A director who worked with him once said of Owen Coyle that there was “a touch of the Bill Shankly about him.” That was in 2007, but unfortunately for said director, even hindsight does not fix a broken brain. Supposing, as we must, that the guy was referring to The Bill Shankly rather than A Bill Shankly, and that the ‘touch’ related to managerial ability rather than sexual prowess, it would not be unreasonable to say that Coyle has fallen short of Shankly. Coyle, for instance, has missed out on all of the European Cups played out during his career so far, via relegation and unemployment, and in fact has won only a playoff title since the remark was made. Small but significant details.
I’ll go further. I think Owen Coyle is not only not good in comparison to Bill Shankly, but someone who could and should be written-off on his own merits. Alone, not being Bill Shankly is not so bad. Many people are not Bill Shankly. I myself am not Bill Shankly. Yet. That isn’t the point here: Owen Coyle is not Bill Shankly, but he’s also a fiercely inadequate Owen Coyle. Me and four friends brainstormed for three hours and could only come up with his wearing shorts as a managerial strength, and even then the group was split on whether this was something which should be punished or rewarded. (I was strongly pro-short.)
All of which leads to the problem of Coyle’s appointment as Wigan manager today. The first thing it made me think of was the letter ‘y’, over and over again, which was odd, because I rarely think in terms of single letters. But then I realised I wasn’t thinking of the letter ‘y’ at all, I was thinking ‘Why why why why why why why why why why why why why why why why why why why why why why why why why why why why why why why why why why why why why why why why why why why why why why why why why?’. Which also explained why the letter ‘o’ had also cropped up in my thinking: ‘Why oh why oh why oh why oh why oh why oh why oh why oh why oh why oh why oh why oh why oh why oh why oh why oh why oh why?’
If the world was a meritocracy – if football was a meritocracy – there is no way the man I have begun to describe here would have got a job at reasonably appealing club like Wigan, even though they’ve just been relegated. The possibility of Coyle, who at Bolton showed such little aptitude for managing a football team, getting an almost equivalent job mere months after that incident, could not happen in a world which rewarded only Good Things. In the case of Coyle, failure – Bolton weren’t just relegated, they then started to drift towards the bottom of the Championship – has been rewarded.
And the reason failure has been rewarded is (if you’re going to name one reason) because football, like most industries, goes with what it knows. Coyle might well have done a great interview to get the job (although, have you heard him speak?), but the man he is supposed to have been up against is Steve McLaren, another man who has now failed at more jobs than he has succeeded. In football, the same names get all the jobs. The principle behind this makes some sense: when you have seen what a potential manager can do already, you know more about them, so you’re in control of the risk when you appoint them. Fine. But if what you know about the established figure is that they aren’t very good, then the useful thing about this knowledge should, surely, be that it enables you to avoid that figure?
It’s this second bit where football seems to struggle. Success is rewarded, but failure isn’t punished. If you like: The Market doesn’t work. You end up with Owen Coyle’s legs in charge of a football team. And Coyle isn’t a one off. Alex McLeish still gets work. People still think Rafael Benitez deserves top jobs. David O’Leary still gets linked with clubs. The system is broken.
Maybe the worst part of this way of thinking is that new talent doesn’t get let in. I’m not thinking of anyone in particular, but I also am. I wear shorts all the time and I’ve never been relegated; I know most of the players at the big clubs from playing with them on FIFA and I really would like the money: job please.
The fact is: Owen Coyle has the job and I don’t. Don’t tell me that’s a meritocracy. No-one’s ever going to see that I really am the next Bill Shankly, instead, just months of Owen Coyle’s stupid legs.