The Gus Poyet era is under way at Sunderland following a difficult few weeks that ultimately ended with acrimony in the dressing room and the club stranded at the bottom of the Premier League.
It remains to be seen whether or not Poyet is the man for the role – his previous job at Brighton & Hove Albion saw some success but also ended in somewhat acrimonious circumstances.
But one thing is certain – if he doesn’t improve on what his predecessor has left him, Sunderland will be saying goodbye to the Premier League in seven months’ time.
It is unclear how much effort the Black Cats put into finding the right man for the job, although they clearly spent more time on Poyet’s appointment than they did when they brought in Paolo Di Canio (who was given the job a day after Martin O’Neill was sacked).
But one leading player in the field of sports recruitment believes that unless there is a wholesale change in the way managers are appointed, the huge number of bad decisions will continue.
When it comes to Di Canio, Sports Recruitment International chief operating officer Jim Chaplin is not simply being wise after the event, either. He had sounded the same warning back in the spring when the Italian’s ill-fated spell on Wearside began.
Speaking to Recruiter, an industry publication, at the time, he said: “The stories that came out of Swindon while Di Canio was in charge would have deterred many chairmen from appointing him.
“His relationship with the players and with the board [at Swindon] was turbulent in the extreme.”
Chaplin did add that “if Di Canio keeps Sunderland up, the board can claim to have been successful” – and based on that important but short-term criteria alone, the appointment can be deemed to have been a success. But Chaplin argues that spending a little more time finding the right man can lead to long-term stability as well as achieving immediate victories.
Chaplin won’t win any prizes for having predicted that Di Canio’s spell at Sunderland would be a tumultuous one. The warning signs were flashing brightly, after all. As well as his lack of top-flight managerial experience, there were stories about his tenure at Swindon.
No one aware of that situation can have been surprised to hear the stories of what went on at the Stadium of Light – tales of the manager apparently belittling his players and questioning their professionalism. Whether or not Di Canio was right with his observations, it seemingly led to resentment and fear amongst his players.
Meanwhile, away from the training ground, Di Canio’s first days in the job were dominated by controversy about his political views. At a time when the focus should have been on the club’s Premier League survival bid, the headlines were instead all about strained relationships with the Durham Miners Association union and the resignation of former foreign secretary David Miliband as a non-executive director.
Again, though, these problems were signposted a long time in advance. Di Canio himself had already described himself as a “fascist” and he used to give fascist salutes to Lazio fans, so this was no made-up media circus. And his appointment at his previous club, Swindon, had resulted in the GMB union withdrawing its sponsorship of the club. Any form of due diligence by Sunderland should have highlighted these issues. Perhaps it did but the club felt it was a risk worth taking. But whether or not there was adequate research made into Di Canio’s appointment, it was a marriage that ended in tears.
Chaplin believes the risks that come with managerial appointments can be mitigated by using outside experts who can provide some independent, emotion-free advice ahead of what are major human-resources appointments.
It is something that happens as a matter of course in most other walks of life. Senior professionals, top civil servants and company directors are all checked out properly before being given important positions, and it is perhaps surprising that key football management decisions are usually not treated in the same way.
We are talking, after all, about decisions that could cost tens of millions of pounds – both in terms of the remuneration packages for the managers themselves and in terms of the huge financial losses to a club that a poor appointment and subsequent failure can cause.
“The appointment of football managers is one of the few areas of senior level recruitment which is still managed directly by clubs and without the help of search firms,” said Chaplin, who added that the high rate of turnover amongst football managers was “directly linked to insufficient and often ineffective processes that clubs are running”.
Sports Recruitment International has been around for 12 years and has worked with most of the top Premier League clubs, including Arsenal, the two Manchester clubs, Liverpool, Everton and Spurs. But most of its work until recently has been on the commercial and operational side of the business as opposed to the managerial side of things.
This, however, might be changing. The company helped two Championship clubs make appointments during the summer, and Chaplin believes this signals a wider realisation that spending a little bit of time to get things right can pay off.
“Short-termism is all pervasive, which mitigates against anyone trying to look to the long term,” he said
“Only Manchester United and Arsenal have been able to buck those trends in recent times.”
Chaplin added that there were a growing number of clubs looking to build longer-term legacies rather than focusing solely on short-term success (or survival). In the West Midlands, these include West Brom as well as Wolves, who seem to have a long-term strategy under Kenny Jackett in place.
He said: “Sporting brands are changing their recruitment criteria and there is now more of a focus and responsibility on being role models and ambassadors for the club with sponsors, with stakeholders and in the community at large.”
Having said that, it’s not always the case that clubs don’t know what they are letting themselves in for. Talking about a manager who lasted little more than 12 months in the job a few years ago, one former senior executive at a Championship club says that they were always aware there was a good chance the manager would come off the rails in his second season, but that he had been hired a year earlier simply to stave off relegation in the short term because that was his specialism.
To paraphrase, the club was saying: “Stuff the long-term consequences – we just need to stay up this year.”
Did that strategy work? Well, the manager in question did manage to avoid relegation in his first year. But the following season, the club plummeted back down the table and was relegated to League One. Short-term success, yes. Long-term success, absolutely not.
Of course, not every appointment is always going to work out – it doesn’t in any field or profession – but the sheer numbers of managers who are shown the door surely shows that recruitment processes could be handled better.
“Partly it’s egos of the chairmen, who think they know it all and want to make these appointments, and partly it’s because they believe that all potential candidates are known to them and their networks,” Chaplin said.
“Some of the bad appointments are made through a combination of arrogance, ignorance and panic or desperation. But using outside help on things such as risk management, research and referencing, as well as a network of senior football people globally, can pay off.
“I think there is an increase in the realisation that when it comes to technical appointments, there is value added in taking time over the process.”
This is about much more than just Sunderland – the Black Cats are only the latest example of a club rushing in and making a disastrous appointment, and then having to clear up the mess a few months later.
It will be interesting to see if the Poyet appointment proves to be more successful. In the meantime, though, the episode on Wearside shows that a more considered approach, perhaps with outside help, could prove to be a better way forward in future.