The Assistant

The recent English Premier League season ended with a promoted former-assistant at the helm of two of the relegated clubs – Steven Kean at Blackburn Rovers and Terry Connor at Wolves. Both had good coaching reputations, but neither could prevent their side from going down

It’s always interesting to see how assistants do when given the reins. It’s very much a sink or swim situation. Kean and Connor are the latest in a line of sinkers.

Brian Kidd is one of the highest profile sinkers. He had been assistant to Alex Ferguson and instrumental in bringing through some of the prodigous talent that propelled United to the top of European football, but when he took over as Blackburn manager in 1998, he prompted got Rovers relegated. Kidd is now back in his best role, behind the scenes, at Manchester City.

Another name that could be considered as a managerial flop is Carlos Queiroz. Not a bad manager, he found some success,and a number of high profile appointments, but there’s no doubting that Queiroz’s most successful spell came as assistant to Sir Alex. His recent appointment as manager of Iran certainly suggests that he won’t be bothering the upper echelons of the footballing pantheon any time soon.

Not all Number 2’s go on to fail when given the top job, of course. Bob Paisley faced the seemingly impossible task of replacing the legendary Bill Shankly at Liverpool. He swam, winning six league titles and three European cups. Not strictly an assistant, Pep Guardiola was a promotion from within at Barcelona, taking over the top job after a year in charge of the B team. It’s a trick Barça want to repeat following the appointment of Guardiola’s assistant, Tito Vilanova, to take over from him from next season.

As a Killie fan, I could also mention Kenny Shiels as doing a great job since taking over from Mixu Paatelainen, leading the club to a comfortable league position and a League Cup triumph.

The reason that all this occurred to me was that as the Timbers have struggled this year under the guidance of John Spencer, a lot of fans have voiced the thought that perhaps Spencer is an example of someone who makes a better assistant than a manager. A sinker.

Spenny had a few years as Dominic Kinnear’s assistant at Houston Dynamo before being chosen by Timbers owner Merritt Paulson to take over in the club’s first year in MLS. Paulson has always emphasised the long term nature of Spencer’s appointment, and the “project” they’re embarking on, but it’s hard to imagine he’s not been bitterly disappointed with the way the Timbers’ second season had unfolded.

Unlike a Guardiola or Paisley, or even Shiels, Spencer hasn’t served his “apprenticeship” in-house. Coming in from relative obscurity at Houston, he’s been thrown in at the deep end with a club whose fanbase is fanatical and fervent, to say the least.

Inexperience is a common theme at the Timbers. From a manager with no managerial experience, to a General Manager with no MLS experience and a young owner who’d be the first to admit soccer was never his first love.

Given all this, you might expect that Spencer would’ve been backed up by an experienced number two. Last season Trevor James had served as back-up to Spencer. James had five years of experience within the LA Galaxy set-up, but his tenure at the club lasted only a year.

This year has seen Cameron Knowles join Amos Magee – an assistant to then-manager, now General Manager, Gavin Wilkinson, during the Timbers USL days. The appointment is Knowles’ first coaching job following his retirement at the end of last season. He’s another with a Wilkinson connection, having played under him for the USL Timbers.

To go back to Alex Ferguson briefly, he has given a masterclass in how to utilise assistants over the years. The role of assistant manager is a hard one to quantify.

To paint in broad strokes, the role is to be a guiding voice to the manager, and a bridge from manager to players. Within those outlines, there’s much more to the role. He can be the guy who’s on the training ground every day, such as Kevin Bond at Spurs, or he can fulfil the roles and duties the manager doesn’t want to, as Sir Alex’s assistants have done for years when the grumpy Scot wasn’t talking to the BBC.

Rather than just throw his assistants in front of the post-match cameras, Ferguson has used the role to develop his club into a forward-thinking operation. The key to how Fergie has managed to stay on top for so long without going stale could be the way he changes assistants periodically to bring in a fresh approach.

Queiroz brought a continental, technical style to the club – he’s widely credited with the club’s adoption of the 4-5-1/4-3-3 – whilst Steve McClaren modernised with a pioneering use of sports psychology and in-depth analytical technology.

What fresh ideas and approaches Knowles and Magee bring to the club is hard to tell without being on the training ground every day. Given the tactical naivety shown by Spencer at times over his tenure, it does seem like he misses an “old head” to provide guidance.

This lack of experience – from assistants, to manager, general manger and all the way up to club owner – is thrown into stark relief by the team up the road.

Seattle Sounders, in contrast to the Timbers, installed a vastly experienced head coach in Sigi Schmid, and they hit the ground running with successive US Open Cup triumphs that have kept the customers in rave green and bule suitably smug.

Travelling a little further north, Vancouver Whitecaps somewhat mirrored the Timbers when they appointed a relatively inexperienced Scot, Martin Rennie, as head coach (though he had held the top job at a number of lower league clubs), but made sure he had experience such as ex-DC United head coach Tom Soehn as Director of Soccer Operations to lean on.

