No pressure or a poisoned chalice – what is it like being a caretaker manager?on March 16, 2021 at 6:14 am

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Sheffield United’s Paul Heckingbottom knows what it is like to be a successful caretaker manager, but it has not been the dream promotion for others.

Paul Heckingbottom

It worked for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who was named full-time Manchester United boss after impressing as caretaker between December and March of 2018-19.

And Roberto di Matteo managed to guide Chelsea to a Champions League triumph while in temporary charge in 2012.

Most do not find the role to be such a golden opportunity, though. Often tasked at short notice with coaxing rapid improvements from failing sides, the position of caretaker manager can be more burden than big break.

Short presentational grey line

When Bundesliga strugglers Mainz sacked Jan-Moritz Lichte just after Christmas, they put their academy manager, former Huddersfield Town boss Jan Siewert, in temporary charge.

Siewert was made aware that this arrangement would last for only one game, plugging the gap until new coach Bo Svensson could take charge. That one game, though, just happened to be against Bayern Munich.

“My initial thoughts were ‘how can I start a process within that week… against the best team in the world?'” Siewert recalls.

“We’d dropped out of the cup a few days before, so the players’ confidence was really low. My staff and I just focused on what we could do to get them more stable in their personality for that game, not going into it thinking ‘we will lose this game’.”

At half-time at the Allianz Arena, Siewert could have been forgiven for thinking himself a miracle worker. The second-from-bottom visitors found themselves 2-0 up against the reigning German and European champions.

“The players were euphoric, saying the plan was working and we needed to stick with it,” Siewert says. “I realised that it would be hard because we had provoked Bayern.

“When I went into the tunnel, their manager was not that pleased with their performance, so I knew what was coming. Until the 70th minute, it was a draw, 2-2, but we just couldn’t defend until the end.”

Mainz ultimately succumbed to the onslaught. Bayern won 5-2, their comeback capped by a Robert Lewandowski double.

“It might be easier for a caretaker,” Siewert says, “if it’s not Bayern Munich.”

Short presentational grey line

John Carver (second left)

John Carver, who has served as a caretaker boss on four occasions, remembers a similarly short-notice and short-lived experience in his first temporary role.

When Sir Bobby Robson was sacked by Newcastle in August 2004, Carver was asked to step in until Graeme Souness could be appointed officially.

“The first time at Newcastle there was no pressure whatsoever,” Carver says. “It was a free shot. It happened so fast and it was over so quickly that I didn’t have time to think about it.”

After overseeing a 3-0 win against Blackburn Rovers, Carver felt content with a job well done. His reward? Demotion. When Souness arrived at the training ground the following Monday, he introduced his new backroom staff. Carver, previously Robson’s number two, was put in charge of the academy.

“I went from a massive high one day to a massive low the next,” he says. “You go from 52,500 screaming Geordies on the Saturday to sitting in an office in the role as academy director.”

Although later caretaker stints afforded Carver more time in which to make his mark, it is a remit he has not always relished.

From the outside, the stand-in gaffer appears to have an enviable chance to stake a claim for a long-term position. But Carver has found that rarely to be the case; that the job of the caretaker manager is in fact often thankless and futile.

“There’s a reason why you get this role,” Carver says. “It’s either because the manager has been sacked or because the manager has had a better opportunity.

“Normally it’s because they’ve been fired because results haven’t been good enough. That group of players, the manager and the coaching staff have got into a bad position.

“People think, when you get a caretaker role, you’re going to do all these things differently, but you’re not.

“You were there as an assistant manager. When you’re training every day, when you’re preparing the team, it’s you and the manager with your ideas.

“There might be small little tweaks you might do, but in general, when the team is in the position they are in and people blame the manager, the staff have to take the blame as well, because we’ve got them into that position. You’re not going to do much different.”

Carver’s second caretaker stint came when he took over a struggling Leeds side in 2006.

“Sometimes you’ve got no choice,” he recalls of that appointment. “I didn’t want to do it. I knew that the team we had wasn’t going to get us out of trouble. But because I had a contract with the club, I couldn’t refuse it – you’ve got a mortgage to pay.

“I had to go and meet Ken [Bates, Leeds’ chairman at the time]. He said: ‘You’re getting no more money, but if you get us promoted I’ll give you a massive bonus.’ We were in the bottom three, so that was never going to happen.”

Short presentational grey line

Former Leeds and Sunderland manager Howard Wilkinson remembers feeling equally duty-bound when twice asked to take temporary charge of England.

In his role as FA technical director, he was the obvious choice for the position when, in January 1999, Glenn Hoddle was sacked for making disparaging remarks in the press about disabled people.

Wilkinson recalls a baptism of fire that might even trump Siewert’s Bayern experience.

“My debut as an international manager was against the World Cup winners – Barthez, Zidane, Deschamps, Anelka, Lizarazu, Desailly…” he says.

England lost 2-0 to France in that friendly fixture and Kevin Keegan was soon appointed. But when Keegan unexpectedly resigned after a 1-0 Wembley loss to Germany the following year, Wilkinson again got the call.

“The game was in Finland on Wednesday night,” he says of the World Cup qualifier for which he was suddenly charged with preparing.

“I got over to the hotel in the west of London near Bisham Abbey and Kevin had given the players the weekend off.

“At that moment, I’m not quite sure who is fit and who is not. To all intents and purposes, they’re not reporting until Sunday night, Monday morning. It was a heck of a first 24 hours.

“Despite all that, we should have won the game. Had it been now, the referee would have referred it to VAR and seen the ball was clearly over the line after it hit the crossbar, so we’d have come away with a 1-0 victory instead of a 0-0.

“But it’s a game and you have to do what you can do in the time you have available.”

Short presentational grey line

Keith Millen

Few coaches can match Keith Millen for caretaker-manager experience – the former Bristol City and MK Dons coach has done the job six times, including three spells in charge of Crystal Palace.

He’s found that short-term bosses must be careful about what they say to the press in order to safeguard their longevity with their club.

“You don’t really want to put it out there that you want the job,” he says. “Because a new manager might come in and feel under threat and think ‘you’re not for me’. Then you’re out of a job.

“Dealing with the press was probably the hardest part. You’re going to get asked if you want the job.

“If you want to take the risk and put yourself out there, if you don’t get it you’re probably going to end up out of a job. For me, to stay at Crystal Palace was my dream job, so I had to be careful with what I said.”

Carver is adamant he will never match Millen’s total for caretaker roles. He’s finished at four, his view of the position scarred by his experiences with Leeds, Sheffield United and Newcastle.

“I’ve come to the conclusion that it is a poisoned chalice,” he says.

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