After a couple of surprisingly prudent months of collective patience from Premier League higher-ups, the managerial merry-go-round has finally started spinning. Crystal Palace axed Neil Warnock and replaced him by hiring Alan Pardew away from Newcastle. Shortly after that, West Bromwich Albion canned Alan Irvine and brought in Tony Pulis, who, to gives us a neat circle, you might remember as the manager who walked away from Crystal Palace right before this season started. While it’s easy to get lost in all the upheaval — with surely more to come — let’s take a moment to rate just how smart all these moves were on a scale of bad idea jeans to Sheldon Cooper (that tall, skinny, really smart guy from The Big Bang Theory).
Crystal Palace Fires Neil Warnock
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Usually when a club fires a manager after less than a season, they’re either being damagingly impatient or copping to a colossal mistake. But Crystal Palace’s situation was unique. Pulis and Palace parted ways only days before this season began, which left Palace in the unusual position of needing to make a full-time hire without any time to actually, you know, make a full-time hire. Pressed for time, they turned to Warnock, who has managed in the lower divisions of English football since 1980, including a stint at Palace from 2007 to 2010. He wasn’t a combed-over, carefully picked candidate in whom the club decided to invest its long-term future — and he also wasn’t a manager with a top-level track record to inspire confidence. He was just sort of a guy without a job who’d done this job before. After half a season under what, in effect, was an interim manager anyway, this firing seems perfectly reasonable.
Intelligence Rating: Keeping your car’s maintenance up to date.
Crystal Palace Hires Alan Pardew
If letting Warnock go was a sensible and unsurprising move, hiring Alan Pardew was the exact opposite. There isn’t any manager in the Premier League who divides opinion as much as Pardew does. Before leaving Newcastle, he was the second-longest-tenured manager in the Premier League — although that doesn’t mean too much, as he’d only been at Newcastle since the beginning of December 2010. Over those four years, he led the Magpies to the Europa League, flirted with relegation, and then, most recently, settled them into the land of the spectacularly mediocre. According to Daniel Altman’s work at North Yard Analytics, Pardew’s been one of the best managers at getting results above and beyond what you’d expect from his team’s goal difference. But whether that makes him lucky or good is anybody’s guess. It’s hard to pin down quite how good Newcastle should have been under his tenure. They consistently sold off their best players with the likes of Demba Ba, Yohan Cabaye, and Mathieu Debuchy all coming and leaving under Pardew. And yet Pardew never exactly endeared himself to his fans, either, what with cursing out opposing managers and head-butting opposing players coloring his time at St. James’ Park.
On the other hand, he has shown a remarkable amount of resiliency. After starting this season winless through seven games — and with his job perched on a limb so thin that only a temporary suspension of the laws of physics kept it from snapping — Pardew responded by winning five straight Premier League matches, with a bonus League Cup win over Manchester City sprinkled in. If anything, it’s Pardew’s Newcastle career in miniature: a string of bad results, which are followed by calls for his head, which are then resisted by Newcastle owner Mike Ashley only for Pardew to ultimately turn things around. Maybe that says something about Pardew, or maybe it says something about the value of longer-term thinking in modern ownership. But either way, he’s Crystal Palace’s problem now.
Intelligence Rating: Your upstairs neighbor’s modern-art exhibit.
Newcastle Owner Mike Ashley
A couple of months ago, Ashley considered firing Alan Pardew despite the seemingly infinite number of years left on the eight-year contract he’d signed in September of 2012.1 Now, instead of having to pay out, Ashley is reportedly receiving £3.5 million from Palace for Pardew’s services. That’s a heck of a reward for his patience. The team, as always, currently sits in a perfectly mediocre 10th place in the table, meaning they are neither threatened by the financial ruin of relegation nor looking particularly likely to challenge for Europe, so there isn’t any pressure to get a replacement through the door too quickly. Now Ashley can take his time and scour the earth for a cheap Pardew replacement who will keep his perfectly mediocre squad perfectly mediocre.
However, as the departures of David Moyes and Tim Sherwood have shown recently, contract length is often just a mirage of unguaranteed years tacked onto short-term out clauses.
Intelligence Rating: Mr. Burns.
West Brom Fires Alan Irvine
Following Steve Clarke and Pepe Mel, Irvine makes it three WBA managers to get the ax in the last season and a half. Like Warnock at Crystal Palace, Irvine was hired before the season. However, unlike the Palace situation, the Baggies had all offseason to settle on their man. They chose the one who was in charge of Everton’s youth setup and a previous David Moyes acolyte; then, six months later, they un-chose him. Getting rid of a glorified stopgap in Warnock is one thing; getting rid of a youth-oriented coach after only six months on the job is a head-scratcher. And maybe Irvine was really over his head in his first top-flight managerial job, but if that’s the case, then some of the blame has to go to the people that hired him.
With a director of football above the manager, WBA has a firm hierarchy in place that’s supposed to avoid mistakes like this. But the DoF position itself hasn’t exactly been a bedrock of consistency in recent years. The position was first held by Dan Ashworth, who is largely considered the architect of the Baggies’ assent to the Premier League, until he left for a job with the English F.A. in 2012. After Ashworth’s departure, the club’s chairman, Jeremy Peace, first appointed the team’s legal director, Richard Garlick, to the job, only to then demote him and hire Terry Burton, who’d coached the reserves and was in charge of development at Arsenal, as a replacement.
If you’ve lost track — and I won’t blame you — a string of directors of football ultimately led to the appointment of a man who had previously specialized in player development, who then appointed — and, six months later, fired — a manager who had previously specialized in player development. Yikes.
Intelligence Rating: You know how an infant can’t comprehend how her toy figurine still exists even if she can’t currently see it? Yeah, that.
West Brom Hires Tony Pulis
Tony Pulis knows when he’s wanted. He held out and negotiated a 2.5-year contract with complete control over the Baggies’ first team. While the club still insists that it’s operating under the director of football model, with Pulis in charge and with all the power, it’s a little like giving someone the patty, looking at the empty bun, and still saying you have a cheeseburger. Rumors of Pulis’s impending spending spree have been spreading like wildfire through the English tabloids — all of which should make his new owners very, very nervous.
The secret of Tony Pulis is that while he’s a fantastic manager — saving Crystal Palace last season was miraculous both for what he accomplished and how competent he made that team look — he’s horrible when it comes to picking his own players. In fact, his biggest accomplishment over seven years at Stoke might be that he performed as well as he did while saddling himself with overpriced, underperforming players like Wilson Palacios, Kenwyne Jones, and the great Tuncay Sanli. Famously, Pulis once broke Stoke’s transfer record for Dave Kitson, who managed a grand total of three goals in 34 appearances for the club.
Under Pulis it’s hard to imagine that West Brom will get relegated. Right now they’re in 17th place, one point above the relegation zone, meaning that Pulis’s job will be much easier than the one he had last year. The question is how much it will end up costing the club.
Intelligence Rating: No, we don’t want to look at the menu, waiter. Why don’t you just surprise us? We trust you.