The rise and fall of the football gurus

Words By Richard Jolly Image by Offside
January 4, 2018

They chose the 27th minute to denote the number of people in the consortium whose takeover has been a footballing failure. They wanted Huw Jenkins to go. The Swansea chairman had already acknowledged that his position as chairman will be untenable if they are relegated. Which, after Tuesday’s defeat to Tottenham when the fans called for his head, seems more likely than ever.

Jenkins’ tumbling popularity ratings reflects Swansea’s demise from role models to crisis club. Until recently, ‘doing a Swansea’ seemed the objective for around 30 or 40 clubs outside the handful of the biggest; it was a byword for being well run, for playing fine football with a distinct style of play, for appointing the right manager, for buying astutely and cheaply, often in overlooked markets, for forming a bond between supporters and club. Soon after, ‘doing a Southampton’ became an aspiration. With Saints only out of the drop zone on goal difference and veering from overachievers to underachievers, executive director Les Reed may not be held up an example of how to run a provincial club for much longer either.

Because these days, unlike a dozen years ago, no one wants to ‘do a Bolton’ or ‘do a Charlton’ either. The changing reputation of Jenkins, a man awarded an OBE in 2015 for services to sport in Wales, may not have tumbled as far as Peter Ridsdale’s did or Phil Gartside’s when he left Bolton £170 million in debt and headed for League One, but there are parallels with powerbrokers past and present who, it seemed, could do no wrong, until they reached a point where they could do no right. Take Steve Walsh: after Everton spent £140 million to regress in the summer, the idea that their director of football, whose spending helped Leicester win the title, had found a superior way of operating in the transfer market has taken a similar hit.

Meanwhile, the notion that Jenkins had alighted on a strategy that others should copy has been dented. A sale to American investors who have not provided any funds for transfers has backfired. Swansea’s last four managers have been Francesco Guidolin, Bob Bradley, Paul Clement and Carlos Carvalhal. Try finding a common denominator there, or a coherent strategy. Andre Ayew was not replaced when he was sold. Nor, 12 months later, was Gylfi Sigurdsson. Swansea’s squad lacks a No. 10, high-class wingers or adequate cover in defence but features a surfeit of central midfielders. Some £15 million was squandered on Borja Baston. Roque Mesa, Renato Sanches, Alberto Paloschi, Eder and Franck Tabanou account for the best part of £40 million between them. Whereas once the poor buys were overlooked, now the successes, such as Alfie Mawson, are deemed the anomalies.

Ridsdale, by the way, is now doing an excellent job in a lower-profile role as the advisor to the chairman at Preston, but he will never again he celebrated as he was in a heady time at Leeds. Both praise and criticism of him have been exaggerated. Like Jenkins, however, he highlights a comparatively new phenomenon.

Call it guru syndrome, or an attempt to create footballing versions of Billy Beane, but there is a search for supposedly omniscient influencers, masterminds behind the scenes who can transform football administration and clubs; they appeal to those looking for an intellectual answer to a sometimes anti-intellectual sport. It is part of an attempt to take analysis beyond the simplistic cults surrounding players and managers, a belief that there must be a deeper formula, a blueprint that combines strategic nous, leftfield thinking and professional rigour. It was supposed to bring a level of long-term planning that was an antidote to the sport’s culture of kneejerk reactions and got past the old-fashioned concept of the manager as a dictator, instead installing him in a structure that combined business practices with sporting knowledge.

Which is all well and good, but in the process those held up as exemplars tend to be overhyped and flawed decision-making can mean their model looks as imperfect as any other. It is undeniable that Jenkins did a genuinely good job for years. It is also true that his, and his counterparts’, influence is indirect, so they are reliant on others, particularly players and managers, and Swansea’s recruitment of both, so good for several seasons, has been poor of late.

The precarious nature of Premier League survival renders their job tougher. One misjudged managerial appointment or one bad transfer window can send a club spiralling downhill in a way Beane never experienced in Oakland’s fallow periods and losing seasons. Perhaps it is simpler to say that football is cyclical and no one over-performs forever, there is no failsafe formula and that Jenkins is a case in point of directors whose judgment was excellent at times and abject at others, rather than a genius who has revolutionised his role.

Or perhaps another will be crowned the new guru; someone such as Mike Garlick, who has done a fine job as Burnley chairman, largely due to appointing Sean Dyche manager and letting him run the club, and everyone else will be urged to ‘do a Burnley’ and ‘the Swansea way’ will be synonym for a warning, not a path to follow as the cycle simply repeats itself.

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