The great expectations of a historic football club have been thwarted for over thirty years. Newcastle United chairman Freddy Shepherd thinks he’s found the answer to his dreams in Sam Allardyce. Sam seems willing. Will he return the club to its former glory?
I have followed the fortunes of Newcastle United football club for years. Not long enough to recall the glory days. Long enough to learn of the legendary figures and their exploits passed down to a generation of fans still waiting for a return to former fortunes. Ten years ago, I began using the story as a case study of leadership and governance. As frustrating and baffling as it might seem to the town’s army of fans (the self-styled Toon army), the history follows a rather predictable course.
Newcastle’s board in recent years have shown a consistent preference for heroic managers. This preference goes back beyond the days of current long-standing chairman Freddy Shepherd, but it is under his governance that the preference can be seen most clearly.
The pattern seems to confirm a simple model of social identity, within which each leadership choice is made against a prototypic ideal leader. This figure would be a big name for a big club. He would ‘one of us’ (in-group v out-group important). In a strong local culture, the ideal one-of-us would be a famous player, a Geordie, a former club-player.
There is a near-perfect home-grown candidate at present in Alan Shearer, but the former club captain has no coaching experience (yet). While managerial track-record might be expected to be important, the club was more likely to chose ‘one-of-us’, with reputation as a player rather than manager.
If we look carefully at the appointments and subsequent disappointments at the club over the last thirty years, the pattern is clear:
Jackie Charlton was an England player and brother of Sir Bobbie Charlton. No great Managerial track-record, but born in nearby Ashington, Northumberland, and cousin of one of The Toon’s all-time greats, ‘Wor Jackie’ Milburn’. Another football figure knighted for his services to the game was Sir Bobbie Robson: He also fitted the prototype, as childhood fan of the club, and a distinguished international for England. Robson, however, also had a strong managerial track-record.
Kevin Keegan almost fitted the bill. He was one of the most celebrated of post-war England internationals, who had become a Newcastle icon in his playing career, and an adapted Geordie. He returned as manager, and near-failure in winning the premier league, but retired another local hero.
But local heroes are not always available. Then the club has tended to prefer at least Northern (let’s say, non-Southern) heroes, scots like Kennie Dalglish and more recently Graeme Souness, who could claim considerable playing and managerial credentials. From time to time, the urge for celebrity has taken the club further afield, with the appointments of Ossie Ardiles of Argentina, and Ruud Gullit of Holland. These were exotic exceptions to the ideal prototype.
And so to Sam
Sam Allardyce, at the time of writing, is the hot favorite to take over from Glenn Roeder. Sam had considerable success at Bolton working with limited resources, and had been short-listed as England manager after Sven’s demise. Allerdyce had recently conveniently resigned as manager of Bolton. Shortly afterwards, Roeder conveniently resigned from Newcastle. Odds of Sam to take over shortened significantly.
Allardyce met the Newcastle chairman in a well-publicized way at Claridges’ on Friday 11th May 2007, after which Freddy Shepherd made a very revealing statement. According to the BBC, (and an extended version in Reuters) Shepherd reportedly told his associates at the restaurant:
“We want Sam’s determination, enthusiasm and ability to lift the club… The club needs a lift and Sam is the nearest I’ve seen to a replica of Joe Harvey”
Joe was the last manager of NUFC to win the club a trophy, the last to date (Inter Cities Fairs Cup). That was over thirty years ago. His credentials fit our identikit: young player, Northern origins, club-player at a time when the club was still in its glory days, winning two cup finals. He returned as manager.
On Replicas and reality
So Freddy thinks Sam is ‘just the man’ for Newcastle. A lot of football fans and pundits agree, judging from the papers and blogs I’ve seen. But I’m not convinced of the case made by the chairman. It seems he has been stalking Allardyce for a while. His comments suggest he believes in the trait view of leadership, as something possessed by a few exceptional individuals. Great determination, enthusiasm, and whatever it takes to lift a club.
Nor am I particularly impressed by his prototype. Joe Harvey may be revered in Newcastle, but there is little evidence that he made much of a difference in his time as manager at the club. His track record was on the moderate side. With the benefit of selective hindsight, Freddy may now not recall the unresolved mini-scandal which involved Joe Harvey with the illegal sale of cup-final tickets. This has a curious echo in the murky story of bungs that cropped up this year, concerning Premier managers including Big Sam.
Good luck Newcastle. Part of the club’s mystique is the obsessive fan base willing them to retain the future they believe is their due. But the culture remains stubbornly traditional in the yardsticks in use as leaders are made and unmade. The leaders they deserve? I rest my case.
Things are rarely as simple as a pet theory might suggest. The local newspaper suggested that
One of the things that has impressed Shepherd about the way Allardyce has worked at the Reebok Stadium is the lack of injuries Bolton have had in recent seasons … Indeed, while United players have lost over 400 hours of playing time this season because of injuries, Bolton only lost 70. And this was because Allardyce and his backroom staff came up with a formula to prevent injuries before they happen.
The earlier post was also revised to correct the spelling of Mr Shepherd’s name. Sorry, Freddy.