| 18°C Dublin

All change as season slips away


Sir Alex Ferguson celebrates winning the Premier League title after the match between Manchester United and Aston Villa at Old Trafford.

Sir Alex Ferguson celebrates winning the Premier League title after the match between Manchester United and Aston Villa at Old Trafford.

Getty Images

Sir Alex Ferguson celebrates winning the Premier League title after the match between Manchester United and Aston Villa at Old Trafford.

A more dramatic conclusion to a Premier League title race than last season's final day could not be imagined, so this season never appeared to even try. With a sturdy 10-point lead as they go into today's closing fixtures, Manchester United secured their 20th title with unexpected ease, and Manchester City were a grave disappointment to anyone who imagined they would be able to build on their success of 12 months ago.

If Robin van Persie really did make all the difference, you have to admire Alex Ferguson all the more for breaking his own rules about the preferred age of transfer targets and paying out significant money for a player he probably knew would end up impacting on Wayne Rooney's role.

Yet, for all Roberto Mancini's bitter complaints about the inability of his board to act quickly and decisively in the transfer market, it seems debatable whether Van Persie alone would have brightened City's season.

While he makes a convenient excuse, to take advantage of the striker's goalscoring ability City would still have had to hit the heights more often and show more fight than they ended up doing, and the rather prosaic conclusion to be drawn from the season is that United are still the best in the league at coming back.

Ferguson will not be coming back, and he is not alone. As the table stands this morning, the top three clubs are about to change managers, with no little irony in that the only club in the Champions League echelon who are holding on to their leader is the one without a trophy for almost a decade. To quote the frequently amusing Wenger Knows Best spoof Twitter account, the Arsenal manager will not have seen that coming.

Everyone knew Ferguson would have to step down at some point, though managing to keep the secret until after the title was secured and then see off his 14th City manager between his farewell speeches and the end of the season was genuinely surprising. Chelsea ditching another successful, diligent manager is no surprise at all, because that is what they do. If, as expected, Jose Mourinho returns, it will simply prove what appeared to be the case six years ago and has been demonstrated two or three times since: that the club's hierarchy would not recognise a good operator if they tripped over him in the technical area.

After the excitement of last season, when relegation as well as title issues were alive until the last minute of the last day, Sky will be less thrilled with a concluding programme where the only unresolved contest features three London clubs disputing the last two Champions League places – particularly as it seems a foregone conclusion that Chelsea and Arsenal will pick up the points they need to leave Tottenham out in the cold again.

Everton upsetting the applecart by winning at Stamford Bridge seems unlikely, even if it is David Moyes's last game in charge. And whereas until quite recently Newcastle United against Arsenal was a reliably tasty fixture, it will now require a dramatic improvement from Alan Pardew's imports to deliver Spurs the result they are seeking.

Neutrals are likely to be more interested in the scenes at The Hawthorns, where Ferguson will be chewing his last stick of touchline gum, or the DW Stadium, where Wigan will be attempting to enliven a glum occasion by consoling supporters with the FA Cup. The interesting thing about the latter, apart from the novelty of the Cup winners going down, is that Wigan were partly undone by two nifty managerial changes at Southampton and Sunderland. Mauricio Pochettino was a downright unpopular replacement for Nigel Adkins in mid-season, but managed to pull Saints clear of the relegation zone promptly and impressively.

We will never know whether Adkins might have done the same, given time, but the lesson from the bottom of the table this season is that late managerial changes sometimes work. Paolo Di Canio is probably going to be car-crash viewing through summer and next season now that he has starting fining his players and cancelling their holidays to remind them they are not a park team, though without the six points in two games that followed his arrival Sunderland would have been a whole lot sorrier. QPR and Reading were unable to achieve the same effect by changing managers mid-stream; in both cases too much damage already seemed to have been done.

Quick-fix solutions are always going to be a bit of a risk – clearly if you need one you are already in trouble – though there are occasions when it is better to take action rather than do nothing. Man of the moment Moyes arrived at Everton in March 2002 season, when he almost certainly saved the club from a relegation for which it was hardly prepared. It is all very well for Ferguson to claim, as he just has, that patience is the secret to success and clubs should be less trigger-happy with managers, but loyalty does not always pay dividends.

Wigan never doubted Roberto Martinez for a moment – even now they are attempting to persuade him to stay – yet the pragmatic view is that the club should have turned long ago to someone capable of sorting out the defensive lapses. Commendably, given that it was his first season, Aston Villa stuck with Paul Lambert through difficult times. Villa emerged on the credit side of the ledger – just – and one fancies both manager and players will be all the better for the experience.

The same goes for Chris Hughton at Norwich. The record books could end up showing a comfortable mid-table finish for the Canaries, which was not the impression a few weeks ago. As Ferguson knows, sometimes you have to go through the bad to experience the good. But it doesn't always work that way – hiring and firing will never be an exact science.

In view of the fact that the top-of-the-table managers are mostly departing and Andre Villas-Boas may need another season to fulfil his aims, some of the most solid achievements are to be found in mid-table.

Fans at Stoke City and West Ham may not be totally happy with the football, but cannot be displeased at the league placing, while managerial first seasons at Liverpool, Swansea City and West Brom have ranged between satisfactory and sensational. No prizes for guessing who won the satisfactory mark there, but standards are high on Merseyside. It is being unkindly suggested, with his predecessor winning the FA Cup and his successor the League Cup, that Liverpool picked the wrong Swansea manager in Brendan Rodgers, though at least the club have dealt with this season's Luis Suarez controversies better than they managed last time round.

Mercifully, this season's controversies in general were more wholesome than the rather toxic batch that hung over last season like a bad smell.

Suarez had to miss out in the player of the year poll after the ludicrous munching of Branislav Ivanovic, though he deserves some sort of entertainment award for being so compulsively watchable, even if his appearances will inevitably be rationed by his erratic behaviour.

If Liverpool want to get back above Everton, never mind back into the Champions League, they need to keep hold of Suarez and try to keep him on the field for the bulk of next season. If he leaves, whatever the stated reason, the Premier League will have lost another star turn. Unless he follows his new buddy Moyes to Manchester, or turns up as Mourinho's first signing.


Irish Independent