What’s going on at Tottenham?

August 24, 2007

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There is a belief in football sports lore that a manager is in trouble when his chairman publically offers him support. This week Martin Jol of Tottenham Hotspur was the latest recipient of such an endorsement, delivered by his chairman David Levy

The story is rich in leadership implications. Martin Jol is widely recognized as a successful international football coach. As Manager, he has been as as successful as outside experts expected in his time at Tottenham Hotspur. Last season ended with the club in a creditable fifth-place in the Premier league. The evidence is that he is well-respected by the players. His acquisition of Dimitar Berbatov has been a huge success, with the Bulgarian striker scoring over twenty goals in his first season at the club. Despite interest from Manchester United and Chelsea, Tottenham was able to reatain their star striker, who has indicated the importance to him of his manager’s influence.

So why is there any doubt over Jol’s future? The obvious source of dissatisafaction is the two successive losses at the start of the season earlier this month. This was followed by a convincing win, but the rumours grew. The directors at the club appeared to have reached a view that their manager was not the person through which they would fulfil their goal of becoming one of the top four English premiership clubs. On this criterion, last season’s fifth place was a failure, even if it had been judged a signal success by most disinterested observers (if there is such a thing).

It appears that the poor start to the season may just have reinforced a corporate view that had emerged earlier. According to iol,

Spurs had offered his job to Sevilla coach Juande Ramos
In almost three years in charge his position has never been under such scrutiny for his usual media briefing…Jol only received the “100 percent” support of his chairperson Daniel Levy at the third attempt on Thursday, [August 23rd 2007] two previous statements from the Spurs’ board this week notably failed to give him their full backing…As Jol prepared to give his version of events, Spurs were forced to deny rumours that Fabio Capello was next in line to take over the helm after Ramos’s decision to stay put in Sevilla

So, there is some evidence of board-room discontent. It calls to mind the background of rumours around Jose Mourinho at Chelsea earlier this year, and Sven Goran Eriksson as he approached the end of his time as England manager.

Come to think of it …

Ambition drives business leaders onwards, and sometimes upwards. The goal of reaching the top four clubs in the land is one that can be understood. Only the churlish would point out that such an ambition needs deep pockets, maybe deeper than those around Tottenham at present. The ambition would have been further strengthened by the ease with which Chelsea has jumped to the top of the status table in London, as well as the top of the league nationally since the Abramovitch takeover and his foolishly wealthy support. That must hurt. For the moment, in town, Tottenham must look up to Arsenal who must look up to Chelsea. I looks up to him, but he looks up to me, as the old John Cheese sketch put it.

Admirable ambition. If the stories turn out to be accurate, the ambition was rather unrealistic, and badly executed. A fine manager is put under pressure, and the club has succeeded in the short-term only in undermining his efforts.


Mourinho’s job is safe: Update

April 21, 2007

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An earlier post reviewed the prospects of Jose Mourinho staying with Chelsea Football Club. Renewed rumours have broken out at the start of the 2007-8 League season as Chelsea results took a dip. Relations between owner and coach blow from luke-warm to Russian Steppes cold

Original Post

Speculation has been rife for nearly a year that Jose Mourinho will lose his job as Chelsea Coach at the end of the season. CEO Peter Kenyon announces that Mourinho’s job is safe. So why is this unlikely to end speculation? The question takes us into the matter of how leaders in general may fail to convince the press and the wider public of their integrity.

When a politician says “I’m not standing for leader” the message is rarely taken at face-value. I’m most familiar with the UK scene, but it seems a pretty universal reaction. We assume that the politician will find wriggle room so that the original statement did not mean what it sounded like. I suspect that there is widely shared tacit knowledge that the politician is saying something he wants us to believe, while reserving the right to claim that something else was meant, if and when that becomes convenient or necessary.

We can examine this through the highly specific incident in which Chelsea CEO Peter Kenyon has denied the story that Coach Jose Mourinho will be fired at the end of the year. Kenyon could hardly have been more specific. In an interview published on the club’s website he was reported as saying

“Jose’s got a contract until 2010 and we’re not going to sack him. He’s got the full support of the board, that’s really important”

There have been no press stories to indicate that Kenyon habitually misleads the public in his public statements. Yet, my suspicion is, that there is something in stories about Mourinho’s future. An earier denial by team captain John Terry did not not prevent the rumors from continuing. The Press is discounting the public statements without having prior cause for doubting the spokesmen.

Don’t ruin a good story

One broader issue is the attraction to many journalists to keep a good story running. Some have made claims to know that JM is going, with ‘exclusive’ claims that yet another international coaching star has been approached. (Germany’s coach Juergen Klinsmann is the latest of a long line of heirs apparent).

There’s little follow-up mileage in a headline that says ‘Jose to stay’. Maybe this kind of wish from journalists helps achieve self-fulfilling prophesies from time to time. It probably contributes to the uncertainties and insecurities of high-profile jobs. But one factor is hardly enough to explain everything. It pays to look more widely.

The Owner’s influence

In Football, the club owner is often one major factor in the coach’s survival. In the case of Chelsea, owner Abramovich has about as much power as any one person can wield. Whatever Kenyon says, even if Jose’s got a contract to 2010, and even if he has the full support of the board today …. well, you can fill in the dots for yourself. How about ‘things might change if Chelsea fails to win the European Cup, or the Premiership, or the FA cup, or any combination of the three’ ? Abramovich’s reluctance to talk with the press simply adds to speculation.

Jose’s leadership record

Mourinho’s leadership record at Chelsea over the last three years has been outstanding. Before his arrival he had already established himself as one of the most successful coaches in world football. This gives credibility to his somewhat ironic self-description as The Special One. He has recently made it clear that he would like to stay at the club, implying that the decision to leave would not be his.

Leadership and trust

Leadership is often said to be the process of influencing others in seeking to achieve one’s goals. An important aspect is shaping the sense that others make of critical situations. Kenyon would like to reassure fans, as well as the media, that there is no ‘Jose Mourinho problem’ at Chelsea. We have also seen how such a statement may not be taken on trust.

In some contrast, Jose Mourinho seems to be achieving that precious asset in his relationship with his players. He has communicated his belief that the players, too, are ‘special ones’ . When needed, a half-time reminder from the Coach (coupled with shrewd and sometimes daring substitutions) has resulted in the second half, a return to the high levels of performance demanded of the players.

Charismatic leaders achieve their results partly through a form of unconditional trust that they induce in followers. ‘Less special ones’ have to rely on force of argument, often against the reluctance of others to believe what they are being told.

If we want to speculate …

We should take a look at the pattern of behaviours of the actors in the past. Kenyon has tended to be a ‘safe pair of hands’, perhaps tending to a parsimony in revealing and addressing inconvenient information. Abramovich has tended to achieve his results in a discrete fashion. Mourinho has tended to push his employers to get his own way, and has been known to put his job on the line to achieve what he wants. Which suggests that if and when Mourinho leaves, it will hardly be a case of ‘going quiet into that good night’.

Correction, but is it better?

The entry was modified to eliminate the earlier misspelling of Jose’s name. It originally referred to someone called Mourhino. I was tempted to retain the accidental error, but decided it was a bit of cheap and accidental graffiiti and maybe it explained why the post was not being hit very often (message to othe dyslectics out there …).


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