We Need to Talk About Kevin MacDonald…
Three weeks before the start of the 2013/14 season Kevin MacDonald has thrown in the towel at Swindon Town, leaving us all wondering why Jed McCrory’s appointment suddenly decided enough was enough, writes Ron Smith.
It was only the 28th February when former Aston Villa coach Kevin MacDonald was appointed as manager, the first major decision of chairman Jed McCrory’s tenure at the County Ground, who stated at the time:
“This is a hugely important appointment at a significant moment in Swindon’s recent history and we are delighted to appoint a football man of Kevin’s calibre as our new manager. Kevin has fantastic football credentials as a double winner with Liverpool during his playing days and he is an excellent coach. He has great connections with top players and he is a proper football man. We have every faith for Kevin now to lead Swindon from the front at a pivotal moment in the campaign. It is a new start for Kevin and for our new board of directors and we move forward together with every confidence.”
Less than five months and 14 competitive games later, this optimism has long gone after that last gasp comeback at Coventry City on KMac’s debut in the dugout. In truth it quickly evaporated during the final months of the season when Town moved from being 4th and 3 points from the top of League One, to eventually limping over the line in 6th, 10 points adrift of Doncaster and just 3 ahead of 7th placed Leyton Orient.
While Swindon were by no means the only League One side to fall out of automatic contention – Tranmere secured 7 points from 12 games to drop from 3rd to 11th in the same period – the truth was that MacDonald was always on an uphill task from the moment he joined. For the Scot would always be compared, rightly or wrongly, to the manager he succeeded.
You can summarise a vocal minority of Swindon supporters’ issue with Kevin MacDonald in a few words ‘he wasn’t Paolo Di Canio’. His predecessor, who we must not forget, turned his back on the club and resigned, ensuring his replacement would have an awful lot to live up to. The fault for this undue comparison doesn’t sit with Di Canio, it rests with those supporters who took every opportunity – particularly the BBC Wiltshire ‘Soapbox’ – to berate him for a lack of passion and ‘unnecessarily changing the winning formula’.
MacDonald was right to swiftly state he’s his own man as he has his own footballing philosophies and set of constraints to work to. The imposition of a new training regime was widely credited by players and later responsible for attracting players to Town. However, the forced sale of Matt Ritchie, the takeover and the imposition of a transfer embargo well before his arrival provided mitigating factors as to why a comparison should never be made. Also, the style of Di Canio’s term ultimately ensured no legacy would have been left for any successor.
Tactically, changes were more ‘controversial’ with Paolo’s disciplined 4-4-2 changing to a fluid 4-3-3 / 4-1-4-1 and then back to a 4-4-2 and back again… leading to the criticism that his approach was ‘too negative’ at the County Ground and bringing back painful memories of Paul Hart’s briefest of tenures and relegation. This attack directly focused on MacDonald’s methods, but at the same time it failed because it overlooked his own strengths in wanting to play passing and winning football, while he gets the best out of the limited variety of players he had at his disposal.
But there were some clear failures. The televised game at Doncaster Rovers on Easter Monday witnessed Town fail to hit a shot on target and MacDonald stubbornly keeping the same system, persisting with playing Simon Ferry on the wing and not reacting quick enough to Donny controlling possession. Every manager has a bad day, but this was an embarrassing performance all-round for a promotion contender.
The fact that MacDonald ensured Town would enter the end of season play-offs was a notable success for a team that had only been promoted the year before. But for many this was ‘settling for the play-offs’ when a more than decent chance for automatic promotion had been “thrown away”.
The manner of Swindon surrendering a late equaliser in the first leg and then exposed in defence at Griffin Park were balanced by a fantastic second half comeback, a 95th minute equaliser with Aden Flint’s head and holding on for penalties despite Nathan Byrne’s sending off. A missed penalty kick from Miles Storey was as close as it got between MacDonald and a potential Wembley final, where I’m still certain that we would’ve continued our solid form against Yeovil Town.
