Oh, Do the Hokey Cokey

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I’ve read the word “fault” about a million times over the last couple of weeks, but you know what? I’m not even sure what it is we’re trying to blame people for.

Wind back eighteen months or so and Phoenix 2021 took over the shell of a club, they got the name, the ground, the training ground and precious little else.  The playing staff was meagre, the academy had its heart ripped out and there was never any promise of a massive influx of money from the Middle East.  Just a vague aim of being an established championship team in 5 years and even vaguer aspirations of playing at a higher level.

Thankfully, as strange as it is to thank Krasner & co for anything, some of the assorted sell-on fees that had been left in place came to fruition and the club was able to cobble together a squad.  I say cobble together because they were cheap, in terms of transfer fees, maybe less so in terms of wages, but the money was quickly spent and then from that first window we’ve been, frankly potless.

In that context, Leam Richardson really showed his mettle.  He took a team of limited resources and made them more than a sum of their parts.  It wasn’t always a pretty watch. Teams that could match us for physicality often out played us, but we were efficient, we rarely lost a game that “we should win” and it turns out that’s not just what it takes to be competitive in League One, with a fair wind, it’s enough for you to win the bloody thing.

There’s some out there who’ll have you believe that this was an accident, almost a mistake, like winning as many of your games as possible isn’t what everyone wants.  Going up may have been a surprise, but it was pleasant one, a real bonus considering where we’d finished the previous season.  The question should all have been about what happened next.

Paul Cook had two years of struggle, despite having a “Championship ready” squad, or at least a Championship read budget, and here was Leam Richardson with his band of league one brothers and a budget that meant any recruitment would be a gamble.  For the club, plan A should have been “what happens when we’re back in league 1”, Plan B, “what if we break lucky and stay up”.

However, expectations were allowed to run riot, people got giddy after a decent start and a massive depression set in when the wheels started to come off.  We’d done this dance before, we should have known what to expect and it shouldn’t have involved a man who’d broke his back for the club through its darkest days being unceremoniously removed from his post, probably because of a social media reaction to his first real run of bad results.

Even so, Richardson’s sacking gave the board a chance to reset expectations, to take control of their narrative and pitch their long-term plan.  It gave them the opportunity to appoint their man, someone who bought into what they wanted for the club, their preferred style of play, their approach to recruitment and their budget. Someone whose interview pitch went a bit further than “Hello, I’m Yaya Toure’s brother and I want to pass the ball out from the back”.

You’d be forgiven for wondering, given his playing and coaching career, how many EFL games Kolo Toure had ever seen, let alone how many Latics matches?  It was very unlikely he knew the league, or what was required to survive in it, he won’t have known any of our players, or many of the opposition’s.  He might have had a theory on how he wanted to play football, but did he have an idea of how he wanted to put it into practice given he’d not even managed an age group team before Latics.  It’s a wonder he even wanted the job, let alone got it.

It was a car crash waiting to happen, even if no one could really predict just how bad it was going to be.  After two months of chopping and changing, “finding out about” his players, not really showing a commitment to any style of play, formation or personnel (apart from Power, Tilt and McClean – who’d been blamed for Richardson’s demise in many quarters) the best we can manage is to chalk Toure’s tenure up to experience, as Wigan Athletic’s lost weekend (or 8).

We can talk about the relative merits of Chris Wilder, Neil Critchley or Rob Edwards until we’re blue in the face.  Each has big plus points, but two of them aren’t available anymore and the other probably wouldn’t touch us with a barge pole.  There are other candidates out there right now, but most would be little more than a short-term fix to try and avoid a relegation that we should have been planning for in the first place.

It’s no one’s fault we’re battling at the foot of the table, it’s just the reality of where we are as a club and right now we need a manager for the next three years, not the next three months.

Is that Shaun Maloney?  Seeing as he looks nailed on to get the job, you’d have to hope so.

Let’s be honest, he was the candidate who ticked most boxes back in November.  He knows the club and the town, he’s associated with a possession based style of play, he’s going to be cheap and not in a position to demand “investment” in the team.  He might not have managed in the Championship, but he’s played there and, if you’ve read anything about his approach, you can be damn sure that he’s been watching games if he’s planning on managing at this level.

His record at Hibs is a concern for many.  Getting sacked from your last job is never a good look, but unpick it a little bit and things don’t look quite as bad.  Maloney took over a side that had lost 7 of its last nine games and he took them to the same place in the table that they’d finished the year before.  His win percentage was similar to his predecessors and his departure seemed to be more about the reactions to two defeats in two weeks against Hearts than it did any real assessment of performance.

I’ve seen his time there as a car crash, but the car had already crashed before he arrived, if anything he just failed to get it back on the road quickly enough.

A lot of the other criticism going around is just noise.  There’s not enough evidence to judge whether he’s a “manager” or a “coach”, if that distinction even matters that much these days, similarly there’s no real way of assessing whether he’s learnt anything from his Hibs experience.  There is this piece, written by Maloney himself, where he details his approach to man management, his thoughts on where he can improve as a coach and what he’s done about it.

In it, he cites Wigan as a club he’s watched and learned from, he clearly saw us last season and so will have a good idea of where we are.

His lack of experience is real though, but everyone has to start somewhere.

Just like we can’t go out and buy ready made players, our budget will struggle to attract a ready-made championship manager.  The board failed to grasp the nettle when they took on Toure, but they need to be clear that their next appointment is with a view to the long-term, that they’re looking to get back on their 5-year plan and that whilst staying in the Championship this year will be great, they think that Maloney is the right man to bring us back up if we don’t manage it.

A dose of realism never did anyone any harm.

Do I think Maloney is the right man for the job?  I’m man enough to admit that I don’t know.  I also realise that my opinion on the subject doesn’t matter one bit right now, what matters is whether the board do and whether they give him the proper time and support to prove it, one way or the other.   That article makes it clear that he talks a good game.  Whilst that’s a million miles away from playing a good game, I’m prepared to wait and judge him on what he does here rather than write him off based on other people’s assumptions.  And until then

Oh, do the Shaun Maloney…

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