‘Silly Season’ is here: Who’s for the sack?

Brown, Benitez & Hart.

Who is the odd one out? And who will go first?

Well everyone, November is upon us which means that that most wonderful time of year when we all revert to the young children inside of us, put up lots of flashing lights and eat and drink far too much is nearly upon us. However, though Christmas may still be fifty days away (doesn’t sound like much does it?), football’s very own silly season is already here. November will be a month that will have a lasting effect on the outcome of this season’s Premier League.

I call this football’s ‘silly season’ because for some reason everyone involved in the game places a lot of emphasis on where their club is at Christmas. If you’re bottom of the league at Christmas you’re all but down, whereas if you’re in touch with the leaders, you’re in with a shout for a winner’s medal. This means that if things aren’t going quite to plan by mid-late November, heads will almost certainly role, giving the new man just enough time to rectify things ahead of the Christmas snapshot. So, who will be the first casualty this year?

Rafa Benitez, Liverpool.
Why the pressure?
Rafa is a man very much in the spotlight at the moment, and if anything his plight is worsened by the weight of expectation that surrounded his team before the start of the season. Tipped by many to end a long title drought, Liverpool’s season has gotten off to a spectacularly poor start which has seen lose five of their eleven league games to date, go out of the Carling Cup and be on the brink of elimination from the Champions League.

For the first time real attention is now being given to his long-standing inadequacy in the transfer market and his inability to balance a team. Letting go of Xabi Alonso and buying a crook Aquilani certainly wasn’t a smart move and it’s caused people to look far more closely at his overall dealings in his time at the club, which do not look at all pretty, especially alongside his failure to bring through young talent, as I pointed out in an article a few weeks ago.

The simple fact is that any Liverpool manager who enters November already nine points off the pace in the title race will be under enormous pressure. Liverpool are a club with a proud history that they can’t live off forever and with the enormous amount of money injected into the club in recent years they need to start seeing results. Rafa just isn’t fulfilling their ambitions, and so there can be absolutely no surprise that his future is in question.

Will he get the chop?
For me it seems that the only thing currently staving off the managerial axe is the unrest in the Liverpool boardroom. Sacking Rafa would mean the troubled Americans would a) have to agree on something, b) pay off his (substantial) contract and c) provide funds for a new manager to shape the squad in his image. None of those things seem likely to happen in the near future, and that could be his saving grace.

Of course, Rafa could help save his own skin by turning results around, but frankly, it’s hard to see that happening. Although they outplayed United the week before last they put on another miserable display against Fulham to snuff out any hopes of recovery. The fact is that Rafa can’t motivate his side well enough, and though the players raise their game for the big matches, there’s only a few of those a season and winning only those will get you nowhere.

He’s also far too heavily reliant on Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres, but that is something else that’s unlikely to change. As is well documented, the American owners have not got much money which has put an end to Rafa’s habit of throwing sacks of cash around in return for average players. If he’d spent more wisely in the past he wouldn’t be in this position, but he will be unlikely to get a chance to spend in January.

Verdict?
Rafa will likely still be in charge at Anfield come Christmas morning, but only because the club is too much in turmoil to further unbalance itself by sacking him – unless things get dramatically worse and force their hand, which can’t be entirely ruled out. Either way, I don’t envisage a happy Christmas for Reds fans.

Phil Brown, Hull City.
Why the pressure?
After a miraculous start to their first Premier League campaign last season, Hull City have plummeted to earth with an almighty bump and have had a quite disastrous 2009. They entered free fall in the second half of last season and narrowly avoided relegation, but Brown has been unable to pull them out of the dive and they are crawling along this season, currently having registered just eight points from eleven games and sit third from bottom.

The main problem really though, is that Hull just don’t look very good at all. They don’t look like they’ve got enough to stay in the Premier League. Last season Hull were praised all around for their fighting spirit and their good, attacking and ambitious football. This season is a different story, they look toothless in attack and all too vulnerable at the back after Brown failed to adequately replace the outbound Michael Turner.

In many ways, putting Brown under such pressure is a bit harsh though. After all, he performed a minor miracle getting Hull promoted in the first place and then a major miracle keeping them up, even so narrowly. He is without doubt the best manager in the club’s history and it could be argued that Hull simply aren’t a Premier League club yet. If they don’t have the resources then there’s only so much that a manager can do.

