Football: The Reactionary Game

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To avoid any perceived bias throughout this piece, I’m going to tell you my position on Tony Mowbray as Blackburn Rovers manager from the off: I am neither pro-Mowbray nor anti-Mowbray.

At this point in time (and immediately after the Fulham defeat), I do not think he should be sacked, but I do see the end of the season when his contract expires as being a convenient time for a change for all involved. However, my view on that will likely be dictated by performances between now and May next year.

On this theme, one of my biggest worries about replacing Mowbray, whether it be before the end of the season or after, is who replaces him?

BLACKBURN, ENGLAND – NOVEMBER 06: Blackburn Rovers manager Tony Mowbray watches on during the Sky Bet Championship match between Blackburn Rovers and Sheffield United at Ewood Park on November 6, 2021 in Blackburn, England. (Photo by Alex Dodd – CameraSport via Getty Images)

At this moment in time, I don’t think there is an obvious candidate, but then again, Mowbray was hardly an obvious candidate back in February 2017. However, I was recently reading \the fantastic Turnstiles magazine (give them a follow on Twitter at @Turnstilesmag) and their piece on David Pleat’s time at Luton where he was first tasked with looking after the Youth Team, then a coach for the Reserves before taking the reins, and then stepping up to be first-team coach before finally taking the main job in 1978, six years after he had rejoined them as a coach, with him always having been intended to have the role of First Team manager. The benefits to his roles looking after the youth and then reserve teams whilst knowing he would ultimately be the man in charge where that he could discover players he liked and build his own team and system over a period of time so that when he became First Team Manager it would already be his team – savvy thinking indeed considering the lack of money around in Division Two in the 1970s.

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I can’t help thinking that this is a model Rovers should be looking at. Especially in this era of FFP/Profit and Sustainability Rules hampering how much Rovers can spend on transfers, wages, and sacking managers, and how good our Academy is.

To me, it would make perfect sense to have someone being shaped for the big job behind the scenes, working with the youngsters from an early age. I don’t think it will happen, given the changes during the summer, but it would be an interesting approach, however, it would need the buy-in from the fans for a long-term goal – which brings me on to those managers who have jumped on the annual merry-go-around this year.

Tony Mowbray may not have been one of them but in the last few weeks, we have seen Watford be their usual trendsetters and sack Xisco Munoz; Steve Bruce leaves Newcastle United by mutual consent and be replaced by the man who said Burnley was too far north of Bournemouth, Eddie Howe; Nuno Espirito Santo be sacked from Spurs after just 17 games and be replaced by Antonio Conte; Dean Smith, the man who steered Aston Villa back to the Premier League, be replaced by assumed future Liverpool manager Steven Gerrard; Daniel Farke be relieved of his duties at Norwich after their first win in the Premier League for 11 games; Mick McCarthy leave by mutual consent at Cardiff; Markus Schopp sacked at Barnsley, and Neil Warnock be replaced by Chris Wilder at Middlesbrough. In just the top two divisions in English football, that’s eight managerial changes – that’s almost 20% of teams across both divisions changing manager.

What usually happens in a merry-go-around is managers leave one club for another, but strangely this year, only Steven Gerrard has actually left one club to join another, all the others have been managers who have been out of the game for a period.

Particularly in the Championship, this is likely linked to having to compensate the team the would-be manager is leaving. Of those men leaving roles: Munoz, Bruce, Espirito Santo, Dean Smith, Daniel Farke, Mick McCarthy, Markus Schopp or Neil Warnock – how many would Rovers fans be happy or excited to see take the helm at Ewood? And how many would actually take the job? Bruce looks like he is taking a break from football, Smith spent a fortune and wavered on the edge of FFP to get Villa promoted (see below), which generally only leaves Farke, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him head back to Germany. 

Given the names above and the financial situation at Rovers, at the moment I think we are better sticking with Mowbray rather than twisting à la Lambert. What the club needs is stability both on the pitch and off the pitch, to make it work, especially from a financial point of view with the EFL’s FFP hounds very much circling.

