A Bad Week for Weakened Leaders: But how far is Paris from Agincourt?

October 19, 2007

It’s been a bad week for British leaders. A spate of sackings and resignations has occurred. The battered leaders met their nemesis after humiliating performances in sport, business and politics. But hope persists at the prospects for a great victory in the Rugby World Cup

There are so many stories. Too many for me to cover all of them in detail.

Some were easier to predict than others. Sammy Lee acquired his job at the start of the season, as manager of Bolton Wanderers FC, when the much-admired Sam Allardyce was head-hunted for Newcastle United. He stepped up from Big Sam’s shadow. But from the start he was dubbed little Sam, a painful reminder of his erstwhile stature and status. Bolton has had a dreadful start to the season. In a little league table of Premiership managers facing the sack, I had him placed second (just below Martin Jols of Tottenham). Sorry Martin. Hang in there.

Then there were the casualties from the World Cup of Rugby Football. I didn’t have a list of these. But I certainly would not have placed Graham Henry of the New Zealand All Blacks anywhere near the top. My list of managers most likely to take an early bath would have been headed by England’s Brian Ashton, about whom more later. Henry’s team had been confirming their status as the tournament favourites until the quarter finals. Until then they had outstripped opponents so thoroughly that they had hardly become match tight. They lost a tight game, playing below their potential. Exit New Zealand. Exit Henry.

Wales, Ireland and Scotland failed to make it through the first stage of the tournaments. Out went Gareth Jenkins of Wales, and Eddie O’ Sullivan, of Ireland. Only Scotland’s much-rated Frank Hadden survived.

England’s football coach Steve McClaren also seems to be surviving on borrowed time, after defeat to Russia leaves England’s qualification from the European Cup in doubt. In his case, there is a mathematical probability that England will reach the knockout stage of the European competition. This, as much as somewhat improved performances by the team, is staying the hand of the English Football Association. They had already botched the appointment of McClaren after a hasty effort and failed effort to secure Big Sam (sorry, Big Phil) Scolari during last year’s World Cup.

[Will Big Steve survive in his present coaching job longer than Big Martin Jols of Tottenham?].

In Politics

In Politics the increasingly nasty tussles between Gordon Brown and David Cameron continue in Parliamentary exchanges. Ironically, the more immediate victim of that contest was Ming Campbell of the Liberal Democrats. In a decision that caught the press unawares, Ming has his retirement announced for him by two leading Lib Dem king-makers and king -unmakers. (‘Did you wield the knife’ one reporter shouted audibly during the televised announcement. No, he resigned. Ming spoke the next day, saying he had decided that he would not be able to deflect the media from obsessing about his age, thus hindering all attempts to get across the political messages he wanted to convey.

These petty-paced political moves are arguably no more than the uncomfortable outcroppings of democracy. As I write, I learn of the real carnage within presumably an assassination attempt on Benazir Bhutto as she re-entered Pakistan after a decade of exile.

In Business

In the aftermath of the celebrated Northern Rock affair, the bank’s leaders appeared before the commons select committee that had already interviewed the leaders of the Bank of England, The treasury, and The Financial Services Authority.

Under typically robust questioning, Adam Applegarth and Matt Ridley denied that they had ‘done anything wrong’ but indicated that they would accept the judgement of their shareholders, if they were eventually forced to resign.

In the course of the questioning, it was also revealed that all the bank’s senior directors had offered to resign in the immediate aftermath of the run, but had been asked to stay on to sort out its problems.

I think they are safe for the moment, on the same grounds as Big Steve McClaren has a temporary stay of execution. [Stop press, a few hours after I posted this, Dr Ridley accepted the inevitable and resigned].

In a somewhat different story, ITV faces calls for the dismissal of various culprits in their money-making scheme based on rigged phone-in contests. The enormity of this story can be seen when it emerges that Mr Ant and Mr Dec are under threat. That’s like Santa up for shop-lifting in the Christmas Sales.

England Rugby, The World Cup and Brian Ashton

King-makers popped up to endorse Steve McClaren, and to praise and bury Ming Campbell. They even popped up to endorse coach Brian Ashton, after England’s heart-stopping Rugby Union victory over France. It could be seen as one of those endorsements which increasingly indicate that the coach is in big trouble. The denial serves to signal the presence of trouble, not its absence. This was a slightly different kind of announcement, I think. It was made on the wave of national support for the England team.

Here we have an example of the rapid swings for and against a leader. Less than a month ago, Mr Ashton was seen as credible a leader as Sir Menzies Campbell. The performances of his teams had been bitterly criticized. Now, on the eve of the 2007 final, he now stands one game short of receiving the kind of accolades showered on his predecessor Clive Woodward after his team became World Champions, four years ago. Outside of England, the suspicion is that England are serious underdogs to a South African team that beat them comprehensively in the run up to the finals. This is not a time for logic. How far is from Paris to Agincourt?


Will Sam the man match Magpie dreams?

May 12, 2007

150px-newcastle_united_crest.pngThe 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 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.