Mr Fix-it waits in wings as managers feel heat

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 January, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 January, 2011, 12:00am

It has been one of the most unpredictable Premier League seasons in recent memory and not just at the top of the table. Even during this FA Cup weekend, the 'R' word - relegation - will be on the minds of more than half a dozen clubs.

Slightly past the halfway mark, just five points separate the bottom six teams. The fact that seventh-placed Liverpool are only 11 points above bottom side West Ham United is an indication of how tight things have become.

Already Roy Hodgson, Chris Hughton and Sam Allardyce have been shown the door by Liverpool, Newcastle United and Blackburn respectively. But many more managers will be feeling uneasy when they cast a glance at their respective clubs' precarious positions. Forty points - usually the benchmark of survival - is still a long way off.

'The Premier League has become more of an even field with Blackpool, Newcastle and West Brom being able to compete this season, which tells us the standard has probably gone down,' former Fulham and Northern Ireland coach Lawrie Sanchez said.

'Failing to stay up could be a disaster for those teams not used to being relegated, like West Ham.'

Sliding into the quagmire of the Championship can mean a mass exodus of players, sagging support and immediate financial problems.

A recent increase in so-called parachute payments - now ?48 million over four years for relegated teams - does little to ease the anxiety.

Out of management and working as a UK-based media pundit, 51-year-old Sanchez waits in the wings to be called on as required. The former Northern Ireland international has built his coaching reputation on defying the odds, including rescuing clubs from the dreaded drop.

When Chris Coleman was sacked in April 2007, Sanchez was given just over a month to keep Fulham in the Premier League and duly achieved his target. Eight years earlier in the lower divisions, he saved Wycombe Wanderers from likely relegation when he took over with 18 games left.

Sanchez suggests owners think carefully to get the timing right before implementing any major overhauls.

'A new manager can have a short-term honeymoon when results might go in his favour before the team revert to their true potential, so any change is probably better with 10 games or so to go,' he said. That means March might be optimum month for EPL's bottom clubs to act.

And as Sanchez can testify, securing safety for a grateful club is no guarantee of long-time employment.

In the 2006-07 season, he was appointed caretaker-manager when Fulham had five games left, with three of them away.

They hadn't won on the road all season and yet after a draw against Blackburn and a shock defeat of Liverpool, Fulham stayed up by a point.

Hailed as a miracle worker, Sanchez got the job on a full-time basis at the start of the 2007-08 season but lasted only until December after the side lost at home to Newcastle.

'I took over a failing team, kept them in the EPL, then rebuilt the entire playing staff in the summer.

'And yet after Fulham spent just six days in the relegation positions, I was sacked,' he said. 'Mark Hughes took over a successful team and spent more time in the bottom three than I did, but was given the time to get the results that were needed.'

After a run of improved form, his former club sit in 15th place, four points above the relegation zone.

Hughes has been forced to operate on a much tighter budget than he did in his previous position at free-spending Manchester City. According to Sanchez, quickly turning around a threatened club goes beyond the quality of the squad. It is more about mind-set.

'A manager is there to bring belief and confidence to the players and to let everyone at the club think everything will be OK. He must impose this positive attitude on the team very quickly,' he said.

Sanchez seems to have a knack of convincing mediocre players they are better than they are.

In 2001, he took then third-tier Wycombe Wanderers to the semi-finals of the FA Cup.

As head coach of Northern Ireland, he concocted victories over Spain, Sweden and England as the tiny nation rose 97 places in the Fifa world rankings.

In his playing days, Sanchez's underdog mentality was developed in the surprisingly successful Wimbledon teams of the 1980s. He famously scored the winning goal as the 'Crazy Gang' upset an all-conquering Liverpool in the 1988 FA Cup final.

His teammate in that triumphant team was Vinnie Jones, a player of limited technical ability who went on to play international football before carving out a career as an actor.

Recounting Jones' story is one of Sanchez's favourite motivational tools - when he was a player, Vinnie thought he was better on the pitch than Bryan Robson and Alan Shearer.

Now, when he walks onto a movie set, he thinks he can out-act Robert De Niro. That's what self-belief can do for a person in any walk of life - but instilling it within the squad starts with the man in charge.

'The manager has to lift himself first before he can lift the team and that has to happen each morning before he enters the club,' Sanchez said.

Messrs Grant, McLeish, Martinez and McCarthy take note. If not, football's 'Mr Fix-it' is standing by, ready to resuscitate any EPL club on life support.