Interim managers part two: A look at the Premier League’s most memorable temporary bosses

(Photo by Голубович Дмитрий – Wikimedia Commons)

In my last piece, I made the case for the Premier League instilling a rule similar to the one that forced Real Madrid to give Santiago Solari the manager’s job on a permanent basis.

Why? Because interim managers consistently fail in the Premier League.

Clubs should follow Watford’s lead and sack managers only after they have a permanent replacement in place, rather than dithering about with interim bosses.

This second installment discussing interim managers takes a closer look at three of the most memorable temporary bosses of recent years and why, like many others, they were unable to hang onto their job.

Roberto Di Matteo – The Successful One

Roberto Di Matteo has the most remarkable resume of any Premier League interim manager.

When Di Matteo was appointed in 2012, Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich had burned through seven high-profile managers in just nine years, as he sought to satisfy his obsession with winning the Champions League.

The latest managerial casualty had been Andre Villas-Boas, a 33-year-old high-flyer dubbed as the “next Mourinho.” His age proved to be his most significant impediment, Villas-Boas failed to gain authority with Chelsea’s senior players, some of whom were older than he was. He didn’t make it through the beginning of March of his first season, walking away with the lowest win percentage of any Chelsea manager in the Abramovich era.

Di Matteo was a surprise appointment; he was given the temporary job largely on account of the work he had done as Villas-Boas’s assistant. Before that, his most recent managerial stint had ended in dismissal from West Bromwich Albion. He was hardly the man to lead Chelsea to European glory, succeeding where renowned managers such as Jose Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti had failed.

Yet, somehow, Di Matteo did exactly that. His first move was to recall Chelsea’s senior players — John Terry, Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole —  for the second leg of their Champions League round of 16 tie against Napoli, in which they overturned a 3-1 deficit. He went on to to build a formidable defensive base, which was the foundation of Chelsea squeezing past Barcelona in the semi-final before beating Bayern Munich on penalties in the final.

Abramovich’s dream had finally been realized, delivered by an unlikely hero. The lesson we learned was much like Claudio Ranieri’s rise and fall as Leicester City manager. Football can surprise you in the most wonderful ways, but it is also capable of sending the greatest miracle-makers crashing back down to earth.

Unsurprisingly, Di Matteo was given the job on a permanent basis in the wake of his team’s Champions League victory. Had Chelsea finally found a manager for the long-term? With an owner as famously impatient and capricious as Abramovich, the answer was an emphatic no. Di Matteo was sacked four months into the following season.

Despite ending the season as European Champions, Di Matteo’s Chelsea were consistently poor in the league; they finished as only the sixth best team in England. Some argue that their Champions League success was down to the players rather than the manager, which was justified by his inability to deliver consistently good results. Whether or not this is true, Di Matteo has a trophy on his resume that most managers can only dream of. His sacking, therefore, exemplifies how the interim position can be a poisoned chalice. Even the most illustrious of trophies could not save him.

Rafael Benitez – The Hated One

Rafa Benitez arrived at Chelsea having won pretty much everything in his career – The Champions League, The Europa League, La Liga, The Club World Cup etc. Yet, one thing he never stood a chance of winning was the Chelsea fans’ hearts.

After Di Matteo was sacked from the Chelsea job in 2012, Abramovich turned to Benitez as a sort of stopgap as he waited for Jose Mourinho or Pep Guardiola to potentially become available at the end of the season.

Abramovich was clearly willing to forget Benitez’s tumultuous relationship with Chelsea during his six-year stint as Liverpool manager. For example, as Liverpool manager, he declared that he could never manage Chelsea and that Chelsea fans needed flags to remember who they supported. Chelsea fans were less willing to forget.

When he was appointed, Trizia Fiorello, the chair of the Chelsea Supporters Club, told the Press Association, “(The board) don’t listen to the fans. I don’t think Chelsea fans should be picking the manager or anything but it was pretty evident there were two people the supporters would not accept, and that was Avram Grant and Rafa Benitez.”

“Some fans feel almost that it was a message to the fans to say, ‘We pick who we want’, almost spitefully,” Fiorello continued.

His first match was overshadowed by the chorus of boos he received before the game had even started. Those jeers persisted for the rest of the season, regardless of how the team played.

The enduring frosty relationship between manager and fans culminated in Benitez furiously confirming, in a post-match press conference, that he would leave Chelsea  at the end of the season, criticising the club for including the word “interim” in his job title.

“Chelsea gave me the title of interim manager, which is a massive mistake. I’m the manager,” he vented after his side beat Middlesbrough in the FA Cup fifth round.

“The fans are not helping us,” he said. “At the end of the season, I will leave. They don’t have to worry about me.”

What tends to be forgotten is that Benitez was relatively successful at Chelsea. He won the Europa League and finished third in the Premier League, three places higher than the previous year.

Benitez was doomed from the start, regardless of results. As long as Chelsea fans knew that he was only a temporary appointment, they could not get behind a man they held such ire for. His time in charge is an example of a futile interim manager who failed not because he was under-qualified, but because he was simply incompatible with the club.

If Abramovich had taken stock of who was available before firing Di Matteo, he would have avoided a bleak period where supporters vocalised intensely hostile feelings towards him. The same supporters with whom he had celebrated European glory merely months earlier.

John Carver – The Deluded One

No man to have managed Newcastle United for more than ten games has a worse win rate than John Carver. From January to June 2015, in less than six months in charge of the club, Carver won 15 percent of his fixtures, or three wins out of 20. This included an eight-match losing streak that ran for nearly two months, Newcastle’s worst-ever sequence in the Premier League.

As the season entered its final month, it was clear that Carver was well out of his depth. Perhaps in a last-ditch attempt to convince the public otherwise, Carver sensationally (and hilariously) declared himself “the best coach in the Premier League.”

When you think about disastrous interim managers, Carver is the first name to spring to mind. This is partly to do with his terrible win record but mostly to do with this ludicrous claim.

After his first four games, in which he suffered three losses and a draw, he urged the club to give someone the job permanently, whether it be him or someone else. Like Benitez, he acknowledged that the job was made more difficult by his temporary title.

After failing to persuade Steve McClaren to leave his post at Derby County, Newcastle owner Mike Ashley gave Carver the job until the end of the season. His appointment posed two questions: Firstly, how does an interim manager with a record of a draw and three losses manage to extend his time in charge? Secondly, why were Newcastle United so unambitious as to pursue only Steve McClaren?

With three games of the campaign remaining, embarrassingly, they turned to McClaren again, who would agree to take over only at the end of the season. McClaren performed nearly as poorly as Carver did in the role. Newcastle would be relegated the following season. The man hired to clear up McClaren’s mess? The aforementioned Rafael Benitez.

Carver, clearly, was not the only disaster at Newcastle United. His ruinous leadership was only the first chapter in a story of deep turmoil at the club. He is the perfect example of why clubs should stop hiring interim managers because his tenure typifies why interim managers rarely succeed; his stint was both the story of a club with no long-term plan and a manager under-qualified for the job he was given.


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