Heart of Football

The Humble Caretaker

When the proverbial has hit the fan, be it that results, form or both have dropped to an all-time low, or the head coach suddenly ups sticks and heads for pastures new, who is there to pick up the pieces? Who can be trusted to galvanise the players and fans left behind? It’s not the tyrannical owner or chairman that can be trusted to perform this task; nor is it the head of the supporters’ group.

No, it is someone who will literally take care of the team in the interim period before a new manager or head coach is found. Usually, this person is the current assistant manager – unless the departure of the head coach has been so acrimonious that “and their backroom staff” has also been quoted in the divorce proceedings.

There are different types of Caretaker Manager™. Some care passionately about the club and will apply their services for as little or long as is necessary; some are basically the designated survivor and are visibly uncomfortable in the position they have found themselves in; some are club legends riding back on a white steed to save the day… or fail miserably and run the risk of tainting their own reputations with their beloved club.

We have recently seen the return of the prodigal son to Stamford Bridge. Frank Lampard has once again been handed the poison chalice that is the Chelsea manager’s position, except this time in the role of caretaker until the end of the season. Lampard had an uneven tenure as manager between 2019-2021 with some questionable results and performances counteracted with an ultimately unsuccessful appearance in the FA Cup final. This time, he has the unenviable task of trying to slow the sinking of the Titanic until someone preferable comes along.

Let’s take a look at some other ‘legends’ that have returned in a caretaker capacity.

Duncan Ferguson – Everton

The current manager of Forest Green Rovers, Ferguson played over 200 times for Everton and joined their backroom staff upon retirement. The caretaker position was thrust upon him twice. In 2019, following the departure of Marco Silva, he had a successful few games including a victory over Chelsea until Carlo Ancelotti arrived to take the helm. This earned him a well-deserved assistant manager’s role.  Then, in 2022, when the ill-fated management by (Liverpool legend) Rafa Benitez came to its expected conclusion, Ferguson stepped up again. He only managed the one game though before that man again, Frank Lampard, turned up.

Alan Shearer – Newcastle United

With the possible exception of Jackie Milburn, you don’t find a more legendary name at St James’ Park than Alan Shearer. The former Premier League winner with Blackburn Rovers moved to his boyhood club in 1996 where he stayed until he retired a decade later with the highest goal tally of anyone in Premier League history. Without any previous coaching experience or seemingly interest, on 1st April 2009 (no, it wasn’t any April Fool’s joke), Shearer took the caretaker role in an effort to stop the almost unthinkable from happening – Newcastle United being relegated from the Premier League.

In a rather bizarre set of circumstances, the actual manager, Joe Kinnear, was recovering from heart surgery and Chris Hughton had taken over as caretaker in the meantime. The original caretaker made way for a different one and after the club did sadly face the drop to the Championship, it wasn’t Alan Shearer or Joe Kinnear that were trusted to bring the club back up again but Caretaker Number One, Chris Hughton. To be fair, Hughton duly won the title and promotion at the first attempt.

Ole Gunnar Solskjær – Manchester United

“…and Solskjær has won it” will forever echo in the ears of football fans thanks to the incomparable Clive Tyldsley and Solskjær’s dramatic late winner to earn Man Utd The Treble in 1999. The iconic super-sub was happily managing Molde in his native Norway but he had a clause in his contract that stated if Manchester United ever came calling with the manager’s job then he would be free to go, no questions asked. A get-out-of-jail-free-card, if you will. And in 2019, the Red Devils did indeed come calling.

The tumultuous reign of Jose Mourinho had come to an end and Solskjær took over in caretaker charge until the end of the season. In turn, his assistant back at Molde took caretaker control of the Norwegian champions. Solskjær rejuvenated United though in terms of results, performances and general mood among players and fans alike – the holy trinity that any manager can only dream of. As such, he was handed the role on a permanent basis and led the club to the Europa League final, the best away record since the days of Sir Alex Ferguson and multiple derby-day victories over Manchester City.

Ryan Giggs – Manchester United

Generally speaking, nobody ever wants to be the man to follow the man. At Manchester United, Sir Alex Ferguson was the man. He won it all, he has a statue and a stand named after him at Old Trafford. The chosen one to follow him was David Moyes. It was never going to work, since he didn’t get the proper support from the fans or the board; guilty only really of not being Sir Alex Ferguson.

Moyes’ six-year contract lasted 10 months and the infamous line of “give it Giggsy til’ the end of the season” was born. In 2014, the class of 92’, or some of them at least, stepped into the breach to save United’s season. Giggs, with Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt and Phil Neville at his side, performed well and looked to have a decent chance at landing the job permanently but that summer Louis van Gaal was hired and Giggs dropped back down to assistant before leaving the club altogether when Jose Mourinho arrived.

Speaking of Ryan Giggs, sometimes an event occurs that cannot be accounted for and whoever just happens to be next in line gets thrust into the hot seat like Kiefer Sutherland suddenly having to become President…

Rob Page – Wales

Following Ryan Giggs’ historic tenure at Manchester United, the only place he wanted to go was to his native Wales and lead his country. I’m 2018 he did just that, and relatively successfully too. However, in 2020 the Welsh wizard was arrested for…personal issues at home, shall we say…and his assistant Rob Page took over caretaker charge.

