his job this season, and about the three millionth in football history. But his story, if hardly unique, is somewhat unusual these days, because he was kept for some time in a job he was no longer performing well. Patience is a virtue, except when it isn’t.
In this case it left the club in a rough spot, which they may or may not be able to extricate themselves from. But it also left the manager in a rough spot, and that matters too. Because if Hughes had been dismissed by the end of last season, he’d have been spared the plight of being in a very public job that he could no longer perform.
‘So what?’ you may reply. He knew the job was dangerous when he took it, and at just short of £1m a year, he should have been able to take the rough with the smooth. Yes, but criticism is one thing, prolonged embarrassing exposure another. Football managers have their pride, and just about anyone would have started to wobble under the glare.
As it happened, Hughes didn’t just wobble, he tipped over. He never took responsibility for results, and given a few more weeks would probably have blamed the NHS crisis and/or the return of blue passports (Daniel Storey and Matt Stead skewered this nicely in 16 FA Cup Conclusions). He stormed out of press conferences, made absurd claims about how well things were going, and topped it off by saying the cup loss to a League Two side was a good thing, because…well, let’s not make it worse on the man.
In fact, things are already worse, not just emotionally but practically. Had he been sacked at the end of last season, it would have been just another firing, and he might already have a new job, perhaps at one of those other six Premier League clubs. But having been ruthlessly exposed, and having reacted so poorly, he’s less likely to get a new top-flight position.
As a species, football managers tend not to attract a great deal of sympathy. Many of their wounds are self-inflicted, and it’s hard to be a good manager without a little bit of arrogance, which can be hard to conceal. Managers usually get the most compassion when they’re sacked too soon.
But when the next club hands out an early P45, remember Mark Hughes, the manager who was sacked too late. Kindness is a virtue too, and as Shakespeare and Nick Lowe informed us, sometimes to be kind you have to be cruel — and maybe also impatient.