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[Archived] News Article -> The Sack Race

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On 29 September 1951, goals from Les Graham and Joe Harris earned the Rovers a 2–0 win over Notts County at Ewood Park. It was the tenth match of the season and prior to that game the Rovers had drawn 2 and lost 7 of their nine previous Second Division encounters. The following week the Rovers beat Everton at Goodison Park before embarking on another run of five successive defeats. After 16 games the playing record stood at won 2, drawn 2 and lost 12. Reason enough for instant dismissal of the manager you might think. But no, Jackie Bestall was allowed to continue, results improved, including a run of seven successive victories, and the Rovers finished six points clear of the relegation zone.

The record of Steve Kean since his unexpected promotion to the managerial position nearly a year ago has been similarly dismal, but history suggests getting sacked by Blackburn Rovers mid-season is no easy feat. When a manager has retained the confidence of his employers, he has been able to get away with indifferent results for perhaps longer than would be afforded him at other clubs. In this respect, Steve Kean is certainly not the first manager at Ewood Park to benefit from a patient and prudent approach that appreciates the value of long-term stability. What makes him unique in this regard, however, is that he has no managerial track record that his employers might have taken into account to allow him more time. Furthermore, for the first time in the club's history, the Rovers have embarked upon a poor run of results, lasting some ten months now, without any experienced administrators in the boardroom. There is no Bill Bancroft, Bill Fox or Jack Walker, who were lifelong supporters and for whom the club's well-being took precedence over their loyalty to a particular manager. There isn't even a John Williams, who, although not a lifelong fan, had become an adopted Blackburnian and had adopted the values of the men who had gone before him. Today we find ourselves in the hands of a family who, no matter how well-meaning, one suspects do not have the experience to deal with the situation that we now find ourselves in.

Historically, Blackburn Rovers have always shown reluctance to engage in mid-season managerial changes and have tended to favour a more conservative approach with regard to dismissals. Since the appointment of the first professional manager in February 1922, thirty men have held the position of manager at Ewood Park, yet only eight of them have been shown the door by the club once a season was underway. Of course, there have been managers who have taken matters into their own hands and tendered their resignations mid-season for a variety of reasons. Disputes between directors and managers led to the resignations of Bob Crompton, Arthur Barritt and Eddie Hapgood. Ill health accounted for Will Scott's decision to resign, while Jack Marshall ended his time at Ewood in February 1967 in the wake of a spate of transfer requests, a run of poor results and the imposition of an assistant manager who took charge of all coaching activities. Ray Harford, who had previously tendered his resignation on a couple of occasions, only to have it rejected by Jack Walker, finally resigned in October 1996 in the wake of a series of disappointing results. Others — Johnny Carey (first time around), Ken Furphy, Jim Smith and Graeme Souness — left during the season to take other jobs and, of course, Tony Parkes reverted to the role of assistant to allow Souness to become manager in March 2000. The most tragic mid-season change was brought about by the death of Bob Crompton in March 1941.

In the main the directors have waited until the close season before making changes, although several managers have, of course, been headhunted by other clubs during the summer months. Thus, the eight men sacked mid-season by those in the boardroom — Eddie Quigley, Jim Iley, Bob Saxton, Don Mackay, Roy Hodgson, Brian Kidd, Paul Ince and Sam Allardyce — are the select few, but do they have anything in common? At first glance one might assume that a poor run of results might be the answer, but that has not always been the case. Whilst there is no doubt that results have played a part, there are other factors which have come into play and which have sometimes taken precedence over results.

The dismissal of Sam Allardyce by Venky's is a perfect example of other factors. His results since becoming manager in December 2008 had been generally good. Having saved the club from what seemed certain relegation, he lifted the Rovers to a highly respectable tenth place finish in 2009–10. When Venky's chose to remove him in December 2010, he had taken twelve points from the previous seven matches. Not spectacular, maybe, but certainly nothing like Steve Kean, who has taken just four points from the first seven matches of this season.

While some fans expressed dissatisfaction with the style of football under Allardyce, few were concerned about results or had worries about relegation. Compare that scenario with the one we see today at Ewood Park. Now the clamour for a managerial change grows louder with each disappointing performance and the "fortress Ewood" mantra of Allardyce has become a distant memory. In its place organised demonstrations are becoming part of the matchday experience as the club remains entrenched in the relegation zone. Yet, while Allardyce was shown the door, Steve Kean enjoys a ringing endorsement from the owners, who believe he is doing a fine job.