A change of manager isn’t just a case of paying off the current incumbent and bringing someone new in (potentially also having to pay a release fee), it is also likely to result in a change in backroom staff, a change in coaches, resulting in a change in playing styles potentially from the Under 18s upwards. A new manager will want to bring their own familiar faces in terms of players, and they are unlikely to trust the Academy graduates the way Mowbray has – something that has saved us, and earned us, significant money over recent years with at least one academy graduate featuring in the matchday squad in every game since a 2-2 draw with Bolton in 2009.

Yes, there is an argument that those players who have yet to sign new contracts might be more likely to sign with a new manager coming in and bringing new ideas, but what’s to say that a new manager doesn’t also bring in uncertainty for those players? For me, the managerial merry-go-around is a rat race we don’t want to be part of right now.

All football fans like to think that the goings-on at their club are crazier than everywhere else, and all football fans make reactionary statements in the aftermath of a game – whether that be the positive “this is the year, up the football league we go”, or the negative “worst I’ve ever seen, time for a change” – and this was definitely the case last week.

The week started at Pride Park with a dominant first-half performance result in a 2-1 away win left Rovers in 7th place, just a point outside of the play-offs. Then, it nose-dived as Rovers succumbed to their worst ever defeat at Ewood Park, a 7-0 defeat to high-flying Fulham. Then to round the week off, Rovers came from conceding a goal in the second minute to beat Sheffield United 3-1, leaving Rovers heading into the international break in 7th place, just two goals behind QPR in 6th – ecstasy to agony and back to ecstasy in the space of 7 days.

There is a massive asterisk which has to come with the “agony” part of the week, and that is the sending off of Jan Paul van Hecke after half an hour with what is possibly the most ridiculous challenge I have ever seen when 2-0 down already, and being the last man just shy of the halfway line. Never before have I seen a Rovers player sent off at Ewood and literally no-one complain. Yes, we may already have been two goals down thanks to some poor passing on the edge of our own box, and some questionable defending from a set-piece, but, with 11 men on the field, Rovers are never going to lose that game by a seven-goal margin. Fulham are a very good side at Championship level and in Aleksander Mitrovic, they have a Championship cheat code – of all the sides to lose a man to when already chasing a game, Fulham are probably the worst. 

Mowbray deserves his criticisms for the way he set up the team with John Buckley playing as a false nine in the absence of Sam Gallagher and Rovers looking to absorb pressure, but he is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t – let’s say he starts the game on the front foot and looks to take the game to Fulham, they rip us to shreds and it ends up four or five with eleven men on the pitch, there would be uproar. So, he does what he thinks is best and looks to stifle the Londoners and is undone by sloppy passing by Joe Rothwell on the edge of his box. 

What is not forgivable is that Mowbray decided to give it a go after half time allowing Fulham to rip us to shreds. To me, it looked like after the sending off Fulham went back into first gear, content that the night was done, but they always looked like they could up it, and the score was always going to be whatever they wanted it to be – Mowbray just got sucked into the trap of thinking we had managed them when actually they’d just taken their foot off the accelerator.

I think if offered 7th place, level on points with 6th, after 17 games, before a ball was kicked, every single Rovers fan would have taken that, especially given some of the good performances we have seen. We must not forget that Rovers (and a lot of other teams in the division) are playing with a financial handicap when compared to the teams coming down from the Premier League with the parachute payments, further compounded by the financial losses from playing behind closed doors for a season due to COVID.

We all want to break into the Play-Offs (I would argue we may as well finish 7th as finish 6th and get beat in the first round of the play-offs), but given our financial situation, this is a massive ask. Looking at the finances for the teams that finished 6th* in 2017-18, 2018-19, and 2019-20, and taking average to account for COVID and comparing this against Rovers for the similar period, shows just how big a task it is for us to break into the top 6, and how good a job Mowbray is doing.

*(for 2018-19, Derby finished 6th but no accounts were available to review, so 7th placed Middlesbrough’s have been used instead.

