By RORY SMITH
There was a telltale line in the statement Huw Jenkins, the chairman of Swansea City, released Tuesday to confirm that Bob Bradley’s career as a Premier League manager was over after 85 days.
Amid the heartfelt expressions of regret that are all but programmed into these things, the eulogies for the condemned man’s character and the best wishes for his future, Jenkins explained the logic that had forced his — and Swansea’s American owners’ — hand.
“We felt we had to make the change with half of the Premier League season remaining,” Jenkins said. “With the club going through such a tough time, we have to try and find the answers to get ourselves out of trouble.”
Jenkins did not mean that Swansea is about to indulge in a period of intense self-reflection. There will be no soul-searching at the executive level about the drift that has been allowed to set in at the club over the last three years or about why Swansea’s meteoric rise has been allowed to stall so quickly.
Jenkins and his colleagues will not be asking themselves why the club has sold a host of important players, the core of the team that took Swansea into the Premier League and then established the club there, nor why they tried to replace them with a collection of waifs and strays. There will be no deep dive into performance data to try to work out where, what and who the weak links are.
No, what Jenkins means is quite different. Swansea is not going to start asking any questions. It is going to skip that part and go out and find an answer. Or rather, it is going to go out and find a man — almost certainly a white man, and most likely one who in most other walks of life would be about ready for his pension — who it believes already has the answers.
In Italy, there is a word for the manager who is called in when the warning lights are flashing and the fans are in revolt: traghettatore – the ferryman, the person who guides you through choppy waters to the safety of the bank.
England — where referring to a penalty kick as a “P.K.,” as Bradley did, is considered dangerously gauche — does not have the word, but it most certainly understands the concept.
A couple of days before Christmas, Sam Allardyce was confirmed as Crystal Palace’s new manager. Alan Pardew, the man he replaced, was a former player at the club, beloved by its fans, and had even taken Palace to last year’s F.A. Cup final. His arrival just less than two years ago had been treated as a considerable coup; Palace had paid Newcastle £3.5 million ($4.2 million) to release him from his contract, and it had been only a couple of months since Pardew himself had explained, at length, why he would not want to leave the club even if he was offered the chance to manage England’s national team.
But Palace was enduring a worse 2016 than any other Premier League team. The most lavish transfer-window spending in the club’s history — bringing in the likes of Christian Benteke and Andros Townsend — had not arrested the slide, and now the heat of the battle to avoid relegation was on Pardew’s neck.
Despite his close bond with Steve Parish, Palace’s chairman, Pardew could not survive it. On Dec. 22, the day he was relieved of his duties — with a multimillion-dollar payout to cushion the blow — Allardyce was summoned for talks with Parish. Those went so well that Allardyce, 62, took charge of training on Christmas Eve.
It did not matter that Allardyce had been fired, just a few months earlier, from his dream job as England’s manager for a series of damaging comments made to undercover newspaper journalists. It did not matter that the Football Association, English soccer’s governing body, had deemed his behavior beyond the pale, and that it had been forced to part with him “to protect the wider interests of the game.”
It did not matter, either, that at two of Allardyce’s four previous clubs — Newcastle United and West Ham United — his departure was hardly mourned, or that his preferred style of play was polarizing at best, or that he only won nine of 31 games in charge of Sunderland, his last club post.
It did not matter because Allardyce is a traghettatore, and ultimately money trumps what ghosts of morality survive in elite soccer. He is the man who has the answers. He will always find work; whenever he is without it, work tends to find him. “We were fortunate that someone of Allardyce’s caliber and experience was available,” Parish said in bringing him on.
That word, experience, is crucial. It is the same one Allardyce chose to emphasize when he was presented as Palace’s new manager: He would “get out of trouble, with my experience.” The Premier League, more than most other leagues, cherishes experience.
Swansea’s experiment with Bradley, of course, seems to illustrate perfectly why that is. Bradley was, by Premier League standards, an appointment out of deep left field. He had never before worked in a top European league. He had neither coached nor played in England.
His résumé was eclectic, and his body of work, weighted with its context, was impressive: spells with the United States and Egypt national teams, fine campaigns with Stabaek in Norway and Le Havre in France’s second division.
He was convincing in interviews: Jenkins, like Steve Kaplan and Jason Levien, Swansea’s American owners, believed he was a leader. He was popular within the club, with employees and players. Jenkins meant it when he described him, in his statement Tuesday, as a “good man.”
And yet the results do not lie. Swansea has only 12 points from 18 games this season; Bradley leaves the club in 19th place in the standings, his team having scored 15 goals and conceded 29 during his tenure.
It was the latter that did it for him: not the fact of defeats to West Ham, Middlesbrough and West Bromwich Albion, but the nature of them — the visible collapses, the wilting spirit. Bradley had many admirable traits and a respected work ethic, but in hindsight that all seems irrelevant because he does not have experience, and only experience brings answers. Now Swansea, too, will turn to its own traghettatore.
It is possible to, simultaneously, feel that Swansea has made an understandable decision and worry that English soccer is damaged by this tyranny of experience.
Not just because the same old jobs going to the same old faces is one of the reasons that England’s native managerial stock remains so steadfastly white: Even a properly enforced Rooney Rule — the N.F.L.’s requirement that teams interview a minority candidate for head coaching vacancies — would stand no chance of working when the only openings that come up would be inevitably awarded to the same half-dozen candidates.
Not just because it places an insurmountable roadblock on any young coaches — either high-profile ex-players or those working their way through the lower leagues — hoping for a chance to cut their teeth in the Premier League, starving a new generation of oxygen.
But because, in encouraging that homogeneity, it locks English soccer — as opposed to the multinational Premier League — in stasis. Few clubs risk new ideas, new approaches, new voices; those that do seem to lose their nerve with alarming speed.
Maybe Bradley was the wrong appointment at Swansea, but that should not mean the league should write off all American coaches, or all coaches in France’s second division, or all coaches who have not previously managed in England. To believe that would be to condemn English soccer to the tried and tested, instead of the bold and the brave. It would mean a culture that is forever crossing from one bank to another, never actually getting anywhere.
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