It’s hard to tell if Spencer himself is is a sinker, or his Wilkinsonite support network within the club hasn’t been able to give him proper guidance. Given I’m relatively new to the Timbers, I don’t feel I have the authority to go over Wilkinson’s role in the Timbers’ struggles, but if there’s anyone out there who wants to give it a go, please do get in touch.

Very few first time managers hit the ground running and deliver immediate results, and it’s often the case that relatively inexperienced managers are given a more experienced assistant to help them out.

Even a legend such as Arsene Wenger, who lacked playing “credentials”, had the “football man” Pat Rice as assistant, until Rice’s recent retirement. Spencer certainly doesn’t lack for credentials having had an illustrious career in the UK and US, nor does he lack for confidence, but something is certainly missing.

Following the ignominious defeat to Cal FC, there are no matches for the Timbers for almost two weeks, when they will travel to face LA Galaxy. Despite having a team packed with quality and experience, Beckham FC prop up the Western Conference. I hope to have an in-depth look at them in the next week or so.

Timbers gu bràth

Has Spencer Lost It?

There will be few of a Timbers persuasion who will look back on the the first few months of the 2012 season with anything other than a grimace/rueful shake of the head depending on how the year turns out. It has not been good. At all.

Midway through May the performances and results have been poor and the team find themselves propping up the Western Conference with almost a third of the season gone.

Such is the atmosphere around the club that Merritt Paulson’s trip to Munich for the Champions League final drew the ire of some. You can guarantee that a winning team’s fans don’t particularly care if their team owner is out of town on a jolly, missing a grand total of one game in a season. But when the results aren’t good…

Many fans are asking hard questions of Paulson and the Timbers front office, or of the players of the pitch. It doesn’t diminish their support, but neither does support mean tough questions shouldn’t be asked.

The question that’s been nagging away at the back of my head for a while now isn’t about Paulson, a guy whose love for the club I do not question, or Gavin Wilkinson, a General Manager with no MLS experience, or even the players, whom I think are giving their best under the circumstances. No, the question that’s been on my mind is this –

What the hell is up with John Spencer?

Hiring a manager with no experience of the top job was always a risk, especially without experienced back-up, but I felt that last year Spencer had shown some signs of progress. He’s certainly enthusiastic and engaging. On the pitch there were a few missteps, but as long as lessons are learned, then that’s fine. No-one expected trophies from the get-go.

The thing is that this year it doesn’t seem like the lessons of last year have been learned after all. The team seems to make the same mistakes, over and over and over again.

The last few weeks have been especially concerning for me as Spencer’s words and actions seem to indicate a manager who is, frankly, out of his depth.

Last month saw James Marcelin waived in a move that took many by surprise, but the real headscratcher was a couple of lines in the press release that gave the reason for Marcelin’s dismissal as “non-soccer-related“, and that the club had “a high level of professional expectations for all its players”.

Now, most fans are aware of the rumours about Marcelin, and few would describe the Haitian as a model professional, but quite why the club felt the need to include such a pointed, yet vague, dig at Marcelin is unclear.

Spencer undoutedly had very little to do with the wording of the press release, but Marcelin’s comments since getting picked up by FC Dallas that the Scot “doesn’t let you [play your game]” because “he’s just yelling all the time” probably points towards a personality clash that would’ve certainly hastened Marcelin’s departure.

The thing is, if the Timbers had simply said that Marcelin was surplus to requirements, and they felt the roster spot would be better utilised elsewhere, few would’ve batted an eyelid. Marcelin had never really commanded a place in the Timbers XI, and his effectiveness as a “closer” was questionable, at best. The little petty dig struck me, ironically enough, as rather unbecoming of a professional outfit.

Shortly after Marcelin’s departure, Spencer addressed Eric Alexander’s absence from the team with a very candid spiel on the midfielder’s application.

As he told the press, “[Eric] has been given an opportunity to play and is not playing to the best of his ability that we know how he can play. He needs to realize … that when you get the opportunity to play you’ve got to take it with both hands. Play well and stay in the team.”

This again caused eyebrows to raise among Timbers fans. Alexander, it should be noted, currently leads the club in assists. The last goal scored by a Timber came from an Alexander assist. Alexander isn’t playing, the Timbers aren’t scoring. Coincidence? Maybe, maybe not.

Spencer sees Alexander in training every day – he knows more about him than any of us fans could hope to, so in some respects you have to bow to his insider knowledge. Perhaps Eric isn’t giving enough in training. Perhaps there is more to come from him. I wouldn’t dare to profess any great insight into whether Eric Alexander isn’t doing his best.

My issue is that publicly calling someone out isn’t, to my mind, the way to get more effort from that person. What sort of message does it send to other players as well that a manager under pressure and facing questions about his own performance is going to throw one of his (better) players out there as not doing enough?

There are those who’ll say that Spencer is just answering the question honestly. Hey, I can respect that. The meaningless clichés of football are one of my big bugbears. But I’d say that the place for blunt “honesty” is the locker room, not in front of the assembled press. You can be honest and diplomatic at the same time.

