The managerial merry-go-round has been spinning faster than usual this season, and the latest man to jump on is Aston Villa incumbent Dean Smith. His team’s 4-1 defeat against West Ham United was Villa’s fourth consecutive defeat, a period which has seen their form suddenly fall off a cliff following a 1-0 win against Manchester United at Old Trafford.
They’ve conceded 12 goals in these four games and have put in some truly bizarre performances during this period, including throwing away a two-goal lead in the final ten minutes against Wolves, a disjointed mess at Arsenal and the home defeat against West Ham, which seemed to work best as a precis of their shortcomings over those previous three matches.
So it is that Smith joins the ‘precarious’ list of football managers, and the bar for joining this group is getting lower and lower. Three Premier League managers, one of whom was only hired during the summer, have already lost their jobs so far this season, and only three – Sean Dyche, Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp – have been in their positions for more than five years.
It’s tempting to see this as a form of football ‘madness’, of proof of the volatile times in which we live. The 24-hour news media cycle, social media and the increasingly forensic way in which the game is analysed mean that every single match is now a potential flashpoint. When a club’s form, whether good or bad, doesn’t grab all the headlines, that club is considered to have flown ‘under the radar’, and the amount of time for which this is even possible has now been reduced to weeks, or even days.
But there is an alternative way of looking at this, which is that the growing impatience with managers who go a few games without victory is really little more than the continuing evolution of a role that has changed beyond recognition from its earliest incarnation, and which may in the future even become redundant.
Ironically, Aston Villa is the very club at which the position of the ‘manager’ was first created. When the FA permitted professionalism for the first time in 1885, Aston Villa decided to bring in somebody to better manage the playing side of the club’s affairs with this advert, in a local newspaper:
‘Wanted: manager for Aston Villa Football Club, who will be required to devote his whole time under direction of the committee. Salary £100 per annum. Applications with reference must be made not later than June 23rd to Chairman of the Committee, Aston Villa Club House, 6 Witton Road, Aston’
After receiving 150 applications, the position was taken by George Ramsay, a Scot who had joined the club as a player a decade earlier but who had been forced to stop playing through injury in 1882 and had been acting as the club secretary. But the position of ‘manager’ was unrecognisable to today. Ramsay continued to be called the ‘secretary’ and was primarily responsible for the club’s administrative affairs, with team selection being decided by the directors of the club.
As time has progressed, the position of ‘manager’ has evolved. At Northampton Town, Leeds City, Huddersfield Town and Arsenal, Herbert Chapman developed the game’s first tactical systems and merged the managerial position closer to coaching, but the influence of directors and committees on team affairs persisted. As late as the 1962 World Cup, Walter Winterbottom was the coach of the England national team, but the final decision over who played was taken by the FA’s ‘selection committee’. Ending this archaic practice was one of Alf Ramsey’s conditions for accepting the job for the 1966 World Cup finals.
The evolution of the football ‘manager’ has continued to evolve to a point at which that very name is starting to sound archaic. Sporting directors and directors of football now take the role of the general manager, while there has been a growing tendency to call the individual who we consider to be the manager the ‘head coach’, as they ordinarily are in Europe. And it’s not difficult to imagine a future in which the position that springs to mind when we think of the ‘football manager’ is effectively redundant, with coaches working on a freelance basis to solve specific issues, such as avoiding relegation or qualifying for the Champions League.
So should Dean Smith leave Aston Villa in the near future, his fate may be emblematic of the perpetual state of change within the game itself rather any personal shortcomings on his part. Across the Premier League and the EFL at present, there are six managers who’ve been in their positions for more than five years and 11 who’ve been in place for a month or less.
Even allowing for the fact that autumn usually sees something of a glut of managerial changes, this hints at the increasing transience of the position, and it’s entirely plausible that fans have adjusted to this change better than some of us in the media, who sometimes act as though fans who are calling for a manager’s head are little better than barbarians living in a perpetual state of bloodlust.
George Ramsey stayed in the role with Aston Villa until 1926, before retiring and taking the positions of honorary advisor and vice-president of the club after almost 42 years. It’s not completely inconceivable that the days of the very long-serving manager aren’t quite dead. Sir Alex Ferguson stayed at Manchester United for more than 26 years, and only retired in 2013. But such managers have been outliers for decades, even though average tenure of a manager has fallen from just over seven years in 1947 to just over one year now.
At Aston Villa, expectations are high. The club has targeted qualifying for Europe as the next stage in their growth since returning to the Premier League in 2019, and losing successively to Spurs, Wolves, Arsenal and West Ham – all clubs with whom they might be considered to be directly competing with – is both a symbolic and literal dent to those ambitions.
The fact that Smith has lasted even three years before the clamour for his exit has become too loud to ignore is starting to sound more remarkable that the fact that his future is being discussed now. At some point we shall stop being surprised.