AFC Wimbledon: Football needs more counterintuition

Wimbledon Manager Neal Ardley has been struggling of late. Six defeats on the bounce, and it’s etched on his face. The pressure must be immense. I know from conversations I’ve had in the past that he’s the kind of manager who takes a lot on his shoulders, and can be quite tough on himself. He’s an emotional man, that much is clear. But behind all that, and that slight frame of his, is a strength of character that can do remarkable things. But maybe, sometimes, he needs help.

That’s what makes the response last night from AFC Wimbledon to the problems the first team is facing on the pitch so noticeable. It’s ruffled some feathers, and it’s fair to say, some don’t agree. Some say “It’s time for a change”, or that old favourite, “He’s taken us as far as he can”. And they may have a point. Perhaps like politicians, all managerial careers end in failure. But I urge you to read the statement, because it says something important about the position of a manager in a football club and how you should treat them – not just this one, and also about the way in which businesses that have such a complex web of relationships with fans, other stakeholders, and employees, need to make their key decisions. It’s these decisions after all, that help to set the business culture, and that culture is what defines the the business: the virtuous circle.

Just about managing

Football has a bit of problem with managers. There’s a reverence surrounding them that can at times be unhealthy. An expectation that they’re miracle workers, and alongside that, the implication is that they can undertake superhuman feats. That results in managers being hired to work a miracle, when hard graft is what’s needed. When it comes to managers the club, publicly at least, will often only say anything substantive about them when they’re appointed, win a match, progress in a trophy, and then when they’re on the brink – and we all know what happens when the dreaded ‘vote of confidence comes’: one game later and they’re toast. Of course I’m indulging in cliches and shortcuts to make a point, but I think we all recognise a term like ‘hire and fire culture’ and its relationship to football.

There’s a reverence about [managers] that can at times be unhealthy. An expectation that they’re miracle workers….the implication is that they can undertake superhuman feats

Football as a whole can be a tad hypocritical: we’ll gladly buddy up with emotional support or mental health charities that encourage people – often men in particular – to open up, be human. We’ve got the very welcome sight of players like Billy Kee at Accrington Stanley, talking about his fight with depression, about wanting to kill himself, or Martin Ling’s battles with depression, but we still place such intolerable pressure on managers (and players) that we are at risk of dehumanising them in search of results. The whole point of campaigns like that of Mind’s current partnership with the EFL is to engender a change of culture amongst all of us, not just those who don’t play football.

The sack race

I think we have to ask the question: how would we treat any other employee? Someone in your own company who’s going through a tough time? Someone you work with who’s not getting the same results he or she did previously? First of all we don’t walk in and ask them to clear their desks – or at least most of us wouldn’t. In fact, in many cases, employment law means you can’t simply do that without good cause, and that law applies equally to all of us. No. You find out what the problems are, try to address them, support the employee through the process, and hopefully you’ve got a better employee at the end of it. If you haven’t, and things don’t change, then it’s perfectly sensible to usher said employee to the exit.

[We have to] ask the question: how would we treat any other employee?

But I’ll thank you not assume that I want managers to stay in post when they’re so obviously unsuited, or have genuinely and demonstrably come to a natural parting of the ways. That’s not the reason that Wimbledon’s actions are so welcome. Professional football is an elite sport. It can be unforgiving, you need to be strong, and weaknesses on the pitch are punished ruthlessly. If they weren’t, we wouldn’t want to watch it, and it wouldn’t be the game we all love so much. But that doesn’t mean brutalising people, and operating a culture that punishes weaknesses off the pitch, and refuses to provide support to someone when they need it, particularly when doing so could help them come out the other side a better manager.

Counterintuition is sometimes the right business decision

The sort of decision Wimbledon have made is counterintuitive, because goes against the tendencies, the culture and the expectations in the game. But counterintuition isn’t important in and of itself. Sometimes it’s important because it’s actually the right thing to do, and because what might be expected – in this case, firing the manager – is on balance, the wrong thing to do. Sometimes it’s the right business decision.

It’s always worth citing former manager of FC United of Manchester, Karl Marginson, for the counterintuitive approach that I’m talking about. There were plenty of occasions where he could have been removed, where that was the expectation. And I’m sure at times intense discussions were had about whether it was the right or the wrong thing. But behind it all, the board and senior management at the club took the view that part of their role was support and develop the manager, and they did so proactively – to their benefit. Eventually Marginson did leave, evidence that every manager has a shelf-life, but that’s not the point.

What do you know that they don’t?

Of course, lots of people, from football writers to fans on the terrace, will discuss the pros and cons of a manager’s line-up or formation, and have a view on whether or not the manager has or hasn’t been, on balance, a success with the resources he has at his disposal. Those are all opinions, and it’s perfectly valid to argue your point.

However, if you are one of those people who tends towards the more ruthless end of the spectrum, or even the more moderate “I think he’s gone as far as he can”, think for a moment: what do you know that the board doesn’t? Do you have an understanding of managing a large, complex business like this? Have you undertaken line management – particularly in a high-pressure environment with such a massive public profile? Do you know what it takes to identify, appoint and support a manager or coach?

I’ve already mentioned business culture, and it’s worth making this final point, specific to Wimbledon as a club: Football clubs are complex beasts, with multiple voices all struggling to be heard. When your club is also fan/community owned, it’s an extra element that defines you and your actions. For Wimbledon fans it’s a badge worn with pride by almost every fan out there, and something that fans often demand is demonstrated outwardly in the way the club acts in any number of ways or on any number of issues. They often want things done with principles in mind, and to stand for something different. But acting with such distinction means you have to do it across the board, and it should be no different when it comes to how you make decisions on your managerial or coaching appointments. For boards, the need to sustain the culture of the business should weigh heavily on them in their deliberations on everything.

I’m always fond of reaching for the sayings of Brian Lomax at a point like this, but I don’t ever remember Brian saying much about managers. He did say “Players, managers, directors come and go, but the fans are always there”, and that much is true. Managers are there to do a job, and that must always be borne in mind. But knowing Brian, I like to think he would have had a heart when it came to managers as much as any other employee he had responsibility for (and he was a director of Northampton Town after all). I also think he would have recognised that a little bit of counterintuition is sometimes just what’s needed.

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