Wednesday, August 22, 2007

A Recurring Dream

Indulge me a moment here, and take a moment to consider your job. Try to imagine that you go into work this morning, and you find that your manager has been sacked. One or two people might be reasonably pleased about it, but a number of others will probably be quite upset by it. At the very least, a period of upheaval would follow, and there would be absolutely no guarantee whatsoever that your news boss would be any good. Using this rationale - indeed using more or less any rationale - I'm really struggling to see any logic at all behind the current rumours circulating confirming Martin Jol's future at Tottenham Hotspur.

Don't get me wrong, here - Spurs' first two matches of the season were pretty calamitous. Their defeats against Sunderland and Everton were poor, poor results. However, they bounced back with a comfortable win against Derby County last week and, even allowing for the fact that Derby are pretty strong contenders for the prize of The Worst Premier League Team Of All Time, it was a convincing, professional performance which more than hinted at their potential for the rest of the season. They couldn't, in all honesty, have done much more than they did in beating Derby last Saturday. It's not even as if Spurs have had the worst start to the season of anyone. Manchester United have been dismal in their opening three matches, having failed to pick up even a win against the titans of Reading, Portsmouth and Manchester City. The Spurs board of directors, though, appear to have got it into their heads that they have lost confidence in Jol, and this belief, coupled with the strangely self-fulfilling nature of the British press (which manages to turn rumour into the truth through the medium of reporting every little rumour as undeniable, cast iron fact), seem to be uniting to make Jol's position untenable.

"Losing confidence in the manager" seems to be the current phrase du jour when it comes to firing your manager. When Carlisle United, even more inexplicably, sacked their manager after the opening match of the season (a match which Carlisle didn't even lose, having picked up a 1-1 draw at Walsall), this was the excuse that was given. What, though, have the Spurs board lost confidence in? Jol is the most successful Spurs manager in twenty years. When he was appointed to the job, his primary aim was to bring European football to White Hart Lane and, if possible, to bridge the gap between Tottenham Hotspur and the self-perpetuating "Big Four" that cast such a blight over the competitiveness of the Premier League. He has been approximately 90% successful in this. One could make a convincing case for arguing that the "Big Four" has become a "Big Five", which, considering the enormous financial advantages that the others have through their annual Champions League television and prize money, is quite an achievement. Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea aren't merely the four best teams in England - they're probably four of the best eight or ten teams in the whole of Europe. Catching up with them in any way is an impressive achievement.

Now, there is a case to be made for Jol's dismissal. His continuing insistence on player Aaron Lennon on the wrong side of the pitch has baffled many at White Hart Lane for the last year or so. His tactical substitution have been occasionally questionable. Most significantly (and most worryingly), Spurs have singularly failed to clear their unwanted reputation of being "chokers". In the FA Cup quarter-final last season, they choked against Chelsea. 3-1 up with twenty minutes to go, they blew it, and then failed to even turn up for the replay. They did the same thing in the semi-final of the League Cup against Arsenal. They threw away a two goal lead in the first leg, and then folded in the the return match. In the UEFA Cup, they went to Sevilla and picked up a decent result, only to throw it away with a catastrophic start to the second leg which they were, ultimately, unable to recover from. Spurs remind me of no-one other than England in this respect - expectations which probably out-strip capability (but not quite enough to completely dampen hope), and a succession of teams with some sort of psychological block that prevents them from winning on the big stage. How much of this is Jol's fault is open to question, but there is no question that, while he is the manager, it is his responsibility.

The case for the defence, however, is a strong one. People in football tend to have pretty short memories, and it's worth remembering just how wretched Spurs have been for much of their time in the Premier League. Whilst they have never seriously challenged for the Premier League title (and, such is the golf between Manchester United, Chelsea, and the rest, they may now never get the chance to do so), but they have occasionally flirted with relegation. In this respect, with two successive fifth places in the table, Jol is their most successful coach in the last twenty-odd years. Spurs have also been regarded as a "work in progress" over the last couple of years. The majority of the signings made since Jol took over (and most of these, it's worth remembering, have been made by the various shadowy "Directors of Football" that they have lurking in the background rather than by Jol himself - in that respect, he is a coach rather than a manager) have been young players, who would take a couple of years to mature into the sort of players that the club would hope that they would. More significantly still, Spurs spent £40m over the course of the summer. If the board had "no confidence" in Jol, why did they do this, and why didn't they replace him then?

I've said on here before that football exists in a vacuum - a strange, parallel universe in which the usual rules of economics and physics do not seem to apply. The self-perpetuating way in which Jol's dismissal has gone from being a rumour to highly likely is proof of this in itself, and the irony is that the only guarantee that one can make is that, even if Jol survives this wobble and wins his next seven or eight matches, his job will be in grave danger again as soon as Spurs lose again, whenever that is. With Manchester United to play at the weekend, it could be sooner rather than later, and those opening defeats against Sunderland and Everton will start to look very costly indeed. I can't help but think, however, that if the board of directors of Tottenham Hotspur have "lost confidence" in their manager, they should probably take a long, hard look at themselves first. They should also consider this - if Martin Jol has "taken Spurs as far as he can", does a manager exist that can take them any further? Without the regular income of Champions League football, the bridge that said new coach would have to cross would be one of Golden Gate proportions.


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