BCFC: The Manager Search

It’s only been a week since it was announced that Birmingham City Head Coach Pep Clotet is to step down at the end of the season and the rumour mill is in full flow. There have been a multitude of names already bounced around as potential successors to Clotet in the press and on social media.

St Andrew's taken 26 December 2018

I’ll be honest and say as of the time of writing, I have no idea who will get the job. However, I thought it would be a good idea to talk about what the board might be looking for in their manager search.

One Shot vs Long-Term Planning

One of the biggest splits I see between fans is whether Blues should go for someone short term with the aim of going hard for promotion; or instead pick someone who can build a squad and improve the club in the longer term.

I’ve never been one for the short term option, simply because I believe there are no guarantees it would work.

It always seemed like a simplistic view to me; give a Manager a pile of money and a promotion bonus, and somehow he waves a wand, shouts Expecto Promotion and nine months later we’re on our way to the Premier League.

In reality, it doesn’t work like as simply as that.

When Blues gave a longer term contract to Harry Redknapp, I think that this one-shot idea was very much what was in mind.

We all know what happened.

Redknapp didn’t make it through September as Blues lost five games on the spin and the board decided to cut their losses and sack him.

I have the impression that the board very much got their fingers burned by Redknapp, which has made them much more wary of going for the short term route.

Trying to hire for the long term isn’t easy either.

I sincerely believe that every appointment Blues made bar Redknapp was with an idea of building something for the long-term, even if fans might not have seen it that way.

Even the hiring of Clotet came with talk of revolutionising the way Blues play, of building from younger players and recruiting players who were going to appreciate in value.

As much as I’ve berated the board, there is no denying that the club have achieved some of that this season.

While the arrival of Jude Bellingham as a superstar has been like a fairy tale, we’ve seen other young players such as Odin Bailey, Jack Concannon and Caolan Boyd-Munce come into the team as they build their own careers.

The squad for the remaining nine games of the season is liberally sprinkled with youth players who all potentially have a chance to stake their own claim.

While not all of last summer’s transfers have worked out, the ones that have worked out have done so in spades.

I have no doubt that Ivan Sunjic is worth considerably more than we have paid for him while the wait for Jeremie Bela’s legal entanglement with Albacete to be sorted out has more than paid off.

However, on the pitch the team has struggled at times and I don’t believe many fans have taken to Clotet.

This is the big problem with trying to bring a manager for the long term; trying to work out if a short term blip is evidence it’s never going to work out – and having the patience to stick with something even if it doesn’t seem to be working at first.

Equally, if a manager is successful then there is the new issue of them potentially eyeing up other jobs and wanting new contracts.

This is why I’ve come to the conclusion that if Blues want to hire for the longer term, then they have to hire to their own ethos and have a manager that is prepared to fit into the structure rather than rip it up and create a new one again.

Experience vs Potential

Another big split between fans on social media I’ve noticed is between fans who want an experienced manager to take the reins versus the ones who want someone with potential to grow.

Having an experienced manager can be a really good thing. While I will freely confess my visceral loathing of Harry Redknapp, I have to admit that when he came in to the club following Gianfranco Zola’s sacking, he “steadied the ship” in a way I don’t think many other managers could.

I can understand why people might be looking to an old warhorse like Neil Warnock to come into Blues.

As confrontational as he is, Warnock knows the division inside out and has a knack for getting sides promoted. His brash nature is a good fit with many Blues fans and I get why many think the club would flourish under his control.

However, I’m also conscious that the older and more experienced a manager is, the more ambition might be dulled.

I’m very aware that Warnock has managed 1,494 games and desperately wants to get to 1,500; does this mean once he’s reached that personal milestone he’ll be done and happy to retire to his place in the south-west?

Mick McCarthy is another manager who has been round the block a few times who some fans might want. However, I can’t help but wonder if we took on a manager such as McCarthy, how much would he see it as one final payday before retirement?

Potential is even more of a gamble.

Two names stand out to me in recent times as managers who were viewed as having potential to be great who struggled massively in the Championship.

