Lost the dressing room

“Has he lost the dressing room?” Anytime a manager loses his job these days I hear pundits trotting out this line and going on to condemn the players. The players should be ashamed and embarrassed they say. The phrase itself makes out the players have just given up and that they are no longer trying for the manager. Many of these pundits and so-called experts will have been in situations in their career where their manager has been sacked in similar circumstances. Were they ashamed and embarrassed? Or was that different? Had they given their all for the manager and just not been good enough or had the manager maybe deserved the sack?

In the last few days Claudio Ranieri, only 10 months after leading Leicester City to the English Premier League title, has found himself out of a job. The man affectionately known in the English press as the Tinkerman, has received a huge amount of sympathy from pundits, supporters, players and managers. I was gobsmacked when I heard the news after watching his team feature in a creditable 2-1 away defeat to Sevilla in the last 16 of the Champions League only 24 hours before, leaving them in a good position to qualify for the last eight. Yes, that’s right. Leicester City in with a shot at the last eight of the Champions League and they sack their manager. I share the same views as many others that it was an extremely harsh decision and highlights everything that is wrong in modern football. What I can’t agree with is that the players are solely to blame and player power alone cost him his job?

Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha is the owner of Leicester City and is the man that ultimately decided to sack Ranieri. He is the boss and the man that calls the shots. The decision to sack Ranieri was his and his alone. For anyone to think this billionaire and top businessman just dances to the players’ tune on decisions as big as sacking the UEFA Manager of the Year need to think again. If people are looking for someone to blame they should point the finger at the owner as it was his prerogative to keep Ranieri despite players’ misgivings, poor results and poor recruitment. If he wanted to give Ranieri time to turn it round he would have been well within his rights to and no one would have batted an eyelid. It would actually have been refreshing to see an owner take a long term view. I suspect he would have been commended for it.

What I can’t understand is the outpouring of scorn toward the players, particularly from knowledgeable people in the game or media whose views are normally worth listening to. They would almost have you believe that the players had a vote on the plane home from Sevilla and decided Ranieri’s fate by a show of hands before telling the owner to pull the trigger. There should be far more emphasis put on another owner just wielding the axe at the first sign of trouble.

Swansea are a great example of how important the people at the top are to the success and stability of a football club. A club that has been on an upward curve for the last ten years, culminating in promotion to the Premier League and a League Cup success, all underpinned by a philosophy on how the first team should play and good managerial appointments. They all of a sudden seemed to throw that blueprint for success out the window with the hasty sacking of Gary Monk. At that point, the club decided to start firing managers quicker than Alan Sugar on The Apprentice. The appointment and subsequent sacking of Bob Bradley only three months after being hired summed up the lack of coherent structure at the club. Apart from Chelsea, is it any surprise that the clubs that are most successful are well run from top to bottom and have stability? Perhaps it’s time the media and pundits really focused on what actually goes on behind the scenes instead of surmising and jumping to conclusions that provide easy soundbites.

So what does the phrase “lost the dressing room” actually imply? In my mind it infers that the majority of players have lost faith in their managers’ ability to help the team win games of football. A perfect example of a manager losing the dressing room would be David Moyes at Manchester United. The high-profile squad who were just off the back of a title win would not have been overwhelmed with his appointment, considering Moyes, who despite his stellar job at Everton had never won any silverware. I have no doubt they would have started preseason with an open mind to his methods and given no less than 100 percent, but after months of below par results, his different training regime and man management style will have come under scrutiny. The players would start to doubt his ability to help them win trophies. Some of his decisions quite clearly damaged his credibility with the players and results continued to deteriorate despite the players’ best efforts. Once a manager reaches this point and the players feel he is just setting them up for failure, he has effectively lost the dressing room and there is normally no way back.

The polar opposite to this was the impact of Jose Mourinho when he arrived at Chelsea having just guided Porto to the Champions League. My current teammate Joe Cole, (I never thought I would write that sentence) told me about his first meeting with Mourinho after his appointment whilst away on England duty. Jose arranged a meeting with the current Chelsea players and, after disposing with the niceties, he told them they had all won nothing but if they wanted to be winners to follow him as he knew how to win.

