I won’t embarrass anyone on here, but it is fair to say plenty of people were down on Michael Appleton when he first came into Lincoln City.
I don’t think there is a reason for that as such, not a personal one towards him. The combination of our previous manager leaving, as well as the success he had brought to the club, made Michael’s job hard. How many managers go into a club that is already a success of some sort? Maybe a couple a season, tops, but how many go into a club that has just had the most successful era in their history? The obvious one I can think of is David Moyes, and look how that turned out.
Whether it was Michael’s short stints at Blackpool, Blackburn and Portsmouth, or the fact he had been out of work so long, it took him time to win some supporters over. Not me. Maybe I am too loyal to the club, maybe I just listened to Oxford fans and not Wikipedia, but I sensed he might be the man for the job. That job, by the way, is to deliver a consistent level of football not seen in almost 40 years, on the back of a man leaving who revolutionised the on-field success. That isn’t like Steve Cotterill going into Shrewsbury with the club on its arse, nor like Peter Jackson taking us over after John Schofield left. It was arguably the toughest job in football at the time and I think we can say, with some degree of certainty, that he hasn’t done a bad job at all. Even where Schofield took over from Keith, the short term boost might have been good, but the long term was a little more cloudy.
I wondered if perhaps there was a pattern for managers taking over at clubs who had seen the previous incumbent move on after bringing success. It doesn’t happen a lot, in many instances, a manager leaves because he is sacked, or resigns, but rarely are they poached and adequately replaced. However, to illustrate my point, I have gone back over the last few seasons in League One and identified managers who stepped into tough-looking roles following another man moving onwards and upwards.
Grant McCann / Darren Moore – Doncaster 2019/20
Usually, a couple of managers per season are poached from clubs in League One and moved on to better things (or not much better in some instances). Grant McCann was the first last season, leaving Doncaster to take over at Hull City. Darren Moore went in, with the task of going one better than McCann and taking Doncaster to promotion.
It hasn’t been easy for Moore, who didn’t put Doncaster in the top six last season. he does have a decent squad and as a nice guy, he does have the backing of supporters, but at present Doncaster are treading water. It is maybe fair to say that they are at their level, top-end League One, bottom Championship, but Moore has found it hard to beat the achievements of his predecessor.
Graham Coughlan / Ben Garner – Bristol Rovers 2019/20
After Danny left us, the other manager to leave a club for pastures new was Graham Coughlan. They were fourth in the table when Coughlan left for Field Mill, to be replaced by Ben Garner. Remember, this was pre-Covid, so Garner wasn’t an enforced cheap option, but he failed to excite the Gas supporters, or to get the right results. He took them to 14th by early March, a little under three months in charge, and was sacked earlier this season. as for Coughlan, he too was dismissed my Mansfield after they were thrashed at home by Barrow.
Paul Hurst / John Askey – Shrewsbury 2018/19
This is a great comparison to the MA situation because aside from the trophies, Paul Hurst could be likened to Danny Cowley. he came out of the National League, jumped clubs and had taken Shrewsbury to within a gnats knacker of double Wembley triumph. Salop are not a side known for their second-tier heritage, aside from the ten-year stay they had in the eighties, but Hurst had them right on the cusp of it, close to achieving a dream for a generation. He left at the start of the 2018/19 season, to be replaced by John Askey. he had just got Macclesfield promoted from the National League and was seen as a bright young thing in management. 21 games later, he was sacked. Not always easy stepping into another man’s shoes is it? askey even had some pre-season to prepare.
Nathan Jones / Mick Harford – Luton Town 2018/19
At last, a success story. Mick Harford didn’t take the Luton job on a permanent basis though, he simply stepped up when Nathan Jones left and oversaw a run to the Championship. Jones was poached by Stoke City of the Championship, with Luton mounting a surprise assault on promotion. Harford wasn’t tasked with changing a method or ethos, but he did have to keep the players focused, motivated and doing the right things the right way. He achieved all that, leaving at the end of the season for Graeme Jones to take over. That is where he differs to MA – he didn’t have to implement change, just achieve a status quo. Respect though, other clubs might have struggled and collapsed, but not Luton, not under Harford. As for Jones (Graeme), he was sacked last season and replaced with Nathan Jones.
Paul Cook / Kenny Jackett – Portsmouth 2017/18
Paul Cook took Portsmouth out of League Two, earning a shot at the Wigan job in the process. that meant Portsmouth needed to turn to a new manager, one capable of carrying on Cook’s good work. They chose Kenny Jackett and it could be argued he has flattered to deceive. There are huge differences though – Pompey are a big club at this level, Jackett had a long and rich history in management and in terms of budget, Pompey could spend. Even with those elements in place, he hasn’t been able to get them out of this division just yet and can’t be labelled a success, despite winning the EFL Trophy.
Michael Appleton / Pep Clotet – Oxford 2017/18
I didn’t expect this during my research, but in terms of managers leaving for better jobs and another man taking over, Michael actually features. He had Oxford on the cusp of the top six in League One, and took them to successive EFL Trophy finals, making him something of a hero at the Kassam. He left for Leicester City and in his place came Pep Clotet, the former Leeds and Swansea assistant. Oddly, the Oxford story is close to the Lincoln one pre-Appleton – a successful run, promotion, battling at the top of the third tier and a club of around the same size. Clotet had a summer ot get ready for the new season though, MA did not. Outcome? Sacked in January after 12 wins in 36 matches.
Karl Robinson / Lee Bowyer – Charlton 2017/18
The final time a manager has taken another job after moderate success was when Karl Robinson left Charlton for Oxford, to take the role vacated by Clotet. Robinson had Charlton as high as ninth in League One and seemingly on course for a play-off assault, but unusually for Karl 9note the tone) he wasn’t happy with something and chose to leave. Oh, that’s right, he wasn’t happy with broken promises made by rogue owner Roland Duchatelet, whom it was felt was holding the club back. Enter Lee Bowyer, who promptly took Charlton to sixth, where they were beaten in the play-offs. A year later, he went one better, earning them promotion.
Even over the last few seasons, there are few examples of where a manager has gone into a club doing well and carried that success on. Even more rare are occasions where a manager has gone in and turned a club around, despite it already being in a good place. Back in 2015/16, Paul Heckingbottom was appointed Barnsley manager after Lee Johnson left for Bristol City, improving their league position from 12th to 6th and play-off winners, whilst Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink left Burton in first, with Nigel Clough taking over and keeping them on course for promotion. In reality, the job Michael has had to do is unrivalled across football for many years. I would love to hear of a manager who goes into a club on the back of the most successful three years in history and does the sort of rebuilding job Michael has had to do, We have won nothing yet, I get that, but how stoic is the former West Brom coach in his methods and belief? He said in an interview with the podcast last year that when he leaves, he wants us to be a Championship club. Would you bet against that? He willingly dismantled what many fans thought was the best Lincoln side for years, and with 40% fewer resources, has created a team that makes us go ‘actually…..’ whenever they play. He refuses to build us up, seems reluctant to knock us down and just gets on with the task in hand.
History does not have many examples of a man taking over a club on such a strong trajectory and reinventing them as something even better and bolder, which in my mind puts Michael Appleton in a very unique position. Then again, when you consider his career, from playing to Sincil Bank, it really isn’t surprising. He does things his way, and his way only. We’re better for it too, are we not?