Bristol Rovers had to gamble by appointing Darrell Clarke as manager and moving John Ward to director of football
The time for Bristol Rovers to play it safe is over. By appointing inexperienced Darrell Clarke as manager with eight games left to save their Football League status they have taken the most monumental of risks, but it is a gamble they had to take and one that could well pay off.
Too often when clubs are in trouble their default position is to go for experience or ‘a safe pair of hands’ if you like. It is something Bristol Rovers have done in recent years and where has it got them? Here is the answer: They were 19th in League Two when they sacked Paul Buckle and appointed Mark McGhee; they were 23rd when John Ward replaced Mark McGhee; and now they find themselves in a relegation battle once again, 20th in the table and three points above the relegation zone.
No matter how decorated a manager’s CV might be, those who have been in the game a long time are usually available for a reason, often carrying the scars of their struggles in their previous one or two jobs. Both Ward and McGhee were able to use their nous to lead Rovers to safety, but it is fair to say their best days as managers were well behind them when they arrived and they weren’t the right long-term options. Clarke’s best days should be all ahead of him.
For the first time since Paul Trollope was named boss in 2005, you get the feeling that Rovers have made a managerial appointment with thoughts beyond the end of the season. Even when they went for a younger manager in Buckle, there was an element of safety about it. He was chosen because he had previously got Torquay promoted from League Two and may have been seen as a quick-fix to get the team back into League One as soon as possible following their relegation the previous season.
Rovers went through a similar process last time they were in the fourth tier of English football - they struggled under high-profile managers Gerry Francis, Ray Graydon and Ian Atkins before rookie Trollope got them promoted to League One. Clarke seems to have more in common with Trollope than the other managers mentioned and it makes sense for Rovers to try and replicate something which worked for them in the past.
For starters, he is unproven as a boss at League Two level and that might actually be a good thing. Clarke takes the hot seat with no scars – he has only known success in his previous managerial role, albeit in the non-league with Salisbury City, where he won back-to-back promotions. At 37, Clarke is just four years older than Trollope when he took the job and you would expect him to be full of desire, passion and hunger because quite simply this is the job that is likely to make or break his coaching career.
For every manager that has enjoyed success in their career, all their achievements would not be possible without a club taking a chance on them like Rovers are doing now with Clarke and there are plenty who started out in League Two. You only have to look at Eddie Howe, who took charge of Bournemouth with no previous experience when they were in a far more precarious position than Rovers are now with no money and retaining their Football League status the least of their worries. He is now managing them in the Championship.
Like Trollope, Clarke was at the club before being appointed manager so he knows the players, what the fans expect and how the club operates. Perhaps more importantly, the board of directors know Clarke and are appointing him with their eyes wide open. They will be confident that he is the sort of figure who will fit into the culture of the club, unlike previous appointments like Buckle.
Perhaps more crucially, by moving Ward to director of football, Rovers are adopting a model that gave them success before when Lennie Lawrence was at the club with Trollope. It is a role that should suit Ward more at this stage in his career and he will play a key role behind the scenes in helping Clarke adjust to a big step up, as Lawrence did with Trollope before. Ward still has a lot to offer the club with his wealth of knowledge and is certainly no fool. He handpicked Clarke because he was a talented young coach, knowing he would be his successor, even if it has come sooner than expected.
And while the timing might not have been ideal, what was the alternative? If things carried on as they were with Ward as boss, Rovers might have gone down and if they went down the route of going for another tried and tested manager they could find themselves in exactly the same position once again 12 months from now. Most sides enjoy a bounce effect when they change managers and that could be enough for Rovers to pick up the points they need to survive. But for the club to thrive in the long-term they had to take a chance on someone like Clarke.
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