Why is Owen Coyle’s stock still so high?
Earlier this week, Owen Coyle became the latest victim of the managerial merry-go-round that high level football produces. In such an open league, and with the high-valued Premier League the reward for success, the Championship in particular affords little time to most managers trying to make a success of their club. However, Bolton and chairman Phil Gartside are not known for making impulsive decisions – they have only had four managers since 1995 – and Coyle’s sacking has been coming for a longer time. Yet amongst the footballing community, Coyle’s stock still remains high, which seems baffling when taking into account the club he took over.
At the time of his appointment, Bolton had been a stable Premier League club. Sam Allardyce had taken them into Europe regularly and had brought world class stars – albeit past their prime world class stars – such as Jay-Jay Okocha, Youri Djorkaeff and, my personal favourite, Hidetoshi Nakata, to the Reebok Stadium. Gary Megson, who followed, also had a reasonably successful first season, although he remained unpopular throughout the rest of his tenure and was eventually sacked. Still, the club had a crop of good Premier league players and were established as top flight also-rans. However, at the time of Coyle’s sacking, Bolton sit 18th in the Championship, having only taken 11 points from 12 games.
So why then does his stock remain so high? And should it be?
His previous managerial positions have overall been moderately successful. His first job at Falkirk, where he was co-player-manager with John Hughes, resulted in Falkirk reaching the top of the Scottish second division and getting promoted. His next appointment was with St Johnstone. Taking over after a period of decline, Coyle just missed out on a second promotion to the Scottish Premier League, taking the Saints to second place. He then joined Burnley where he was successfully promoted, via the play-offs, in his first full year in charge. After a solid start to the Premier League season, he was snapped up in January 2010 by Bolton.
His managerial record, therefore, is good at the start, but it is hard to gauge just how successful, because he has always left so soon. Falkirk were already on course to be promoted and all he did was keep the charge going. With St. Johnstone, although he did well, he probably should have got them promoted, as Derek McInnes, Coyle’s successor, did the next season, and although Burnley did start well in the Premier League, lots of promoted teams in recent seasons have started well before fading – Blackpool and Hull are particularly good examples of this.
Questions must also remain over Coyle’s ability to turn around a struggling team and his ability to create a team to last over a longer period of time. The beginning of his Bolton reign started successfully, much like his other appointments. His team were praised for the fast flowing football and they made it all the way to the semi-finals of the FA Cup in his first full season in charge. Unfortunately for Coyle, though, no-one was willing to offer him an opportunity to move on after his good start for Bolton. Instead, his team began to struggle. A 5-0 defeat to Stoke during that FA Cup semi-final marked the start of a dramatic slump. He lost top goal-scorers Johan Elmander and Daniel Sturridge and replaced them with Gael Kakuta and David N’Gog. Unable to find a way to stop his team’s slide, Coyle and Bolton were relegated by a single point on the last day of the 2011/12 season, and his experiences in the Championship have been no better.
It is hard to argue that for a team that should be chasing automatic promotion back to the Premier League, three wins from the first 10 is a good enough record. They have also lost five. Coyle himself referred to the last game, a 2-1 defeat against Milwall, as the lowest point of his career. So his sacking was completely understandable.
More than his previous managerial successes, the way he handled midfielder Fabrice Muamba’s heart attack on the pitch in March this year was notable. He became a public source of strength with regular updates about Muamba’s health, dealt with the utmost respect. Muamba, who retired from football in August, has since said that he was ‘devastated’ about hearing of Coyle’s sacking. Of course, the emotive nature of this incident and Coyle’s wonderful handling of it, is reason for thinking of him as a good man; but is he a good football manager? I am not so sure.
Coyle’s record is good and he is obviously very close to his players, but results for the last 12 months for Bolton have not been good enough. It will be interesting to see what the next role Coyle takes on is, and if he can turn around a struggling team into a successful one.