As I write this, just 219 days into Paul Clement’s tenure at Reading, it’s clear that many supporters have lost confidence in him. In this time his team has won just six out of 25 competitive fixtures, a figure that speaks for itself. He may have a very good pedigree as a coach, with a famously successful role in this capacity at Real Madrid and many in the game speaking highly of his abilities, but to me he seems to be the latest in a long line of coaches who’ve failed to make the grade as managers.
The skill sets required are very different - coaches are primarily concerned with the technical aspects of footballers and their tactics on the pitch; managers are responsible for a whole lot more, and need to have the right “soft skills” needed to manage players and the whole squad as people. This includes possessing the necessary psychological and motivational skills to successfully build and maintain positive interpersonal relationships with their players, coupled with an in-depth understanding of managing the group dynamics within a squad of professional, ambitious and highly paid sports stars.
The current lack of success on the pitch, coupled with ongoing stories about unhappy players and the public fallout with Mo Barrow, suggest that these are the problem areas where the transition of coach to manager hasn’t worked. There’s no disgrace in that - Clement certainly isn’t the first, and certainly won’t be the last, to fail to change role successfully. Wally Downes, Kevin Dillon, Don Howe and (arguably) Steve McClaren immediately spring to mind.
Many readers will have recoiled in horror from the “management-speak” vocabulary used in the second paragraph of this piece. It is entirely deliberate. It will surprise no-one that speculation is already rife about potential replacements for Clement, and, in particular, who is currently available. Because it seems, for some reason, that availability seems to be the most critical criteria used when selecting a new manager.
That’s just another way that the world of football seems to operate in a wholly different way from just about every other type of business in the world, where being available (i.e. having been sacked from another organisation for failing there) would be an immediate red flag to any hiring manager, and a very difficult stigma for potential applicants for a role to overcome.
So, just how would the world of commerce recruit a new manager if they were faced with the failure of a key business unit leader like this?
Almost certainly, they would recruit in one of two ways. Smart companies always aim for the first option - succession planning. This is where the potential next incumbent of any role is identified early among existing staff, and receives appropriate training and experience to allow a smooth transition into the higher role when required.
In this context, though, I think Reading FC can’t be described as a “smart company” in any shape or form. Although back in 2010 there certainly was talk of succession planning (Nigel Howe spoke of a dynasty of managers, akin to the Liverpool FC “boot room” of the 1960s), the failure of Brendan Rodgers, the sad death of Eamonn Dolan and the departure to Arsenal of Lee Herron knocked that idea on the head. So, unless we’re looking at the sudden promotion of Nigel Gibbs or Karl Halabi (the phrase “clutching at straws” springs to mind), then I think we can discount any promotions from within the club.
It looks like the only option will be an outside appointment. The basis for any company looking to recruit a senior business leader would be their strategy - what does the organisation want to do, and how are they going to achieve that?
In Reading’s terms, that of course involves statements like “get into the Premier League”, or, even better “survive in the Premier League” - but there’s a whole lot more to it than that. That’s an objective solely for the football team, but how that is going to be done leads to a whole other set of questions, and this also needs to fit into the set of strategic objectives for the whole organisation, and be supported by the strategic objectives of all the other parts of the organisation.
And this is where we start to hit problems and questions at Reading. What actually is the strategy? What are the long-term objectives? What is Reading FC actually for - and all about? In any corporate organisation such things are set by the owners, taken on by the board of directors, and constantly reinforced and cascaded down the whole organisation. Without strong, visible leadership at the top level, and frequent reiteration of the corporate strategy coming down from this level, these aims and objectives tend to become diluted over time.
Some might suggest that this is the fundamental root of Reading’s current problems - without owners who are strong and visible is it any wonder that the whole club seems directionless and in a malaise where no-one really seems to know what the objective is or how it’s going to be realised? If there is a defined strategy at the football club, it’s one that certainly isn’t clear to supporters, and one that certainly isn’t being communicated out, which makes me wonder just how well-defined it is.
Compare and contrast this with the days leading up to the 106-point team - where everyone across the whole organisation knew what the strategy was and exactly what their role in achieving it was. Sir John Madejski’s visits to the dressing room before each match might have been viewed with some amusement by the more cynical professionals of the time, but they left no-one in any doubt why they were there and what they were trying to do.
If this is the problem - and I’m sure it’s a contributory factor to one extent or another - then a knee-jerk change of manager is unlikely to solve the problem, as this lack of strategy and communications will continue to hinder the next occupant of the manager’s office at Hogwood. Similarly, there’s also a very large question mark over the role and the capability of Ron Gourlay. I won’t share on my views of him here (he can undoubtedly afford better lawyers than I can), except to say that in any organisation the CEO’s role is crucial in defining, reinforcing and maintaining the strategic direction and corporate objectives - something we manifestly don’t see happening at Reading.
Getting back to the appointment of a manager, any other non-football business would base their recruitment process on what they wanted to achieve and how they wanted to do it, as above. This, fairly obviously, involves the relevant people involved in the recruitment process sitting down and deciding what they want and how they want to see it achieved, then going out to find a manager whose skills and aims support this.
Every successful manager has their own style and ‘philosophy’ - Brendan Rodgers even outlined what he called his ‘methodology’ in a PowerPoint presentation, supported by a set of bound, colour-printed, handouts (see below). Steve Coppell’s was also obvious (fast-paced, wing-based attacking play, recruiting players who “had something to prove”), and while Jaap Stam’s style and philosophy was too inflexible to be effective for long, and arguably too advanced for many of the players he found himself with, it certainly did exist.
I’m not actually sure if Paul Clement has a style or philosophy, and neither am I sure about Steve Bruce (rumoured to be on the owners’ shortlist), while Sam Allardyce certainly does but it’s not one that would bring the crowds flocking back to the Mad Stad. I think their major selling point is being available at the right time, but that’s not a recipe for success in any field. Instead, the key for any successful recruitment is to match the candidate’s style and ‘philosophy’ to the overall organisation’s strategy - and also to the resources available to them (a big-spending manager would be a disaster at a cash-strapped club!).
With this in mind, and assuming the football club can actually decide what their strategy is, I’d hope that they perform any recruitment exercise in a sensible, considered way, based upon finding a manager with the ‘football philosophy’ they want for the club. This may involve waiting until the right manager is available if they are currently employed at a lower-league club (they waited for Steve Coppell to leave Brighton and that went okay), and may also involve paying compensation to that club, but they’ve done that enough times already.
But to me, that’s far preferable to giving the job to some time-served manager who’s been around the block, is currently out of work because they’ve failed elsewhere, and is recruited because of their current availability rather than their fit to the role.
And for me, their job description would be easy to put together:
“Manager wanted for Thames Valley based professional football team currently languishing with under-achieving set of players and disenchanted fans. Must have a philosophy based on fast-paced, attacking football, as supporters will be far more engaged and forgiving if results initially aren’t perfect as long as they are entertained and see intent and passion. Should be flexible and prepared to invest game time in youth, giving opportunities to talented young players as these are the club’s greatest potential resource and shouldn’t be lost or squandered.”