We need to change, for the sake of stability

Last updated : 30 January 2013 By Davidr

It's late December 2012. In a terse statement, released without fanfare to the club's official website, Rotherham United confirm that they have relieved manager Steve Evans of his duties with immediate effect and appointed an interim managerial team to take charge of the first team for the rest of the season.

The decision draws a predictable response. Fans of other teams in League Two are jubilant, remorselessly celebrating the fact that a man they dislike has lost his job. 

Millers fans are divided. Some, who bought into the hard-grafting, working-class, you'll-never-fault-me-for-effort tone of his interviews, are disappointed, angry even. Others (the majority perhaps) who were never over-enthused by the original appointment and had noticed flaws in the sometimes-dazzling surface of the team put together since April last year, were surprised, but not entirely broken-hearted by the news. Virtually everyone, however, agrees that we can't go on like this, sacking manager after manager, year after year. The next man, surely, has to be given time, come what may.

Meanwhile, as the January transfer window swings open, the interim manager takes action. He quickly identifies that, although largely competent and capable of resilience, the defence has a consistent tendency to give up unmissable chances to the opposition. Club captain, Ian Sharps, who only arrived in the summer, is told to find another club and joins Burton Albion, allowing the new man to bring in an experienced central defender from a higher division. Although admiring the qualities that he brings to the team, the new manager considers that the array of central midfield talent within the squad allows him to make Jason Taylor available for transfer, freeing up funds to help him restructure the squad. A new centre-forward is the priority.

So far, so fictional and so what?

The purpose of that sketch was to illustrate the conflicting currents within the Millers' camp now. Everyone (outside the club at least) recognises that a period of stability, of medium and long term thinking and action, would benefit the future of the club. Sacking a manager, especially a manager less than a third of the way through a three year contract, goes completely against that.

And yet, the manager himself is behaving as if he's a new appointment, releasing players he's signed, and made a consistent part of his team, and attempting to significantly reshape a squad that he assembled only six months ago. In doing so, his risks undermining his own position, needlessly in many ways. The league position is hardly catastrophic, so why the need for such significant change?

A key characteristic of any successful manager is sound judgment. The core of the argument in favour of sticking with any boss is to invest in his judgment with the commodity of time. The hackneyed (but still valid) example is Alex Ferguson, who arguably benefitted more from Manchester United's investment of patience at the start of his tenure than any transfer budget given to him since. Yet, it follows that, to justify the investment of time, a manager has to show some clear evidence of sensible, clear-headed decision-making. After all, who would invest time in an individual who effectively admits to having made consistently unsound judgments?

Here's where the risk for Evans may lie. The story is familiar, but worth rehearsing. In April, he identified Cresswell as "a leader amongst men", the man he intended to build the team around. In July, he released him, because we had, by then, better players in that position. Mullins went to Oxford, because he deserved to play first team football, but was, in Evans' judgment, not as good a player as Sharps or Morgan. Recalled to the team following an injury crisis, Mullins was captain by the middle of January and Sharps on loan at Burton, with the expectation that he will leave for good in the summer.

The full backs signed in July (with much trumpeting of their abilities) no longer play for us, and, indeed, have played less than a 20 games between them. Jason Taylor has gone from being the "first name on the team sheet", praised for the "outstanding qualities" that he brings to the side, to joining Cheltenham on a free transfer in a little over a month. 

All of those decisions are capable of being rationally justified, but releasing five players by January that you only gave contracts to in July risks calling managerial judgment into question. It also runs counter to the sort of stability and "long term project" thinking that we were promised.

It is hard to see the long-term thinking behind giving 31 year old Sharps a two-year contract, loaning him out after six months and bringing in a 33 year-old on an 18 month deal as replacement. It is hard to see the long term thinking behind releasing the left back you signed in August after 6 first team appearances and relying instead on the reserves teams of Blackburn, Huddersfield and Blackpool to cover that position until the end of the season. And that's before you consider the potential financial implications of cancelling a succession of contracts on which the ink is barely dry, or no longer wishing to play players contracted to us, on the budget available for next season and beyond.

It sometimes feels like Evans is almost trying too hard, that he's forever trying to prove himself to an audience that he can never fully convince. The histrionics on the touchline are almost a parody of "a manager showing passion". The perpetual transfer activity seems a sort of continual demonstration of an ability to recognise talent. The glowing character references to every player and the testimony of the good terms on which every player departs, feel like an overdone attempt to show what a great team spirit he's cultivated by his man-management skills. 

All those strong qualities may be present, but the constant, frenetic, overt demonstration of them is potentially counterproductive. The wild gestures and regular marches to berate the fourth official feel overdone at times and you wonder how much they have to do with the lack of marginal decisions in our favour this season. Virtually every signing has offered something to the squad (with the possible exception of Rooney), but the overall feeling remains that the team is less than the sum of its considerable parts. The lavish praise for the departing players makes you question why, if they're so talented and have such fine characters, we don't want them (especially as teams above us in the league appear to). Ultimately, what may be intense determination risks coming off as almost manic desperation.

Carry on at this frenetic, frantic pace and the club seems headed for a coronary, of the sort that has derailed the promise of the last two seasons. Hopefully, once the transfer window shuts, everything can calm down, because things seem more feverish than ever this month. 

Let's see less of contracts being paid up and more of the long term deals signed by Morgan, Pringle and Frecklington. Let's see Rose and Walker (and maybe Denton and Thompson) given first contracts of decent length. Let's see us lose a game and keep the same team for the next match, just to show the players we believe in their abilities. Let's stop bringing the players in on Sunday mornings for punishment training sessions and instead use the rare weeks where there are seven days between games to let them refresh themselves mentally.

Our whole approach to this season seems to be that quality will tell in the end and that the management team is unrelenting in it's pursuit of better players. But maybe just because we could sign a better player doesn't mean we have to. Maybe the way to encourage the team to come together as a coherent unit is to pick a first team and stick with it for a while.

Let everyone (including the man himself) stop behaving as if our manager has a three-week contract, rather than a three year one, and we might discover that we achieve something for a change. Carry on as we are, and a terse statement on the website feels increasingly likely.