It is seven years ago this week since Mike Ashley made the bewildering decision to install Dennis Wise as Newcastle United’s executive director of football above the recently-returned Kevin Keegan.
At the time, then Chairman Chris Mort claimed that Wise’s appointment was; “part of the vision that recently helped us to secure Kevin Keegan’s return to the club as manager.”
Which left supporters baffled as Keegan went on record as saying he was not totally clear about what Wise’s role would actually be; “in all honesty I do not know enough about it. You are going to have to ask Chris Mort.”
Mort felt that with Wise assisting in the day-to-day running of the club at boardroom level, it would free Keegan up to; “Devote his efforts to developing and running the first team squad.”
All well and good in theory but it was clearly not a structure that Keegan was comfortable with and the cracks started to appear almost immediately – Mort making way for Derek Llambias that summer, Keegan leaving his post by mid-September and Wise also heading for the exit door the following spring.
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Since then Wise’s duties have been ably performed by the shrewd Graham Carr (who was ‘assisted’ by the woefully inept Joe Kinnear for a brief period at the start of last season), while the manager’s job has become a more refined role with reduced responsibility and input at boardroom level.
Alan Pardew’s defection to Crystal Palace at the turn of the year has seen Newcastle formally abandon the traditional role of ‘manager’ and embark on a quest for what they have termed a ‘head coach’ – the very role that Mort described seven years previously.
It may well fly in the face of the traditional structure in British football but the likes of Swansea and Southampton have recently shown that it can work. Joined-up thinking and a clearly-defined strategy on and off the pitch can pave the way for success and stability – while also working to ensure that any managerial changes can be made with limited upheaval.
Swansea chairman Huw Jenkins worked at boardroom level to ensure the club’s finances were in order but he also made a conscious decision to appoint a series of managers who shared cored beliefs and that paved the way for progress on the pitch as well as off it.
It was Brendan Rodgers who led Swansea to promotion back in 2011 but his success owed a lot to the solid foundations laid by his predecessors, Roberto Martínez and Paolo Sousa, who implemented a continental passing system and helped improve the players’ technique and tactical intelligence. Rodgers’ move to Liverpool didn’t halt the Swans progress as Jenkins replaced him with a manager who believed in similar principles in Michael Laudrup and he led the Welsh side to the League Cup in 2013 before being jettisoned in favour of Gary Monk.
Newcastle’s problem is that, while they may have all their ducks in a row in terms of the club’s finances, they are still searching for an identity on the pitch. Managing Director Lee Charnley outlined his vision for the new head coach in an interview with the Evening Chronicle last week, saying that the new man’s job will be to; “Coach the players and implement and oversee a philosophy that goes through the first team, the reserves and down through the Academy to improve the players and to ensure we get the best out of them.”
John Carver’s appointment as head coach until the end of this season at least provides continuity and stability on the training pitch but the problem is that he has never really shown himself to be a particularly talented coach or astute tactician.
Time will tell whether he can coax more from the players at his disposal than Alan Pardew could but his performance to date doesn’t inspire confidence. Newcastle won one game from seven last season when Carver took the reins following Pardew’s suspension for his Hull headbutt and failed to even score in five of those outings, while he has overseen a meek FA Cup exit and won just one point from a possible nine in the league so far this time around.
With the transfer window still open and 16 league games left to play, it’s obvious that this season still has some way yet to go but trying telling that to Newcastle fans.
Bookmakers are currently offering 33/1 for Newcastle to be relegated and 80/1 to finish in the top 6, reinforcing the notion that Newcastle are a club in limbo. In theory they are ideally situated to press on and finally build on the off-the-field success that Mike Ashley has brought to the club and yet at the same time they are just another poor appointment away from flirting with another ignominious demotion to the Championship.
So, Carver’s appointment leaves the Toon Army holding their breath, willing the season to end, eager to see who will take the reins this summer. Maybe, just maybe, there’s a genuine desire to finally hire the right man for the job. Then again, maybe not. It’s the hope that kills you.