Four Years At The Helm for Mowbray: How does he compare to former Rovers managers?

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As the fourth anniversary of Tony Mowbray’s appointment as Blackburn Rovers Manager arrives, Glenn Entwistle takes a look at where he ranks with other former Rovers managers from recent years.

I remember Kenny Dalglish being appointed as Rovers manager back in 1991, but I couldn’t tell you much about the Don Mackay which preceded him (probably because I was 5 years old!), so King Kenny’s reign seems as good a place to start as any, and tough shoes to fill indeed.

Without doing any analysis of records or win percentages, if I had to rank my favourite Rovers managers, I’d probably have to go with Kenny, then Hughes or Souness – Hughes probably just edges this but only probably because Hughes came along at a time I understood and appreciated the game more – followed by Mowbray, and then Bowyer, then Allardyce, the Hodgson. I probably wouldn’t bother even ranking the rest.

So as Mowbray reaches his fourth anniversary in charge of Rovers, should he rightly sit towards the top of the 15-man list, and does he compare with the likes of Hughes, Souness and Dalglish? 

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Recent results have been poor as have the performances, but to call the man a “clown” as I have seen on Twitter this weekend and to compare him to the likes of Steve Kean and Owen Coyle, is just down right disrespectful. Mowbray has done enough to earn the respect of the fans for life, in my opinion, and how he turned the club around, both on the pitch and off it during a tumultuous time when the future of the club was in balance, should never be forgotten. In days of old, he would have been given the keys to the town or given the right to walk a flock of sheep through the town centre, and in my eyes, rightly so.

So, let’s start with those comparisons with Kean and Coyle. Mowbray has been in charge of Rovers for 1,462 days and has presided over 203 games and won 41.9% of them. In comparison, Kean was (somehow!) in charge for 647 days covering 74 games and winning only 28.4% of those games; Coyle was only in charge for 265 days, covering 37 games and winning just 29.7% of them. Mowbray has been in charge for more than twice as long as Kean, and has won more than 13% more games than Kean, over a longer period of time. Although Coyle had a better record than Kean, this is due to a smaller sample size, but Mowbray has been in charge for five and a half times longer than the Scotsman and has won 12% games. I think we can all agree that in terms of Rovers Managers, Mowbray is in a different league to Coyle and Kean, and Ince (28.6% win ratio), Kidd (27.3%), Appleton (26.7) and Berg (10% – of his ten games in charge, he won just one, it really shouldn’t have been a surprise when he was sacked), and comparisons with any of these managers are wide of the mark and not based on any data or facts other than recency bias.

It will come as no shock that our best manager, both statistically and achievement-wise is the man who got us to the Premier League the first time around and took us on to win the Premier League in 1995 – King Kenny Dalglish. Even 30 years on from the year he took the helm, Dalglish has the best record: Played 196 games, won 103, drew 43 and lost 47 – resulting in a win percentage of 52.6%, the only manager with a record above the 50% mark. He is also our fourth longest serving manager, and I dare say he could have gone on managing the side for as long as wanted had he not decided to move upstairs into a Director of Football role.

Dalglish was replaced by his assistant, Ray Harford, and although I remember his time in charge as a bit of a failure, this is probably more down to forever being compared with Dalglish and reigning champions being expected to challenge to retain their title. His record isn’t too shabby, 64 games in charge with a win percentage of 37.5% – which ranks him fifth in this list and is comparable with Gary Bowyer’s time in charge (discounting Paul Lambert due to his small sample size of just 33 games).

Although not as successful in terms of trophies, our second most successful manager statistically is Mark Hughes with a record of 188 games in charge, 82 wins, 47 draws and 59 losses, with a win percentage of 43.6% (that’s almost 9% less than King Kenny). Hughes replaced Souness in September 2004 when he left for Newcastle, but for many this was a blessing in disguise for Rovers as things had started to become stale under Souness and results had dropped off – evidenced in the first game after his departure with his new club Newcastle beating us 3-0. Hughes’ first season was one of survival and steadying the ship, but after that he made Rovers a force in the Premier League again taking us to sixth, tenth and seventh with three semi finals along the way and to the last 32 of the UEFA Cup. He also created a team which had grit and steel, but also flair and quality. Hughes left for the big spending Manchester City in June 2006 after 1359 games in charge, making him the third longest serving manager during this period.

