In overseeing the departure of Mark Robins so early in the 2014/15 campaign, Dean Hoyle has sent out a message that applies not just to Huddersfield Town, but to the Championship as a whole. Pay attention, Felix Magath. Take heed, Kenny Jackett. Listen up, Bob Peeters. There can be no room for stumbling, for there is not time to allow it. If you manage a team at the top of the league, the pace is relentless and the pressure unbearable. If you manage a team in the lower reaches, both may be cranked even higher.
Mark Robins is not a former manager of Huddersfield Town because he is a bad manager; just as Simon Grayson is not. Both were brought in to complete a specific job, a job they had the tools (and records) to suggest they could do, and both succeeded. Perhaps it is a lack of forward planning that brought about the stagnation that both experienced after their ‘tasks’ had been finished.
Simon Grayson took over a Terriers side that had lost in two consecutive playoff campaigns, and guided them to promotion. After doing what he was hired to do, he stuck around too long, and was ‘found out’ – his teams became dull and predictable, and the game he tried to instil was widely criticised. Eventually, with the team looking doomed, he was shipped out and Mark Robins brought in.
The thing that links both appointments – those of Robins and Grayson – is that they were reactive. As much as Huddersfield Town protested that both were brought in with long-term goals in mind, those long-term plans were hugely overshadowed by a short-term task. Both appointments, in the context of that short-term task, were successful. Both appointments, in terms of the longer plans, were failures.
Grayson has since taken over at Preston and is in charge of a team expected to do very well in League One this season – he’s fallen on his feet₁ and is once again proving his abilities as a manager, even though critics will point out that is ‘only’ at League One level. Robins, similarly, will have enhanced his CV somewhat with his spell at Huddersfield. He kept the team in the Championship, he oversaw a season of – albeit small – progress and now, having left the club after one game, he has the right to assume he wasn’t given a chance this season. He, too, will likely find a decent job as a result.
Both Robins and Grayson displayed elements that they knew what to do, just were unable to do it for any length of time. This is one of the problems of operating on a relative shoe-string. Robins started to play a 3-5-2 formation in order to maximise the effectiveness of his squad; he had a dearth of quality wingers, and that allowed wide-players like Adam Hammill on one side, and Paul Dixon on the other, to thrive. He used it first as an emergency formation, but then stuck with it because he was getting ‘results’ for a little while.
With a mobile forward like James Vaughan as one of the 2, it worked well, allowing the midfielders a variety of options when they were attacking. When Vaughan was replaced, and it was almost a complete replacement in the second half of last season, with Nahki Wells, a fox-in-the-box poacher type, it was obvious that he would offer less movement and opportunity to those playing behind him.
Yet Robins persisted with 3-5-2. It reminded me of Bologna’s stagnation under Stefano Pioli and later Davide Ballardini. The only way either coach found to keep the Rossoblu competitive defensively was to operate a 3-5-1-1 formation, but the squad was such (relying on immobile forwards such as Rolando Bianchi and Davide Moscardelli₂) that the only attacking threat in that set-up came from the midfield and goals were in very short supply.
In that atmosphere of stagnation, Robins’ tactics were doomed and the only bright spot in the second half of last season was a victory against a Watford side who were so far at the beach that one of the Vicarage Road stands may as well as been replaced by sand.
The time to replace Robins was after that game. The result meant nothing, except to provide encouragement for a couple of players (particularly Joe Lolley) that they could find themselves involved more this time around, and didn’t even paper over cracks that showed a team that had never been particularly threatened by relegation, but faded away appallingly once Vaughan’s season clunked to a halt. Robins’ job was complete, and he should have left the club at that point.
This appointment, perhaps for the first time in Hoyle’s tenure, is an active appointment, rather than a reactive one. He is looking for a manager who can take the club forward, rather than prevent it going backwards. One who can maintain and build on a squad, ensuring that a very talented cohort of youth players become integrated into a side who should be comfortably above the drop again; he needs a manager who can twist instead of stick.
In short, what is needed is somebody to do a similar job to that completed by Alan Curbishley at Charlton, and George Burley at Ipswich – though modern Championship football would likely ensure it was for a shorter tenure. There’s a number of talented managers available at the moment – the likes of Malky Mackay, Sean O’Driscoll, Chris Powell and even Burley himself are all without clubs but there are many more in England, and even more further afield.
Even though time is against him now the season has started, it is vital for Dean Hoyle to choose the right man for this job. He has, in his last two choices, picked the right man – for both achieved what they came in to do – he has just been unwilling to draw a line under those achievements and move on.
The suddenness of Robins’ departure suggests that Huddersfield Town are hoping to do just that. What remains to be seen is whether they can do – or, put another way; has Robins paid for the failings of the club, or have the club paid for his failings?
Strap yourselves in, it will take a while to find out.
₁And, personally, I wish him well. He was never a bad manager – he was brought into Huddersfield to do a job, did it, and moved on, albeit a little too late. He can hardly be blamed for wanting to keep his job.
₂The Flying Beard is with Lecce now, and opened his account in the 5-0 win in the Coppa Italia yesterday. I will revisit Puglia at some point.