Results per se are not always the deciding factor with regard to managers making an early exit at the behest of directors and owners. There must be other factors, and history at Ewood Park would suggest that retaining the confidence of those in the corridors of power is every bit as important as the exploits on the pitch or criticism from the terraces.

The relationship between manager and chairman/owner is unquestionably the most important one in any club. In the autumn of 1971 the Rovers found themselves in Division Three for the first time in the club's history and the first 15 games produced just three wins and three draws. Although the club was rooted to the foot of the table, there was never the faintest suggestion that Ken Furphy, who had become manager in July 1971, was under any pressure. He was given time to turn things around and stabilised a club that was seemingly in freefall. The key factor was that he retained the confidence of Bill Bancroft, the chairman and the man who had persuaded him to leave Watford and drop down a division to rebuild the Rovers. Furphy was a vastly experienced manager and this also helped persuade supporters to give him time to do a very difficult job. He had a proven track record in managerial terms which earned him the time to make the necessary changes.

The examples of Bestall and Furphy illlustrate how an experienced manager might be given more time if he has the confidence of his employers. Equally, the role of the employer is of vital importance in determining the fate of the manager. Until the arrival of Venky's, that role was taken by men who were steeped in the traditions of Blackburn Rovers. Men like Bill Bancroft, Bill Fox and Jack Walker were lifelong supporters of the club for whom the club was a way of life. Like Bancroft, Fox and Walker before him, Williams quickly came to appreciate that the club was far more important than any individual and its survival and well-being overrode all other factors.

Bancroft, Fox, Walker and Williams were nobody's soft touch. They were not men who would make decisions on the whim of the crowd. Indeed, Bancroft and Fox resolutely withstood pressure for some time from the supporters to axe Iley and Saxton respectively before they actually pulled the trigger. However, there had come a point when their personal loyalty to the manager had to take second place to the general well-being of the club.

Would any of these men have sacked Sam Allardyce in December 2010 and replaced him with Steve Kean? The answer, one suspects, would be a resounding "No". The fact that Venky's removed a manager whom they believed didn't fit their vision of the club and replaced him with a man with no previous managerial experience, despite decent credentials as a coach, could be said to have demonstrated a rather cavalier approach to the future well-being of the football club. The dismal results that have been achieved over the past ten months would suggest that, to date, the decision has been far from vindicated.

One might argue that Jack Walker dispensed with the services of Don Mackay in a similar fashion. Having taken control in January 1990, Walker supported Mackay during the latter part of the 1990–91 season as the club fought to stay in Division Two. Furthermore he made funds available during the summer of 1991 for the manager to strengthen the squad with the calibre of player who would help the club win promotion. Sadly, Mackay was not a name that could attract the type of player that Walker wanted and after the opening three league games of 1991–92, which brought just one point, Walker decided to make a change. However, he didn't gamble on the unknown but went for a management team he believed was best qualified to bring success to Ewood Park. The appointments of Kenny Dalglish and Ray Harford shook the football establishment and put the club back in the national spotlight. It was the sort of bold initiative that Venky's so desperately needed to copy in the wake of the sacking of Allardyce, but instead they gambled on a novice with the appointment of Kean.

There have been instances in the past when calls were made for a manager to be sacked, but these have been few and far between. Of the eight who were sacked by the club during the course of a season, only Iley, Saxton and, to a lesser extent, Ince have incurred the wrath of the supporters. Quigley was shunted sideways, to look after scouting and the club's youth policy, long before there was the slightest suggestion of unrest on the terraces. Likewise, Walker removed Hodgson and Kidd before unrest had really had time to develop. In both cases he accepted that his appointments had not worked out as planned and took immediate action to remedy the situation.

The first major campaign to rid the club of a manager came early in the 1978–79 season. Jim Iley had been appointed successor to Jim Smith in April 1978 and had overseen the four remaining games of that campaign. He arrived making all the right noises. He was going to continue with the attacking policy of Smith which had taken the club to brink of promotion. However, he also promised to tighten the defence, which most agreed needed attention. Sadly, the reality proved somewhat different.

