Lambert has a balancing act on his hands at City
You could be forgiven for thinking that some managers don’t want to get out of this league.
Take Paul Lambert, who recently made the following comments with Norwich sitting pretty in the top six: “You have to walk before you can run.
“After we beat Bristol City the other week I heard the fans singing we are going up again and there were only 10 games gone. There has to be a realism at the football club because everyone wants to get to the Premier.”
Or what about Neil Warnock discussing his big-spending QPR’s chances of promotion: “How we can be among the favourites to win the division with eight new players in the squad is beyond me. I think we’re likely to finish in sixth to 10th position at the moment,” he said.
Then there is Derby County manager Nigel Clough, who said last week of his side’s promotion prospects: “It’s too early for anybody in the league to say ‘This is where we’ll be in six months’.
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“We’re less than a third of the way through the season. You won’t hear us speculating on that.”
Add big-spending Forest manager Billy Davies and Reading’s Brian McDermott to the list of managers who have in the past few weeks played down their own team’s prospects (and they are just the ones I could find courtesy of a trawl online) and you start to see a pattern emerge.
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For it seems that, just as Basil Fawlty’s instructions to his downtrodden staff was to, whatever they do, “don’t mention the war”, as far as Championship managers are concerned it is utterances of the word “promotion” that is banned within their respective clubs – unless of course it is preceded by the words “we won’t achieve”.
But why are so many managers so quick to rule their team out of the promotion chase, especially so early on in a league as wide open as the Championship?
Surely managers like Neil Warnock, normally so forthcoming in his self-belief, don’t really have that little faith in not just their own skills, but also those of the squad they have assembled?
I turned to former Norwich City legend, both on and off the field, Dave Stringer, to discuss how managers handle the ever demanding expectations of their fans, and why some may be so keen to pour cold water on any hopes of success.
According to Stringer, it is a simply case of managing expectations and preventing the players from feeling under too much pressure. He believes that Lambert has taken a calculated decision to dampen fans’ expectations, when behind the scenes the message may be different. Stringer told me: “I think the theory is when you start to talk it (promotion) up, you start putting pressure on the players.
“They already have enough pressure to deal with and I don’t think they play so well under pressure, as if you take it from them. But he might be saying to the players they should aim for the highest position possible. That would help keep them positive and give them something to aspire to.
“You have to think that you are going to win it behind the scenes, so they are probably getting the positive message in private.”
Stringer believes last Saturday’s first-half against Burnley was a perfect example of how increased expectations can impact on performances on the field.
It is a vicious circle. If the club is doing well the fans expect to turn up and see a win. But if things aren’t going too well on the pitch they get quickly agitated, making the players more nervous and more likely to make mistakes – and ultimately increase the chances of losing. Lambert himself gave a hint that what he says in public about his team’s chances may be different to what he actually believes. He said in August: “I know in my own head what I want to do, but I’ll never make it public what I want to do. I know that brings pressure, which is already here. We’ll try and have the same feeling we had last year.”
But if the opposite is true, and managers are playing down expectations both in public and in private, a fine balance needs to be struck, according to Stringer.
He said: “If you are too laid back and do not set the bar very high, then the players might take their foot off the pedal.
“It is a balancing act because if you aspire to reach the top, but don’t quite make it, you are fine and can try again the next season.
“If the bar has been set too low and you don’t make that, then you could find yourself in trouble and facing relegation.”
Of course there is always the possibility that managers are all too aware their own reputations are at stake, and it is much better to predict a top 10 finish and end up in the top six, than proclaim a top six finish and end in the top 10.
But what of Stringer himself? He was manager at a time when the club flirted with the top of what was Division One and was, on two occasions, just one game away from an FA Cup final.
How did he handle that situation? A bit differently to Lambert, it would appear.
He told me: “The season I took over we were bottom of the league. I just tried to get the players to believe in themselves.
“We would make a mini-league in that division of the teams around us and simply say that we want to be top of that mini-league. If we did that we would avoid relegation.
“It went on from there really. We always wanted to win everything though. That was the positive attitude we had, both in public and behind the scenes.
“We were always keen to engender a positive feeling and it was important the crowd were behind that as well.”
Of course it was a very different situation then and different levels of pressure and expectation.
Most Norwich fans in 1989 had no real belief that we would win the league – we were already batting above our average.
Now fans at pretty much every Championship club desire to be the next ones to “do a Blackpool”.
There may be some who argue that there is nothing wrong with striving to reach the top. That if you aspire to reach the pinnacle in your chosen field, it may drive you on to achieve more than if you settle for something less.
And after years in the doldrums some supporters may argue they deserve to get carried away when the club finally tastes success.
And yes, there is nothing wrong with getting carried away. Football is, after all, meant to be played in the theatre of dreams and if you settle for mediocrity, you may be left wondering why you follow sport in the first place.
But on the other hand we have to be patient and have faith in the longer term plans that people like Lambert and chief executive David McNally have put in place.
We can learn, perhaps, from the experience of Peterborough and its chairman Darragh MacAnthony, who after boldly proclaiming Posh were on a fast track to the Premier League has since issued a public apology to fans after the club slid back into League One obscurity.
I have it on good authority that many Posh fans, having got completely carried away by the constant bold proclamations, now feel much more demoralised than they would have done had expectations not risen too much, too quickly.