Will he get the chop?
I have to say that it’s looking quite likely that Brown may not last until Christmas. With the resignation of  former club chairman Duffen, Brown lost a staunch boardroom ally and will now feel much less secure in his role at the club. Much depends though on what preconceived views the new man brings into the post though, and how realistic his vision for Hull City actually is.

It’s easy to dislike Phil Brown. His on-pitch dressing down of his players last season could have been an inspired move but instead backfired on him and many have jumped on the anti-Brown bandwagon because of that, and their cause was only aided when he led the crowd in a chorus of ‘We Are The Champions’ upon securing top flight survival in May. He’s not got a great singing voice, and many fans were a bit miffed that such narrow survival was the cause for ‘celebration’. If the new chairman didn’t enjoy these antics, Brown won’t last long.

However, if he has a realistic expectation for the club and accepts that no matter who is in charge relegation is a very likely prospect, he may keep the faith. Brown is a manager with experience in the Championship and so if they are indeed bound back there then he could again prove his worth, steadying a sinking ship. I suppose it’s a question of ambition – but how many managers of the required quality to keep them up could Hull realistically attract?

Verdict?
The only gift that I can see Phil Brown receiving from new Hull chairman Adam Pearson come Christmas morning is his severance pay I’m afraid. Hull aren’t good enough to start picking up some big results anytime soon and Pearson has already given Brown the dreaded public vote of confidence, so the perma-tanned gaffer’s days are surely numbered.

Paul Hart, Portsmouth.
Why the pressure?
Hart is under pressure purely and simply because Portsmouth are bottom of the league and have only picked up two victories thus far. However, of all the managers fearing for their jobs at present, Paul Hart perhaps has the most reason to feel hard done by – it’s fair to say that anyone would have a hard time clinging on to the Portsmouth job if the board(s) seriously expect the manager to make the compete in the top flight.

After having had more than half of the existing squad sold from beneath him over the summer, including some really good players like Defoe, Krancjar and Distin, Hart was forced to wait until the last possible moment to dip into the transfer market to replenish his squad. naturally then, he was left with some slim pickings and though he looks to have signed reasonably well in some cases – Boateng, O’Hara and Dindane especially look dangerous – he hasn’t replaced the outbound players with equivalent quality.

Given that a more talented squad did some heavy flirting with relegation last year, it’s little wonder Pompey are struggling. What it will take from here on in is a managerial miracle to keep them up because the players aren’t up to the job, and Hart almost certainly won’t provide that. Of course, finding a miracle worker is no easy task, so it may be pointless to relieve Hart of his duties if they can only appoint someone else just as inadequate.

Will he get the chop?
Well, this one’s difficult to call really. In a way, like Benitez, Hart may be spared because of the absolute shambles that is the club’s current ownership. Having changed hands just before the transfer window shut, the club realised they’d found an Arab with no money and he quickly sold the club on again to a fellow Arab associate. However, rumours now abound that this fellow is only in for a quick buck and that he’s hoping to sell at a profit a few months down the line.

If that is true then it would seem that he has next to no knowledge or interest in the football side of things at all. Of course it’s incredibly naive and irresponsible to attempt to use a club to make money and it seems unlikely that he’ll achieve his goal given that Pompey are performing poorly. However, if he’s so money focused he’ll be equally reluctant to spend unnecessarily to get rid of Hart and find a new manager, so it’s finely balanced.

In football terms, I think Pompey would be unwise to sack Hart. They got a great result against Wigan this weekend and while I don’t think Hart will keep them up, I think they need at least some stability in the club and if they are relegated I think Hart will be a decent manager at Championship level, and may have rapport enough with some of the players to convince them to remain at the club, which could be key to ambitions of a top flight return.

Verdict?
I really don’t quite know what will happen here. If results pick up then obviously Hart will stay but I don’t see that happening even after this weekend’s big win, and I think they could well be the dreaded occupants of that bottom spot come Christmas eve. However, like most people, I’ve no idea what on earth is happening in the Pompey boardroom so your guess is as good as mine. Put it this way though, neither outcome will surprise me.

Have your say:

Who will be the first casualty of this year’s silly season in the lead up to Christmas? Is someone who I’ve overlooked under more pressure than those mentioned above? Please leave your thoughts in a comment below…

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