Moving to the summer, pre-season has undoubtedly been a testing time for Kevin with the sustainability project taking full effect through the playing budget cut from £4.5m to a target of £2.4m, contract expiries and player sales. This generated some instability and uncertainty in efforts to build and blood the 2013/14 squad as existing members were required to leave before new targets could be signed. However Kevin joined in February with knowledge of the financial realities at Swindon Town and the patience required to guide the club through this turbulent time.
KMac doesn’t seem the type of person to come to any rash decision. He is intelligent, experienced, thoughtful, yet reserved. My knowledge of the man is very limited, except that he’s obsessed with HP Brown Sauce on everything he eats. His decision to resign has been the culmination of a period of reflection and likely to have been on his mind for several weeks, yet what could be these ‘personal reasons’?
The fact that his departure was reported by the club as ‘mutual consent’ does imply they were reluctant to allow their manager depart. The stakes for the board are somewhat greater as he was their man where his departure could imply that their original decision was wrong, or that their actions may had caused his resignation.
One widely reported opinion was that his departure was hastened due to “the amount of criticism he has received from supporters on social media” – which was the headline on SkySports – however I have been told this is completely untrue. The other potential cause for his resignation is his level of control over the footballing strategy and transfers.
One unknown for MacDonald in February was that Lee Power was set to join the Town board in April – not confirmed until July – and would take on a very active and potentially overlapping role with the manager. Power’s role appears to be that of a Director of Football, responsible for negotiating player / staff contracts and having an influential say in transfer targets mainly arising through his established contacts, including Tim Sherwood at Spurs. Also, having spoken to Town chairman Jed McCrory after the Business Plan Presentation he also acknowledges his own involvement in identifying targets and making every effort to secure their signature; with the whole episode involving the signing Portuguese midfielder Tijane Reis under the noses of Stoke, West Ham and Benfica a bizarre episode. Although, having boardroom involvement isn’t necessarily an issue, few complained when Andrew Fitton decided to take it upon himself to identify and secure the signing of Charlie Austin…
With Kevin joining as a ‘manager’ and not portrayed as a ‘coach’ – in the continental model – there would naturally be conflict for any British manager under these circumstances should their role and influence be watered down, however Jed McCrory has already dismissed any conflict in this area.
MacDonald’s frustration of having to play on a “dangerous” pitch at Banbury United and “learning nothing” from that friendly touched at some concerns at what he was required to do under the direction of his employers. Subsequently, in what turned out to be his final press conference, he admitted his tactical preparations had been affected by the influx of trialists and signings. Both could provide background as to why he was uncomfortable at the County Ground and viewed his future elsewhere.
There will be speculation until the Scot himself speaks out. So let’s hope the truth emerges and no non-disclosure agreement prevents the parties from clarifying why MacDonald becomes the second shortest managerial spell at Swindon Town* behind Paul Hart with just 11 games.
Turning to how MacDonald compares within the 32 permanent managerial spells at Swindon, his overall record reads:
|League Pld||Won||Drn||Lst||For||Agg||League Pts||P/G||League Score||FAC Score||FLC Score|
|TOTAL SCORE: 161.5|
This score of 161.5 places Kevin MacDonald as number 28 of 32 permanent Swindon managers in our Manager Countdown, meaning only Neil Harris, Paul Hart, Iffy Onoura and Jimmy Quinn have scored lower according to our approach to rank each managers according to their results.
MacDonald’s brief reign wasn’t successful, but neither was it an unmitigated disaster. His time will probably be a largely forgotten period when looking back at the club in 20 years, featuring as a quiz question “who replaced Di Canio as manager?”
Kevin did work within the constraints imposed on him and guided Town a play-off semi-final when we could’ve followed Tranmere in dropping out of the race completely. I’m really disappointed for Kevin that he felt it necessary to resign for whatever reason, as I really believed his focus on attractive football and youth development is exactly the right approach at Town.
For those supporters with short termism aplenty, unwilling to accept the Scot and criticising his decision-making throughout the past five months, at least give him some credit that he had the guts to resign when he did with three weeks until the kick-off. At least this enables a period of reflection and his replacement time to prepare for the season to carry us successfully through to May and beyond…
* Neil Harris was only manager for 3 games until the outbreak of WWII curtailed professional football, but continued to oversee Town in the Wartime South West Regional League with a makeshift side.