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Boards rarely get thanked for making tough decisions

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You can bet on one thing in the football merry go around – whenever a manager is sacked, someone will pipe up to say it is the players who got him the sack by not performing. It is a conclusion hard to resist after recent events at Chelsea, despite denials from the senior players led by John Terry.

Yet I wonder if we have not got this all wrong. It is fans, with their hunger for instant success and impatience at what looks like failure, that force boards to act. In the last week, we have even had Liverpool fans turning on Kenny Dalglish, the hero whose return to Anfield became such a clamour that it led to the sacking of Roy Hodgson last season.

I am particularly reminded of fan anger with managers and what can happen when boards resist them as I am writing this from Old Trafford. Indeed, I am sitting in the area built to celebrate the winning of the treble in 1999. The story of the twenty years of the Premiership is really the story of Manchester United. But what is often forgotten is there is also a crucial sub-story of a club sticking with a manager when everyone, particularly the Manchester United fans, wanted the manager to be sacked.

Sir Alex Ferguson will need no reminder of that. How, after three years, he had won nothing and as the accepted legend now goes, he had to win a FA Cup match against Nottingham Forest. He did, went on to win the FA Cup, his first trophy, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Yet that season in 1989, I remember coming to Old Trafford, not on a sunny day as it is as I write, but on the cold autumn night of 25 October. It was so long ago that Gascoigne and Lineker were still playing, and even more amazingly, Tottenham beat Manchester United 3-0 in the third round of the League Cup. But what was revealing was what happened during and after the match. Fans at the Stretford End were baying for Ferguson to be sacked, and with Martin Edwards refusing to accept their advice, they were prepared to get quite personal.

Sometime during the match, fans tried to get into the directors box and assault Edwards. This was then not an uncommon occurrence. The abuse had reached such a point that Edwards would often vacate the directors’ box and watch much of the match from high up in the main stand. In those days before the redevelopment, United had a little box that the announcers used just at the back of the stand, just near the door of the directors’ box. The last row of the stand was a bit of glass, about the size of a standard desk, it looked out on the pitch and Edwards used to go there to protect himself from irate fans. He had to do the same that evening.

Had Edwards decided to sack Ferguson at this stage, he could easily have turned the abuse around and become something of a hero with fans. This would have been hailed as the chairman having listened to the fans, the paying customers, for whom the football is played.

But Edwards would not hear of sacking Ferguson. As he would tell me later, “It was a tough time for us and there was a lot of pressure for us to do something. A lot of supporters and fans don’t always realise what’s going on in the background at a football club and we knew how hard Alex was working behind the scenes.”

Not that Manchester United fans gave Edwards any credit for that over the years. They continued to believe the axe was ready and would have fallen had Ferguson lost to Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup, although Edwards has always denied that was the case.

Since then, few boards have had the belief in their convictions than United displayed then. Much has changed, fans have more channels to display their power and sacking a manager is always an easy get out. However, this season, we may be seeing the first examples of some determination by boards to stick to their guns, even in the face of fan abuse. The obvious example of this has come from Blackburn and its owners’ decision to stay with Steve Kean, even when the chant was sack the Venky’s. And to an extent, the decision last season by Mike Ashley, owner of Newcastle, to appoint Alan Pardew despite being aware it would and did incur fan displeasure. Contrast this with what happened to Mick McCarthy at Wolves, where the owner gave in to fan pressure.

The moral is, fans may shout the loudest, but their opinion is fickle and not always right. A board that can resist them may in the long term do better than those that curry instant favour.

      

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