For a little over a month this last winter Crystal Palace did not have a manager. Eight games into the season, they had lost seven times. Their manager, Ian Holloway, a man generally enthusiastic enough to look on the bright side of a thunderstorm, had thrown in the towel. Holloway more or less admitted that he didn’t know what to do, and that the scale of the job in front of him was overwhelming. He was very well liked, but Holloway’s team felt chaotic and Palace knew that in order to give themselves any chance of salvation they needed to find someone to whip them into shape. Fast.
But the interesting thing was that Palace ended up taking their time. Finding (and persuading) the right man to take over a team that almost everyone thought would be relegated was daunting. It took Palace a month — an age in the fast-moving, instant-judgement world of football — to reach an accord with Tony Pulis, and another week until he actually picked the team. Palace had picked up slightly under their amiable caretaker boss, Keith Millen, but there was still a mountain range ahead.
Yet here we are. Even though Brendan Rodgers is currently the favorite to win manager of the year for Liverpool’s upsurge, the unexpected turnaround inspired by Pulis makes him a contender with huge merit. Palace have found an identity, a style, a collective motivation, and they have inched away from the dreaded trapdoor. This weekend Palace were overjoyed to follow up their euphoric win over Chelsea with a comprehensive victory at Cardiff. Another three points sees them swimming in calmer waters, clear of the relegation squalls. They are not yet mathematically safe, but no one is talking about doomsday at Palace any longer.
Not so further down the table, where brave faces are meeting stiff realities. Cardiff’s Ole Gunnar Solskjaer spoke only in terms of needing “miracles” after his side was gazumped. Gus Poyet at Sunderland admitted he had toyed with looking at some pre-season arrangements for the Championship before pulling himself together to think positively. (Well, if Poyet doesn’t, how can he expect it from anybody else?) West Brom’s Pepe Mel bracingly confessed he doesn’t know if he will still be the club’s manager or not next season – and mind you, Mel won on Saturday.
On Sunday night, Norwich fired Chris Hughton. With only five games to go (and the last four are dauntingly against Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal), the timing might seem a little weird. But as the stakes have become increasingly desperate. The Canaries, losers at home against WBA, have become increasingly unconvincing, and the board’s statement that they “had no choice to act” is understandable.
Norwich are in the midst of a run of three games against fellow strugglers, and they have lost two out of three. Neil Adams, the coach of their youth team, has been promoted to try to bring a fresh voice to preparation for next weekend’s showdown at Fulham. If the Cottagers win they will be breathing down Norwich’s necks and Felix Magath may indeed pull off what would be a great escape.
All of seven of the Premier League’s bottom clubs have changed managers this season. The heat is felt so intensely in that zone, owing in part to the fact that the financial drop between the top flight and the Championship is round about $136 million. Clubs are pushed into panic sackings, because the price of failure is too frightening to contemplate.
A graph started doing the rounds soon after Norwich’s announcement, with the list of Premier League managers ranked according to their length of service. It’s risible, really. There, having lapped everyone several times over, at number one is Arsene Wenger, with 6,392 days. Alan Pardew and Sam Allardyce both make it over the 1,000 mark. But only seven managers have been in position for more than this season alone. Stoke City’s Mark Hughes, the earliest of the batch of new appointments last summer, is at number eight, just ahead of Jose Mourinho and Manuel Pellegrini. The fact they are top half of the list shows just how jittery and trigger-happy an environment the Premier League now is.
Hughton is the 9th manager to be removed from this position this season. One more, if it comes before the final game of the campaign, would mean half the clubs ending the season with a different face in the dugout. On the occasions it works — such as promises to be the case for Crystal Palace and Pulis — it’s well worth all the turbulence. But no matter what, it is not going to have worked for the relegated three. That’s not exactly a sensational advert for instability.