Perhaps the least surprising news of this season came just before the end of 2014, as Alan Irvine was removed from his post as manager of West Bromwich Albion after 19 league games.
The reaction has certainly not been one of shock; people saw it coming a mile off. And there is a reason for that. The string of performances produced by West Brom in Irvine’s final games was symptomatic of a team which had no confidence in its manager’s ability to lift his players out of a slump.
First of all, let’s get it straight that the club’s board is the real villain for employing a person with a less than impressive track record as a manager to compound the less than impressive running of the club over the past year.
Such appointments, however, make for convenient fall guys, and replacing a manager who’s clearly out of his depth is probably the easiest change to make to a club. A manager out of his depth or without the trust of his players is also one of the easiest things to notice on the pitch if it exists, and this won’t have escaped the chairman or the supporters’ attention.
When players lose confidence in their manager, they simply stop trying as hard as they can. That’s not a dig; merely pointing out that it’s human nature to reduce your effort when lacking motivation or confidence in the person in charge of you. I’ve played in teams with awful managers and have had incompetent leads and supervisors at work, and eventually stopped being bothered. If you’re not respected as a manager, you won’t be trusted to improve poor results. In other words, poor results lead to a drop in morale and effort, which leads to more poor results.
The key clues lie in the performances, not just the goals conceded but the loss of belief after losing a goal – I think many would have expected QPR to come back and at least level the scores in their encounter with West Brom after getting the first goal back, for instance. Some pointed to luck going against the team in Irvine’s last few games in charge, but there’s always a reason why certain breaks fall in favour of you or against you.
The first goal conceded against Manchester City may look like a simple goalkeeping error, but a more analytical person would point to goalkeeper Ben Foster losing his nerve when a cross was hung up at him, or why he appeared to be caught a little flat-footed causing him to go for the ball off-balance. Stoke’s second goal also had a huge stroke of luck, but the situation could have been avoided had West Brom’s left-back not been hesitant in closing down the crosser and denied him the space to find the penalty box. From a playing perspective, it feels like bad luck at the time, but once these mistakes begin to clear up you realise there was a deeper-rooted problem.
The harsh truth is that a new manager will come in and won’t allow these things to happen, hence the team will concede less soft goals under him. It’s not a coincidence that good teams will concede fewer sloppy goals in a season, and make their opponents work so much harder to score. This is down to that extra bit of effort. In hindsight, the players will realise that they hadn’t been giving their best. The manager unfortunately failed to get that extra amount out of the players, an extra bit they may not have even known was there.
This is why people shouldn’t read too much into public backing of managers by his players; it would be suicidal for a player’s playing chances to come out and slate the manager while he’s still at the club.
Even if the players do want the manager to succeed, there is a difference between respecting somebody as a person and respecting them as a boss – the failure to understand this leads to so much unnecessary analysis about what happened between a well-liked man and his team. He may have built up a positive mood before the season started, but with the right levels of enthusiasm coupled with the excitement which surrounds a new season, that’s relatively easy to do. It can even generate a few good results. Once the stakes increase, however, and you realise you have been found wanting, everything unravels and there is a long road to recovery.
In this particular case, even that road was closed.