Friday, 29 January 2010

The graveyard shift

Whether it is a confused Spanish playmaker being shown around Birmingham or a promising Belgian midfielder taking in the sights of Wolverhampton, the January transfer window represents new beginnings for footballers.

For managers, however, the biting cold of British winter is a harbinger of change for the worse.

Sackings have been typically commonplace this winter, but what has been particularly eye-catching is the funereal manner of these dismissals.

News of Manchester City’s December sacking of Mark Hughes was broken to viewers like a state funeral. Pundits were asked to pay tribute to a “good man”, and other managers were quick to praise a fellow professional who “deserved better”.

Gary Lineker dispensed with his default mode of radiant smugness to glumly announce Sparky’s departure, and Match of the Day ended their usually chirpy closing montage with commentator Steve Wilson’s despairing mention of Hughes’ “lingering wave”.

Even Arsene Wenger, the supposed ray of intellectual hope in the landfill site of Premier League clich├ęs, succumbed to the solemnity by adding that “it is always very sad when a manager loses his job”.

The most sombre of tributes was paid to Alan Irvine, who was fired by Preston. His successor Rob Kelly vowed that the club would “carry on as we did before – it’s what Alan would have wanted.”

He also mourned Irvine as “not just a great manager but a great person”.

Despite his morbid departure, Irvine has since found employment at Sheffield Wednesday. And judging by his immediate success at Hillsborough, Irvine’s move is proving to be a resurrection.

Paul Hart’s exit from Queen’s Park Rangers did not cause such a stir. This managerial casualty was instead brushed aside like one of many incidental fatalities in a gangster film.

The indifference should come as no surprise. Hart (pictured) was the ninth manager to be dispatched by QPR owner, Formula 1 mogul and pseudo-mafia boss, Flavio Briatore.

Wary of Briatore’s fearsome reputation, media coverage of Hart’s demise was muted. Rolling news channels were conspicuously unwilling to expand on the issue, while newspapers were similarly careful not to upset Briatore.

Similarly bereft of sentiment was the end of Gary Megson’s tenure at Bolton. Like Hart, the response to Megson’s demise was underwhelming in terms of sympathy, somewhat like the national feeling of indifference induced by the death of Bernard Manning.

Bolton fans had long been clamouring for his dismissal, and when the fateful moment arrived, it was met with the fervour usually reserved for the gallows.

Linguistically, managerial fatalism comes as no surprise. Each rumoured sacking is met with tabloid headlines and studio chatter of ‘nails in the coffin’ and ‘dead men walking’.

Some managers, such as the gloomy, vortex-eyed Avram Grant, are a step ahead of their peers, appearing to already be half dead as they morbidly prowl their technical areas.

Grant’s club, Portsmouth, have recently had a transfer embargo lifted, and they will be hoping that an influx of new faces breathes new life into the relegation-threatened side.

Amid the chaos of the transfer window’s frantic closure, the end of January at least offers a slither of hope. Spring is a not too distant prospect, and with the almost bearable climes of February, comes the realisation for managers that they may have survived the culling season.