Now, potentially more so than ever before, wages are the biggest differentiator in the Championship, largely being dictated by parachute payments and FFP. It is very rare for Championship teams to spend large sums on transfers, but the amount paid in wages does vary and is important.

Looking at the 2017-20 period, Rovers spent on average £21.6m on wages each year, in comparison to the team who finished 6th who spent £42.4m and the team who won the play-offs who spent £71.1m – that’s double our wage bill to break into the top six, and more than tripling it to win the play-offs.

On this note, the average weekly wage at Rovers during this period was £10,378/week, whereas for the 6th placed team it was £20,168/week and £30,666/week for the play-off winner. This can have a massive impact when trying to sign players (with or without a fee), with other clubs in the same division able to offer double or triple what Rovers are playing.

The biggest contributor towards FFP losses is the impact of wages when compared to income – if you spend more on wages alone than you are bringing into the club, before you even factor in transfer fees or manager pay-offs, it is going to impact towards FFP.

With this metric, it is not usual to see the sides finishing in the top six having a lower percentage closer to 100%, due to the impact of parachute payments and player sales following relegation; whereas teams who have been outside of the top-flight for longer, with reduced attendances, reduced saleable assets, but with ambitions to either survive in the Championship or dream of promotion, are likely to have a higher number – the sweet spot for the top six looks to be around 104%, with the play-off winner at around 120%, whereas Rovers hit 170% across the 3 year period (note that COVID will have had a big impact upon this metric with loss of matchday income from one of the three years used for the average).

The final metric to look at is Net Transfer Spend – although I noted earlier that transfer fees were less important earlier, they do still occur although sales are more likely, and these can offset FFP losses.

Over the three year period, Rovers have a net spend of £3.3m (owing mainly to the Brereton and Gallagher signings), whereas the team winning the play-offs had a net spend of £6.1m, and the team finishing sixth actually had a net profit of £9.2m – however, this owes largely to the Swansea City side of 2019-20 who had sold Dan James to Manchester United, Ollie McBurnie to Sheffield United and Jordan Ayew to Crystal Palace which offsets the data to an extent, but does show that even with player sales, top 6 is achievable.

Clubs also amortize transfer fees across the entire contract of a player, so if a player was signed for £5m on a 5-year deal, they would look at that as £1m/year – so the Brereton and Gallagher signings look like big money, but they are more likely an investment over the course of their contracts, and the fact we haven’t spent anywhere near that amount on a player since is probably a sign that they were seen as signings to come to fruition over a three to four year period.

Using financial information, (largely cribbed from the excellent Rovers Chat guest @KieranMaguire), from the 2018-19 season to put these numbers in the context of the wider Championship: Rovers had the 17th highest wage bill and average weekly wage, they had the 20th best (or 5th worst) ‘wages to income’ percentage and had the 8th highest Transfer Net Spend.

On the pitch, Rovers finished 15th that season (remembering this was also our first season back in the Championship), outperforming the wage metrics. Without running the numbers, I would imagine that 2019-20 would be a similar story.

To have sacked Mowbray on the back of the Fulham result would have been harsh given our performance on the pitch and our place in the table at the time of the event, and also based on how well he has performed as Rovers boss despite the financial constraints.

We all want to break into the top six and somehow have our day in the sun at Wembley but looking at the data, it is a big ask given the financial clout of the teams who find themselves in the division after being relegated from the Premier League.

I’m not saying we should be happy with mid-table and flirting with the play-offs every once in a while, but going back to the early days of the Venkys ownership and changing manager multiple times through a season is not the answer, and could set us back years.

I’m still a firm believer that Mowbray has taken the club forward, and whilst we are looking upwards rather than down, it would be unfair and somewhat disrespectful to relieve him of his duties. There would be some eaten words and begrudging thanks and celebrations, but ultimately, don’t we all want to see Tony Mowbray given a new contract in June 2022 as he prepares for life with Rovers in the Premier League once again…

Thanks for reading.

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