So as news filters through that the relationship between Manchester United and Jose Mourinho has hit the buffers following the club’s worst start to the season for 28 years, the league is losing more than a manager. No more will we watch Jose Mourinho gurning on the touchline as frustrated Man United fans chant ‘attack, attack, attack’ and club greats line up to rail against his tactics, man management and decision to live in a hotel.
Clamour for change at the top is inevitable where there is a gap between expectation and delivery. The lack of clarity about who is ultimately responsible for the malaise is not unique to the ‘Red Devils’. But there is certainly something about failing sporting franchises – in the full glare of the global media – that encourages feverish speculation and a desire for simple solutions.
The club has tried and tried again to make the simple remedies work. The churn of managers since Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure along with the huge sums spent on players (£400 million by Mourinho alone) is testament to this. Yet none of these simple solutions has worked well for a club which is currently having its worst start to the league for decades.
Huge time, effort and money is put into finding someone with the right qualities to manage their teams. Sometimes this leads to a manager who can turn the ship around, inspire confidence, get the team playing and run with the grain and culture of a club. A Ranieri at Leicester, Conte’s first season at Chelsea or Roy Hodgson at last year’s Crystal Palace. In some cases, the thinking leads to a short-term fix like a Big Sam or, for those of a certain vintage, a Dave Bassett. Yet so often the rapid turnover of managers is only a sticking plaster to cover wider failure.
For every Arsene Wenger or Alex Ferguson, whose philosophies have time to seep into the fabric of a club, there are countless leaders who arrive trailed in glory and leave after one failed season. The leadership model in football is not a stable one. For every club that sees consistent success or bounces back with each change at the helm, there is a Sunderland, Leeds or Blackburn dropping through the floor.
Whatever the club, it’s clear, the extent of a manager’s influence can only extend so far. He or she may have the capacity to motivate highly-paid people to kick a ball around with skill and flair, but behind them sits a complex network of global brand, commercial deals, scouting, culture and history. Most successful organisations recognise this. They are strong and aligned and pulling in the same direction.
Mourinho was a manager not a chief executive, chairman or owner. Architect of many of his problems he may be, but the relative lack of success at Manchester United in recent years suggests there are wider problems that need to be addressed. Removing a high profile or unpopular individual can be a catalyst for change, but any organisation thinking this will solve all its issues just isn’t paying enough attention to the game. Many eyes will be focused on what happens next at Old Trafford.
Tim Read is a director at Camargue