The new season had hardly begun before the first signs of unrest amongst the Ewood faithful began to surface. In the days before social networks, the expressions of unrest either manifested itself on the terraces or in the letter pages of the Lancashire Evening Telegraph. It soon became clear that the manager had lost the support of the fans, the local media and, so rumour would have it, the players — indeed, Simon Garner's book suggests the rumours had strong foundations. The only people who seemed to stand behind the manager were Bill Bancroft and his fellow directors. Perhaps Bancroft realised that without the necessary transfer funds to strengthen his squad that Iley would need time to impose his ideas on the existing playing staff. However, having sanctioned the signings of Alan Birchenall and Joe Craig, Bancroft witnessed the two make a losing debut at home to Charlton Athletic. It proved to be a defeat too far and Bancroft reluctantly came to the conclusion that the club's best hope of survival was without Iley. He was sacked after only 172 days in charge, the majority of which were during the close season. Unfortunately, the move couldn't help save the club from relegation as Bancroft found that there were no takers for the vacant manager's position. In the end, he had to appoint John Pickering, the first team coach, to the position of manager and despite his best efforts he couldn't keep the club out of the relegation places.

The supporters became embroiled in a similar campaign in 1986–87 when Bob Saxton was at the helm. Saxton had been manager since the summer of 1981 and in the main had done an excellent job. On a shoestring budget he had established the club as a potential promotion candidate and went quite close to gaining First Division status in 1984–85. He had been forced to work with a very small squad due to the dire financial situation which existed at the club at that time. Bill Fox, the chairman, managed the books with an iron grip that made Scrooge appear a positive spendthrift. In retrospect, he did a brilliant job in keeping the club afloat, although many of us, at the time, didn't appreciate how serious the situation was and became increasingly critical of both manager and chairman for the lack of spending.

As the team started to age together, results began to falter under Saxton. The 1985–86 season saw the team saved from relegation on the last weekend of the campaign. After opening the following season with three successive wins, the Rovers didn't win another game until 22 November. The natives became more than restless and protests became a regular event at Ewood Park. There was nothing pre-planned but simply a reaction to the latest disappointing performance. Appreciative of the work that Saxton had done and with the players fully behind their manager, Fox stood firm in the wake of these protests. However, a Boxing Day defeat at Ewood Park, against relegation rivals Huddersfield Town, brought matters to a head. Fox had backed his manager as long as possible, but the point had been reached where a change had to be made and so, reluctantly, he parted company with Saxton. Don Mackay was brought in and not only did he lead the club to a mid-table position but he also took the club to Wembley and won the Full Members' Cup.

More recently, the dismissal of Paul Ince came after a dismal winless run of 11 successive league games. Although there was growing dissatisfaction with the manager's performance, it was not on the same scale of the protests in the 1970s or 1980s. However, defeat at Wigan on 13 December 2008 was the sixth successive league game that had been lost. John Williams and David Brown, the Walker Trust representative on the Board, looked at the faces in the dressing room that day, after the defeat, and were both of the opinion that a change had to be made if the club was to survive. On the following Tuesday, Ince was sacked and the next day Sam Allardyce was appointed manager. The result was that the club survived and the following season went on to finish in a very respectable tenth position.

In contrast to the above accounts of ultimate failure, there are numerous examples of men who have presided over a run of disastrous results and yet lived to tell the tale, so to speak. Jack Marshall won three and lost eighteen games during the second half of the season in 1965–66, which resulted in the club being relegated, and yet he wasn't replaced. Although out of contract, the Board asked him to continue on a week-to-week basis and ultimately he didn't leave the club until February 1967 when he tendered his resignation despite the club challenging for promotion. Similarly, Jim Smith, a hugely popular manager at Ewood Park, had a difficult start to his tenure at the club. Only two of the first fourteen league matches that he presided over were won and the club spent the majority of the season fighting relegation. Nonetheless, he retained the full support of the Board, players and supporters.

As the Rovers prepare for the next Premier League game of the 2011–12 season under current manager Steve Kean at Queen's Park Rangers, the clamour for the removal of Kean continues to grow and yet, despite five defeats from the opening seven league games, he retains the confidence of the owners. Many who have retained their jobs in the past, in the wake of disappointing results, did so because of an impressive managerial CV that convinced their employers that they could turn things around, while some, as we have seen, had a decent managerial record behind them yet were axed when they lost the confidence of those who employed them. What makes Kean unique in this situation is that support for him is extended without any track record whatsoever to back him up.

In the past, it has been the support of the Board or the owner that has been the key factor in a manager retaining his position at Ewood Park rather than results alone and so it is today. However, in the past the men holding the fate of the manager in their hands have had a wealth of experience to call upon in helping them to make that decision of whether to sack or not. Unfortunately, October 2011 finds Blackburn Rovers with owners who have no such knowledge on which to base their decisions. Thus, the future of our club rests in the hands of a family who, no matter how well-meaning, are left to make decisions which can be little more than a leap in the dark. Perhaps that should be the greatest worry for all supporters of Blackburn Rovers.

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