Page led Wales to the round of 16 at Euro 2020 (in 2021) and their first World Cup qualification since 1958 at Qatar 2022. Wales were eliminated at the group stage but even so, Page had done enough already by then to justify him signing a permanent contract.

Steve Kean – Blackburn Rovers

Whether it was right place, right time or strategically engineered in an underhanded way by his agent, nobody personifies talking your way into a job you’re not qualified to perform and being way out of your depth than Steve Kean. There are almost two period of time for Blackburn Rovers fans – B.V. & A.V. (Before Venky’s and After Venky’s). When the Indian chicken conglomerate bought the former Premier League champions, they had little to no understanding of how the English football pyramid operated, how to effectively own and run a football club nor the wants and needs of a town’s football fan base.

So, when they came along and removed Sam Allardyce from his position, they inexplicably replaced him with Steve Kean. There couldn’t have been a starker difference. Allardyce was an established football manager who had never been relegated in his career, who also knew the region following periods of his career at Bolton Wanderers and Preston North End.

Kean had only ever performed coaching and assistant manager roles previously, although allegedly very well. He took over as caretaker manager following Allardyce’s departure and signed a full contract despite calls from fans, local press, even local politicians for his immediate removal before any further damage could be done. The fate of the club was ultimately sealed when Kean could not stop Blackburn Rovers from being relegated from the Premier League. Relegation, along with a plethora of dodgy deals and dodgier performances categorises Steve Kean’s caretaker role and subsequent managership as one of the most disastrous in modern football history.

Tony Parkes – Blackburn Rovers

From the ridiculous to the sublime. If Steve Kean was arguably the worst caretaker manager of all time, at least at Ewood Park, then Tony Parkes was the undoubtedly the best. The godfather of Blackburn Rovers stepped into the breach not once, not twice but six times over his career.

Parkes played for the club for 12 years until retiring in 1982. He joined the coaching staff and his first calling was following the departure of Bobby Saxton in the middle of the 1986-87 season. He then performed the role without complaint nor dreams of taking the limelight for himself in 1991 after Don Mackay left, the majority of the 1996-97 season replacing Ray Harford, 1998 following Roy Hodgson, 1999-00 after Brian Kidd’s poor showing and finally 2004 when Graeme Souness decided the grass was greener at Newcastle United.

Tony Parkes is about as close to legendary status at Blackburn Rovers as you’ll get. He saw the East Lancashire club from a struggling second division team to the Jack Walker Premier League winning years, to relegation and promotion, and winning the League Cup.

Guus Hiddink – Chelsea…twice

It is fair to say that Chelsea like changing their manager, a lot… In 2009, Luis Felipe Scolari was relieved of his duties and no immediate and obvious caretaker stood out at Stamford Bridge. So, then-owner Roman Abramovic put up the Bat signal and brought in one of the most legendary football figures around: Guus Hiddink.

He was already the manager of the Russian national team, probably where the connection lies, but came to England to take the wheel at Chelsea until the end of the season. He performed unsurprisingly very well, losing just once in the league and winning the FA Cup. Despite many calls from fans and players alike to stay on permanently, Hiddink resisted and returned to his duties in Russia. He did return following the underwhelming second stint as manager by Jose Mourinho in 2015 (never go back) and managed to to guide Chelsea to a top half finish from the relegation battle they were facing with a 12 match unbeaten streak.

Roberto Di Matteo – Chelsea

You may be forgiven for thinking that Guus Hiddink was the most successful caretaker manager at Chelsea – but you’d be wrong. A who’s-who of football icons have taken the manager’s role at Stamford Bridge and for a long time, many of them tried and failed to with ‘the big one’. Claudio Ranieri, José Mourinho, Avram Grant, Luiz Felipe Scolari, Guus Hiddink, Carlo Ancelotti, André Villas-Boas all tried and none of them managed to win the Champions League.

But Di Matteo did. Chelsea defeated Bayern Munich in their own stadium to win the European Cup, only two weeks after beating Liverpool at Wembley for the FA Cup. He was handed a permanent contract, only to be sacked before the end of the year. Success and loyalty in football mean nothing, do they?

Sir Kenny Dalglish – Liverpool

The aforementioned FA Cup win for Chelsea came against a Liverpool side led by club legend Kenny Dalglish. King Kenny had previously managed Liverpool in the late 1980s before leading Blackburn Rovers to Premier League glory in 1995. After a period of time away from management, he returned to Anfield under Rafa Benitez as the club’s youth director. When Benitez left, Dalglish engineered the appointment of Roy Hodgson who coincidentally (or not) had managed Blackburn Rovers not too long after Dalglish had finished at Ewood.

When Hodgson departed after a poor run, Kenny Dalglish stepped into the breach. Liverpool were in a dire situation and it was a thankless task, but Dalglish was offered the job permanently and led them to an FA Cup final and victory in the League Cup. Despite this, their poor league performance and failure to qualify for the Champions League meant that Dalglish was dismissed at the end of the season.

As I say, there is no loyalty in football and it is ironic that the caretaker is rarely taken care of in the end. Sometimes offered a token contract, which are never worth the paper they’re written on as they are inevitably torn up when club fortunes hit a stumbling block. Often sent to the back benches again when someone more fashionable comes along. The caretaker manager deserves more respect, that much is clear; and we as football fans should never underestimate their sacrifice to the sport we love and the clubs we hold dear. 

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