TOMMY MARTIN: The football season’s big lesson? Have a plan and stick to it

If there is one lesson to be taken from the football season almost gone, it’s that plans are not just for workshy scholars, writes Tommy Martin.

Always make a plan!

That’s what I like to tell students looking for guidance ahead of this stressful exam time.

It’s important to put some time aside to make a study plan. Firstly, it’s a great way of tricking your parents into thinking you are doing lots of hard work; it also allows you to become skilled in pointless administrative tasks, which will be useful when you graduate from college; and it’s a fun diversion from actual studying.

Of course, if you’re the kind of student who’s this deep into the sports section at this stage of the academic year then you’re already an expert dosser. I salute you.

Meanwhile, if there is one lesson to be taken from the football season almost gone, it’s that plans are not just for workshy scholars.

In many ways this season has provided mixed messages. Spending big has worked for some, not others. Some have sacked their managers and reaped the rewards, others pulled the trigger and blew their own heads off. We said goodbye to what seemed like the last of the great manager- dictators, yet elsewhere the merits of empire-building were on show.

But through all these divergent themes, the clubs that did well were the ones who ended the season like a smirking Hannibal Smith in the A-Team, chomping on a cigar, saying: “I love it when a plan comes together.”

Of course, if even the best laid plans sometimes go wrong, so too do the worst ones.

Take Everton, whose plan veered badly off course when Ronald Koeman was sacked early in the season. Everton’s strategy was to buy about half-a-dozen vaguely similar attacking midfielders, including glacial-paced noughties throwback Wayne Rooney, and have them coached by men in the template of smartly-dressed Eurogaffers set by the Dutchman and his predecessor Roberto Martinez.

Wayne Rooney
Wayne Rooney

This explained why, upon sacking Koeman, they vigorously pursued Marco Silva from Watford. But when Watford responded to Everton’s approach like a demented mother kangaroo defending her young, the Toffees looked elsewhere. To which renaissance figure did they turn? Why Sam Allardyce of course, the man whose football outlook has all the lush romanticism of a Cradle of Filth concert.

Silva and Allardyce are so different as to suggest they would be perfectly cast together in an odd couple sitcom format, Silva as a prissy psychiatrist, Sam as his armchair-bound, wisecracking dad, or driving around Britain in a motor home together, endlessly debating tactics in Sam and Marco’s Road to Nowhere.

Those in the know said Big Sam was just a stopgap, a ham sandwich at a motorway service station to tide Everton over until more sophisticated cuisine was on offer.

Yet Allardyce signed an 18-month contract on a salary of £6m (€6.8m) a year, making him one of the best paid managers in football. That’s a big ham sandwich.

At the time, Everton owner Farhad Moshiri said “Sam understands the long-term ambitions we have for this great club” — which presumably didn’t involve the burly former Bolton boss at all.

Duly Allardyce was given his jotters this week, so Everton can return to the now unemployed Silva, and some kind of plan.

Sam Allardyce
Sam Allardyce

West Ham have done something similar in parting company with their own short-term firefighter, David Moyes. They can now also revert to their long-term strategic vision, which is apparently to destroy all traces of the club’s identity as quickly as possible.

Elsewhere the perils of not sticking to your plan were clear. Despite differences in style, Swansea and Stoke once had a structure.

The Swans built possession-based, tiki-taka teams populated by recycled extras from Revista De La Liga, with Stoke preferring set-piece blitzkrieg regiments inhabitated by giant, raw-boned yeomen.

Once both swayed away from the formula, attempting to sex up their dossiers with rogue elements like Renato Sanches and Xherdan Shaqiri, their demise was guaranteed.

Both clubs sacked managers to no avail, Swansea achieving initial success with Carlos Carvalhal, Stoke not even getting a dead cat bounce from Paul Lambert.

Roy Hodgson, on the other hand, worked wonders with Crystal Palace, taking them from certain doom after the sacking of Ronald De Boer to 11th. Hodgson, of course, loves a plan, and once he took over, Palace were placed on his tried-and- tested diet of training ground rote-learning, repetitively grinding through team-shape exercises like a class of quivering schoolboys being forced by a Victorian headmaster to endlessly conjugate Latin verbs on pain of the sharp end of a leather strap.

Now there are conflicting views on what constitutes a successful plan, as I found out last Thursday while interviewing Chris Hughton and John Giles on Off The Ball.

Hughton claimed the days of clubs being guided by an all-powerful manager are at an end, putting Brighton’s success down to a model in which Hughton is part of a greater structure that includes a recruitment department and a head of football administration.

‘Head of football administration’ is another way to say ‘director of football’, a term which brings out in Gilesy the darkest of forebodings, rather like the Diabolus in Musica, the unsettling chord which mediaeval composers feared using lest it summon up the devil himself.

Giles feels that the incoming Arsenal manager is already hamstrung by the club’s appointment of Raul Sanllehi as head of football relations and Sven Mislintat as head of recruitment, responsibilities once entirely under Arsene Wenger’s purview.

Control is everything for a manager according to Giles, and these new-fangled football bureacrats deny him that. It’s easy to consider this view as outdated given Hughton’s more contemporary take, but then look around the Premier League and see the control exercised by, say, Sean Dyche at Burnley, a club seemingly built in his image, and the success that has resulted there.

Burnley boss Dyche
Burnley boss Dyche

Or witness the lack of control enjoyed by Antonio Conte at Chelsea, where, despite delivering the Premier League title, the manager appeared to have as much influence on the club’s dealings as celebrity Blues fans Davids Baddiel and Mellor.

All these debates reinforce the idea that whatever your favoured philosophy, style of play, or administrative structure, the key thing is having a plan that everybody understands and buys into.

No greater example of that was at the top of the table, where both Manchester clubs threw vast billions in transfer funds at their managers. While City’s spending has been guided by their longstanding goal to, like a Las Vegas casino, recreate turn of the decade FC Barcelona in rainy Lancashire, United’s has been a gaudy Elton John-style shopping spree, were Elton John a grumpy Portuguese misanthrope.

Throughout the league, from Liverpool’s teutonic pressing factory to Bournemouth’s south coast passing project, to the Pochettino youth club outing at Spurs, the benefits of sticking to the plan were clear.

So kids, get those rulers and highlighter pens out, a career in top level football boardrooms could await.


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