It doesn’t seem that Spencer’s public pep-talk has done much to improve Alexander’s efforts as he’s since been limited to cameo appearances, while Lovel Palmer has settled in at centre midfield. There are some who’d read Spencer’s “play well and stay in the team” line and then look at the team sheet with eyebrows raised so high they’d be halfway down the back of the neck.

The last couple of matches have at least seen the team come together defensively and put in some good shifts at the back, keeping two clean sheets back-to-back. Something to be applauded. A great foundation to build upon.

The problem has been that the team has offered very little in attack. It’s over 7 hours since a Timber put the ball in the net.

John Spencer, speaking to Timbers Insider, addressed fans concerns about a lack of attacking midfielders with a dismissive “square pegs in round holes” dig. “You’re just putting a blindfold on and throwing a dart at a dartboard and hopefully it comes up trumps. We’re not coaching [youth soccer] where you can do what you want. We’re a professional level, you’ve got to play the players in the positions that they’re accustomed to.”

Take that fans. You know nothing. Now run along, there’s a dear.

If any fans had eyebrows left, reading that has probably shot them off into near-Earth orbit. “Play the players in the positions that they’re accustomed to.” Really, John? You’re actually using that line?

I suppose you mean guys like Diego Chara, the winger? Or Jack Jewsbury, the attacking midfielder?

Either Spencer is forgetful, or he’s a hypocrite. He’s the guy that’s been playing players out of position, consistently. That’s the problem. John.

There are few who believe that Nagbe’s rightful position is up top. His best work has come from deeper positions, when he can get turned, get his head up and run with the ball. Yet he’s found himself leading the line, or even stuck out wide.

The passive-aggressive tone of Spencer’s reply is that of the age-old defence – if you’ve not done it yourself, you can’t possibly be qualified to talk about it. Yeah, I don’t get paid to do this (I actually pay for the privilege with hosting costs), nor do I have coaching badges or experience of playing beyond school’s level, but don’t insinuate that I, and other fans, don’t know what we’re seeing.

I don’t have to have directed a blockbuster movie to know that Battleship is a steaming crock of shit. I don’t have to have written and performed a Top 10 hit to know that Justin Bieber is the greatest single threat to humanity since the invention of the A-Bomb.

And I don’t have to have managed a professional team (or youth soccer – hey youth soccer coaches, you suck too!) to know that this isn’t good enough, and you haven’t shown anything to suggest that you have any idea how to fix it.

To the list of unprofessional players, players who aren’t working hard enough, and an overabundance of square pegs, you can add “too many young players” to the list of reasons why the Timbers are underachieving this year.

“”I think we are underachieving when it comes to getting good service [to the attackers],” Spencer said to OregonLive.com. “We are inconsistent in that department. But that comes from having young players. They’re going to have inconsistencies.”

Well, I for one am glad that’s been sorted out. We’re not scoring because we have too many young players, not because we lack an attacking midfielder, or we’re benching our leading assist creator. It’s the young players!

Which is, quite frankly, horse shit. Freshly laid, steaming equine manure.

Let’s look at the numbers. The average age of the Timbers starting midfield and attack in the last tow matches is over 25. Only one player, Nagbe, could reasonably be tagged as “young”. Rodney Wallace, the next youngest at 23, has over 60 MLS starts to his name.

Meanwhile, at DC United – a team that have scored 22 in 13 matches, compared to the Timbers 9 in 10 – four of their most used midfield and attackers are 22 or under. The average age of their 7 most used midfielders and attackers comes in at a full year younger than the Timbers “kids” (a little over 24) – and that includes Dwayne De Rosario, a player so old he still remembers when everything was black and white. Take DeRo out of the mix and the average age crashes below 23. Nagbe is a veteran in that set up.

I’m not buying it, John.

Now, you could certainly make the case that Spencer had little or nothing to do with the Marcelin press release, and argue that Spencer’s comments about Alexander are just a sign of the man’s honesty and willingness to give a straight answer, but the last two examples are the most worrying to me.

These are the words of a manager who either doesn’t realise the problems the team faces, or doesn’t know how to right them. The passive-aggressive obfuscation of the fans legitimate concerns is getting old, fast.

It seems that whenever the pressure is on the manager, and questions are asked, the answer is the same: it’s the players. They’re not doing enough, or they’re inconsistent or too young. There’s always someone else to blame. Luck, referees, conditions. The list of excuses is as long as it is fatuous.

I might not know the answer of who to put the Timber back on track, but then it’s not my job to. It’s John Spencer’s, and if he doesn’t even understand the question in the first place, that’s not just worrying, it’s downright terrifying.

Tomorrow the Timbers face Chicago and have a chance to lay a marker down for the rest of the season. The rot stops here, and the goals will flow. No-one will be happier to see John Spencer turn it round, you might be surprised to hear, than me. I’d love to be proven wrong, but I’m starting to lose faith in the man in charge.

I firmly believe we have the players to go out and play a creatively attacking game, while remaining defensively responsible. Whether Spencer will let his young square pegs go out and do it is another matter.

#RCTID through the good times and, especially, the bad.