Now these are only words and he still had to deliver but I have no doubt he had grabbed the players’ attention. It certainly would have gotten my juices flowing. Who can forget his first press conference when he announced himself as “the special one?” This was in stark contrast to Moyes’ first press conference at United, when he looked and acted like someone who didn’t feel comfortable in his new role. Players feed off this type of behavior both positive and negative. Chelsea hit the ground running from the first game of the season and from that moment the players were hooked on Mourinho’s every word. If Jose had told them to run a hundred laps of the training pitch, they would have done it as they believed his methods would work and his record suggested to them it would lead to trophies. A player and teams belief in the manager is vital.

I distinctly remember a time while I was at Wolves when Mick McCarthy came under pressure from the fans and we, the players, knew he needed a result. The previous season he had overachieved by guiding Wolves to the playoffs, not quite the same fairytale that Leicester achieved, but it had certainly raised expectations among everyone at the club for the following season. When we weren’t meeting these expectations, you could sense there was dissent amongst the crowd and we were well aware the new ambitious chairman, Steve Morgan, wouldn’t hesitate in making changes if he felt they were required.

One of the keys for McCarthy in keeping his job and coming through the tough period was the faith the players still had in his ability. As a group of players, we trusted Mick and we would have ran through a brick wall for him. During trying times at every club, there will always be players keen for a change largely due to the fact they are not playing and the manager not fancying them. The best managers identify these players and deal with the situation.

Prior to a really tricky away tie at Crystal Palace, when anything other than a win might have seen Mick lose his job, he picked the team on the Friday and pulled us together for a chat on the training ground. He made it very clear that he was picking a team of players that he could trust and rely on to give every ounce of effort and to go and get the job done. It wasn’t the most glamorous team and it wasn’t the most technical, but he knew he could bank on their total commitment and ability to carry out his orders. In the team huddle before kickoff, we made a point of saying let’s win for the manager and we did exactly that, winning 2-0. That season we missed out on the playoffs by a goal but won the league the following season at a canter. We knew we had a good manager and it was up to us to deliver for him.

I have been in similar situations where lesser managers have been under pressure and, as a team, we have realized the severity of the situation and tried to rally the troops but, despite our best efforts, the managers just didn’t help themselves whether it be with tactics, team selection or man management.

What people need to realise is that players want to win, but, to do that, they need to have belief that the man in charge can lead them there. If we didn’t think Mick McCarthy could take us where we wanted to go, we would still have tried our best but we wouldn’t have had the same togetherness and platform to perform to help rectify the situation.

The biggest insult the Leicester players have faced amongst all the criticism is the question mark against their effort and commitment. I was astonished at widely-respected Jamie Carragher’s criticism of the Leicester players after their victory over Liverpool the other night. He commented, “Both teams should have came off the pitch ashamed,” blatantly implying that Leicester hadn’t been giving their all prior to Ranieri’s departure. For someone who is usually very astute in his analysis, it seemed to me like a bitter rant. Had he forgotten the game earlier in the season where Leicester and Vardy had destroyed Manchester City? I suspect Leicester’s success in the games I’ve highlighted was more down to both sides playing right into their hands and leaving themselves ripe for the counter attack, A trademark of their title-winning run. This season, teams have defended deep to nullify Vardy, which is just one of the many problems Ranieri faced and didn’t quite solve.

Unfortunately, when things are not going well, performances can look uninspired and insipid no matter how hard you try. This can lead to questions of the managers’ ability to motivate the squad. While there have been some poor performances, and certainly a couple of players attitudes have been suspect to question, blaming the whole squads’ commitment strikes me as lazy analysis and a failure to look at the wide-ranging problems.

Players like Wes Morgan, Robert Huth and Kasper Schemichel, to name a few, have not hit the heights of last season. But that is why last season was such a fairytale. They are back to playing at the level their ability suggests. Of course they can still produce performances like the one against Liverpool the other night, but not on a consistent basis. Otherwise they would all be playing at one of the big four. I suspect Carragher’s analysis is tinged with some deep-rooted regret that some of these “average” Leicester City players mentioned above achieved something he never could by winning the English Premier League.

Instead of writing big fancy headlines and making bold statements, the people that are, or have been, involved in football and should know better need to give the fans a much broader view of the problems Leicester City have faced this season instead of blaming it all on the players.