Bournemouth replacing O’Neil with Iraola is brutal and ruthless but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong

Dave Tickner
Reported Leeds target Andoni Iraola

Bournemouth’s decision to sack Gary O’Neil and replace him with Andoni Iraola is many things. Harsh. Ruthless. Absolutely brutal.

But none of that means it is bad. Or, as Oliver Holt put it in the Mail, ‘bizarre’. We’ll admit to being caught off-guard when O’Neil’s departure was announced and just a couple of hours later Iraola’s appointment was confirmed.

It’s tough but actually pretty understandable. O’Neil was only ever meant to be a caretaker; he overperformed in that job and earned a permanent deal. After serious struggles, he then delivered Bournemouth pretty comfortably to safety, which is a notable achievement of which he should remain rightly proud.

But are we really sure what O’Neil achieved last season was destined to translate to further success and further progress next season? It’s not guaranteed, is it? O’Neil’s entire managerial experience amounts to 37 games of football. Iraola has over 200 games, the last 76 of them in La Liga with Rayo Vallecano, who he guided to back-to-back mid-table finishes before his departure.

By any sensible dispassionate assessment, he is an upgrade. You can disagree with it, you don’t have to like it, but you have to at least acknowledge there is a plan and some sanity behind it.

The obvious parallel here is a decade ago just along the south coast at Southampton, with their similarly ruthless removal of double-promotion-securing Nigel Adkins in favour of the distinctly foreign Mauricio Pochettino. Adkins, with far more experience than O’Neil, had more reason to feel aggrieved but it would be hard to argue the Saints got that one wrong.

There’s something curious at work here. Part of it is the usual thing with English managers and their mythical lack of opportunities, but it’s mainly just a manager thing. This concept doesn’t exist with players. The idea that it would be unfair to upgrade an adequately performing player when the opportunity arose just doesn’t exist.

Partly of course because that usurped player can still have a role, perhaps as a late substitute here and there, or in the Carabao. You can’t really keep a manager on for Carabao games, although now we’ve mentioned it we’ve instantly decided we would very much like someone to do so.

There’s always a ‘careful what you wish for’ style conservatism to this kind of managerial change. And there is no guarantee it will work. But there’s also no guarantee O’Neil could maintain last year’s level, let alone improve, which is clearly the ambition of the club.

To go back to Holt for a moment, his claim that ‘Bournemouth were already on a sharp upward trajectory under O’Neil’ in a transparently blatant attempt to pre-emptively undermine any success Iraola may enjoy is laughable. They lost their last four games of the season, for one thing.

And you don’t need to feel too sorry for O’Neil either. He was handed an unexpected opportunity and took it. He will continue to feel the benefit. He will get another chance. He leaves Bournemouth with a newly minted coaching reputation untainted by failure. Far better this than finding himself back on the job market in September after another thrashing at Anfield.

After losing his job at Southampton, Adkins had to wait two whole months for another Premier League job to come along at Reading. It was a bit shit, but that’s also kind of the point. If Southampton had been wrong to sack him, it wouldn’t have been shit. And nor would his subsequent spell at then League One Sheffield United. He wasn’t left on the scrapheap by Southampton’s ruthlessness. He had chances to prove them wrong. If Bournemouth are wrong now, O’Neil will also prove that at his next opportunity.

The Cherries have taken a huge gamble, there is no doubt about it. But it can’t sensibly said they have thrown away a guaranteed surefire survival option. They’ve upgraded a rookie manager for a highly-rated manager from Spain with far more experience.

It also hasn’t come entirely from nowhere. Iraola was in the frame for the permanent job before O’Neil’s caretaker run rendered it moot in the short term. In hindsight, it’s not hard to see it now as a plan pragmatically delayed rather than abandoned.

Iraola will be under intense pressure from the start because of the nature of his appointment, and appears a sensible enough sort to be aware of this. But he is not on the hiding to nothing some suggest. Bournemouth could very easily have crumbled to relegation in a Premier League that is only going to be harder still this season; they may still do so, but the odds of something rather better have now surely improved.

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