Then comes Mowbray. Third on the list of the most successful managers in recent years. He has the third best win percentage, has presided over the second most games and has won the second most games out of any Rovers manager in the last 30 years. Yes, all of his time has been spent outside of the Premier League, so a direct comparison to the likes of Dalglish and Souness is difficult, but then again Mowbray hasn’t had the same resources as those managers and he hasn’t had the same stability behind the scenes, instead having to constantly balance the books and help build and maintain a relationship between the fans, the owners and the club. 

Managing outside of the Premier League brings with it its own challenges and expectations – the likes of Hughes were never really expected to challenge for the Premier League title, but they were expected to reach the top half of the division. Mowbray was first asked to try and save us from relegation to the third tier, and then when he didn’t manage this (on goal difference from a standing start) he was tasked with winning promotion at the first time of asking – something big clubs like Ipswich and Sunderland haven’t managed to achieved after multiple years at that level. 

After gaining promotion he was tasked with keeping us up in the Championship, which he did finishing 15th, and followed that up with an 11th placed finish. At the time of writing, in their third season back in the Championship Rovers find themselves in 12th place, ten points off the play offs with 16 games left to play. Regardless of the signings and expectations, for a team that no less than three years ago was competing in League One, mid-table stability shouldn’t be seen as a bad thing. 

The reason Rovers fans are disappointed with the current position in the league and the dwindling hope of making the play offs is because Mowbray himself said that was the target for the season – something he is always going to say because if he doesn’t, he’ll be accused of lacking ambition. The only reason Rovers are in any position to even talk about making the top six is because of what Mowbray has achieved and because of the players he has brought in. For me, he rightly sits towards the top of the table in terms of recent managers – both for his achievements on the pitch and what he has done off the pitch, and fans would be advised to remember the last time we changed manager to push for the play-offs – within 12 months we were languishing towards the bottom of the table looking certain for relegation with a manager who didn’t have a tactical clue and who none of the fans wanted in the first place.

Perhaps the former Rovers manager best aligned with Mowbray’s situation outside of the Premier League is Graeme Souness. The former Liverpool and Rangers Manager joined the club part way through the 1999-2000 season, Rovers first back in the second flight since winning the title in 1994-95. He used the end of that season to assess the squad and the following year he built a side which won automatic promotion and then went on to solidify as a well-run competitive Premier League team (finishing 10th, 6th and 15th), winning the League Cup in our first season back up, and qualifying for Europe twice during that period (although getting no further than the UEFA Cup second round). 

Souness’ record in charge reads: 212 games in charge, 86 wins, 61 draws and 65 losses, with a win percentage of 40.6%. In comparison to Mowbray he managed 9 more games, won just one more, drew nine more and lost one more. His 212 games and 1,638 days in charge are the longest of any manager in the last 30 years – however, unlike Dalglish, if Newcastle hadn’t come calling, he likely wouldn’t have made it to the end of that 2004-05 season. 

The parallels to when Souness came in part way through a season in March, and the current timing and situation with Mowbray are very similar and are what a lot of fans are pointing to in terms of making a change now to give this seasons promotion campaign a shot of life, and failing that, giving a new manager the time to assess his squad and build for another campaign the following season. When Souness came in Rovers were 11th after 36 games and 8 points off the play-offs – Mowbray’s Rovers are currently 12th and 10 points off the play offs but having played 6 games fewer. Rovers had won just two out of ten previous games prior to Souness’ appointment, Mowbray finds himself with a record of three wins during the same number of games, but with the same number of losses as Kidd (5).

