Hall of Shame #13: Paul Hart
Over a year after Paul Hart lead Swindon to relegation, Alex Cooke has the privilege of pushing Town’s second all-time-least-successful manager in to the depths of the STFC Hall of Shame.
Paul Hart should have bounced. After all they call it a ‘dead cat bounce’ as supposedly even the most decomposed felines will get some elevation if dropped from a great enough height. And Swindon Town had certainly fallen a long way when Hart was appointed manager in March 2011, plunging from the Play Off final the previous season all the way down to 21st place. But as boss at Crystal Palace and Portsmouth Hart had experience of getting struggling clubs in similar situations to climb back up the table. And that was the very reason that then chairman Andrew Fitton chose him to replace Danny Wilson.
“I think in these circumstances Paul’s credentials spoke for themselves and it was a very quick decision from my point of view,” Fitton told the Advertiser at the time. “Some would say that his record might not suggest as much success as you might want, but he’s been in some difficult positions and he’s done some great things.“
A study of 18 years of Premier League football has shown that new managers arriving mid-season always ‘bounce’ with an improvement in results. It might be their fresh ideas or just a fresh face at training but the evidence shows that new bosses earned an average of about 0.2 extra points per game over their predecessors. And while the effect generally lasts only 12 games, at least it is something – and something was all Swindon needed to escape the drop, being just three points from safety with 13 games to go.
In reality Paul Hart’s 11-match tenure bounced like a turd: noisily, flatly and leaving a bad taste in everyone’s mouths. While Swindon did increase their points per game during Hart’s 11 games tenure, it was by a mere 0.1 over Wilson’s last 11, and under him Town never really looked like escaping relegation.
When he arrived Hart had promised that Town would continue to play the passing game which had been so successful the previous season. “I don’t think there’s any point in playing anything that’s alien to them,” he said. “They were brought in here because they were good footballers and we’ll try to enable them to play in a way that’s not so inhibiting as the position suggests it might be.” Fine words indeed, except Hart’s side played as if the pressure consumed them.
Their passing was tentative, their shooting was apprehensive and their running was half-hearted. However, as Hart promised Swindon did keep the ball, mainly by tapping it back and forward between the two centre backs. But it wasn’t just the ball that the team passed so carelessly, it was also responsibility – as this was a side without fibre, without fortitude and without unity, and that was what they needed from their new boss as much as structure and leadership. They got none of it from Hart.
Journalist Sid Lowe recently listed passion as the second most over-rated attribute in English football (behind experience), and it is hard not to agree, but Hart seemed so short of spark that he sleepwalked into Town’s predicament. Certainly the man had some ‘passion’ as he would throw barbs and brickbats back at the fans, what he lacked was purpose, intelligence and an ability to cogently communicate his ideas.
After his first day’s training he said “I had a good response (from the players) and if we can get a positive attitude and try to get all the round pegs in the round holes and play to their strengths, I think we’ll be okay.” Instead Hart used winger Matt Ritchie as auxiliary striker, sent back his other lively attacker Mike Grella, to his home club and brought in Alassane N’Diaye instead. How to described N’Diaye? He played football like an artist – in that he looked unfit, confused to even be on a football pitch, and wishing he was somewhere else, probably surrounded by nude models. The final arrival was forward Calvin Andrew, who despite having had more loans than Greece had only scored 10 goals in six years. He would only add one to this feeble total at Swindon.
As author Jonathan Wilson often points out formations are neutral – 442 can be excitingly attacking or depressingly defensive – but Hart’s use of 451 was wholly, horribly, negative in application. The borrowed donkey Andrew played in splendid isolation as the ‘1’, the packed midfield ‘5’ were flat, distant and listless, and the defensive ‘4’ deep and no more organised than under Wilson. And that slow, pointless, possession football, which at first had looked like confidence building, became Town’s only, and hugely predictable tactic.
Despite this Hart’s debut game against Walsall had felt like progress, or at least a pause in the relentless slaughter – like Christmas day on the Somme – except even this low achievement proved to be the high watermark. Pitiful draws against fellow relegation-fodder Hartlepool and Dagenham prevented even the pun- happy Adver from using Hart Attack as a headline and the defeats mounted with only a win at Brentford offering some hope, but Town’s downward course was set.
And yet, Hart remained blankly impassive, like an Easter Island’s statue made flesh. For the most part he seemed to be the first man likely to have failed the Turing test – that was until he was interviewed. Once difficult questions were asked of the former Forest manager, he snarled and snapped, sulked and huffed, showing precisely how positive his attitude really was – listen to his Notts County post match interview with Vic Morgan here
If the season had been a long and painful drag, the end was mercifully swift. Sheffield Wednesday finally dispatched Swindon at Hillsborough and Paul Hart followed a few days later. For while Hart was causing panic posturing publicly about a director of football role, Andrew Fitton resigned as chairman and Hart and his assistant Ian McParland were dispatched a day later, two games short of the 13 they signed up for. The season ended with Paul Bodin in charge for the final matches to blamelessly end a horrible era in Town’s history. Paul Hart, the Hall of Shame awaits…