Paul Hurst arrived at Ipswich at the end of May 2018 after Mick McCarthy stepped down. Hurst had a good reputation with Shrewsbury Town, and was seen as a young manager who could make the step up the leagues.

He lasted 15 games at Ipswich Town, winning just one of them as the Tractor Boys slid down the Championship. His five month reign is the shortest of any manager ever at Portman Road.

Similarly, Nathan Jones arrived at Stoke in January 2019 with a burgeoning reputation after three good years at Luton.

Jones lasted 11 months, winning just 6 of 38 games before he was sacked in November 2019. Stoke had won just two of their first 14 matches in the truncated 2019-2020 season, and lie five points below Blues in 17th place.

As much as I’d love to see Blues hire some bright young thing who takes the league by storm, I think neither the board nor the fans want to see another tumultuous season if it all goes wrong.

Equally, I think the board need to understand that while experience is safe, it’s also often boring.

Next season will be our tenth in this division and I think many fans are now tired of being stuck in a second tier rut.

Known faces vs Left Field

This is now the sixth time Blues have been looking to recruit a new manager since Gary Rowett left in December 2016, and I suppose it’s not surprising that some of the same old names are cropping up.

One name that crops up often is Chris Hughton. Although his single year in charge ended in failure with defeat in the playoff semi-finals, many fans remember his time with fondness.

Part of that might be down to the romance of the Europa League campaign but there is no denying that Blues scored a fair few goals during his tenure.

I’ve seen Hughton taking in a game or two at St Andrew’s and I think it’s clear that he has a fondness for the club too.

However, his familiarity with the, ahem, rollercoaster nature of the club’s ownership over the last decade might ensure he remains out of the picture.

There are other names I’ve heard crop up every time too, who have been interested in the role. Nigel Clough was reported in the press to have had preliminary talks with the club and I’ve been told he’s wanted the job for some time.

Likewise I’ve heard mention of Steve McClaren and Nigel Adkins who have put themselves forward for the job more than once.

That eagerness to take the job might be appealing to the board, but I’ll be honest none of them make me feel excited.

Part of me thinks that a lot of English football is trapped in hiring the same old names – and that for a lot of teams it’s the same old mediocrity that comes with it.

It wouldn’t be Blues if there weren’t some crazy names in the hat either.

I’m under the impression that one thing that the board might like in a new manager is someone with Chinese experience.

There is some rumour that some of the board thinks that a manager who has managed in the Chinese Super League would understand better how the board want to act and maybe would be more consciously aligned with them in their way of doing things.

This introduces some more exotic names into the mix.

For example, a short while back I heard there was some interest in Fabio Cannavaro.

Cannavaro is a big name, and he knows China well having managed there for five years. He is in his second spell with Guangzhou Evergrande and has also managed the Chinese national team.

The downside is that Cannavaro is more than likely on a huge contract currently and as such beyond the financial reach of Blues.

I’ve mentioned on forums that I thought Gus Poyet might enter the board’s thinking having had a season at Shanghai Shenhua; however his problems at both Brighton and Bordeaux might well be a stopper.

There are other former CSL managers who could be a left-field choice. Chris Coleman followed his relegation season at Sunderland with a so-so spell at Hebei China Fortune, while Quique Sanchez Flores had a spell at Shanghai Shenhua between his first and second times managing Watford.

The biggest thing I think people need to take on board is that there is no reason that the board will rush the process to appoint someone new.

I think the board are well aware of just how big appointment this could be – especially bearing in mind the financial landscape surrounding football post-coronavirus.

With Clotet in place for the remaining nine games of the season, there is time for the board to properly think about this before acting.

It’s my impression that the three main people involved in making a decision – club CEO Ren Xuandong, Birmingham Sports Holdings Chairman Zhao Wenqing along with the club’s de facto sporting director Kristjaan Speakman have differing views on who the club should go for.

I see this as a positive in that it means a lot of different ideas will be discussed, giving the board the widest range of people to choose from.

While there have been mistakes in the past, there is a real opportunity now to show that those have been learned from and that the club goes forward in an upward direction.

Regardless of who is chosen, an upward trend in results and position is what we all desire and hope for.