The difference in the situation now is that whoever would replace Mowbray if that option was taken, would be coming in to a club teetering on the edge of FFP compliance with limited funds to spend on transfers – when Souness came in he didn’t have to worry about how much was being spent as long as the money was available. During that 2000-01 season Rovers had a net profit of £0.4m from transfers (spending £6.1m but receiving £6.5m in sales) but more importantly, only had a net debt of £9.8m. Fast-forward to the most recent published accounts and during the 2018-19 season (pre-pandemic), Mowbray had a net transfer spend of £7.6m and a net debt of £141m. Although that transfer figure suggests Mowbray has been able to splash the cash, a better metric is probably the amount spent on wages – in 2000-01 Souness spent £25.4m on wages, whereas in 2018-19 Mowbray spent only £22.4m. The fact this number is smaller 18 years on, speaks volumes and adjusting for inflation that £25m would be more like £41m in 2018 – so Souness has significantly more bargaining power when it came to transfers and this was likely a big factor in the signings of Hughes, Friedel and Berkovic. Put simply, Mowbray doesn’t have the luxury to offer more money to either bring in new/better players, or to keep his best players at the club – something we’ll likely unfortunately see in the Summer with a number of key players’ contracts expiring.

What is interesting from looking at those top four in the table of most successful Rovers Managers over the last 30 years, is how long they stayed at the club, and where Mowbray sits in relation to this. 

Souness is the longest serving manager during the period, with 1,462 days in charge, but as mentioned, things had started to go stale and there were doubts about whether he was the man for the job. Mowbray isn’t far behind Souness but is still 176 days short of the Scotsman’s tally. Hughes left for Manchester City after 1,359 games in charge (103 less than Mowbray’s current tally) but was in no danger of losing his job given the success on the pitch and the stability off it – the fact the biggest spenders and most ambitious team in the league came and plucked him from Ewood tells you how highly rated he was and how good a job he had/was doing for Rovers. Similarly, Dalglish was in charge for 1,353 days (109 less than Mowbray) and again, there is no way he was going to be sacked having just won Rovers’ first league title since 1914.

Perhaps the most amazing statistic, and one which sums up the current owner’s biggest mistake, is that the only manager with a win percentage of less than 40% who wasn’t sacked or asked to resign before they were sacked, was Steve Kean with a win percentage of just 28.4% over 74 games (12th worst). Hodgson and Harford had overseen a comparable number of games and were shown the door with win percentages 6% and 9% better.

The stats show that there is a fourth year itch where managers either get recruited by another team or decide to quit whilst they are ahead, so it should come as no surprise that as Mowbray enters in to his fifth year at the helm, that questions are being asked as to whether he is still the man to take the club forwards. This is further compounded by the current life expectancy of a Manager at a club – many don’t even make it to four years. If Mowbray continues in charge until the end of the season it will make him the longest serving manager in the last 30 years, and although he has a promotion against his name, he will have no trophies to show for that. In comparison, Dalglish had a Premier League title and Play-Off win, Souness had a League Cup, an automatic promotion and a European adventure, and Hughes had three cup semi finals and a European journey that took us to the Round of 32. 

Rather than Mowbray being a sign of accepting mediocrity, the length of his tenure is more a testament to what he has done off the pitch in terms of bringing the club, owners and fans back together, and what he has done to develop the academy and scouting system for the future. To sack him throws all that good work over the four years out the window, during a time when the financial future of the club is uncertain as they complete a second season with COVID implications and with significant loss of revenues. If you read my comments or heard my thoughts before, you’ll know that I’m a strong believer that you can’t really use this season as a yardstick by which to measure success or more so failure because there are too many variables, and ultimately, would mid-table security really be that bad? At least we could look forward to still being in the division for another crack next season when fans will be allowed back in. To gamble on a change now could be catastrophic if it doesn’t work (Rovers are closer to the relegation zone than the play-offs at the minute), especially considering some of the owners previous choices of appointment (I’d argue they have a successful strike rate of 28% (2/7)).

For now though, regardless of current form and results, Mowbray deserves immense credit for what he has done for the club and on the whole, you have to say that his time in charge to date has definitely been a success. Even more so given the mess the club was in when he took charge. He wasn’t the man I would have appointed after Coyle’s dismissal, but he definitely turned out to the right choice, and I think the most ardent of Mowbray critics would agree with that.

Thanks for reading.

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