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Beware the Dead Cat Bounce at Aston Villa

Simon BarnesFebruary 20, 2015
Tim Sherwood's intervention in an FA Cup tie before he was even unveiled as manager hinted at a new-found spirit at Aston Villa © Getty Images

The price of a share has been steadily falling, then all of a sudden it starts to rise again. Is this the first sign of a recovery? Or final proof that the company in question is beyond hope? This illusion of recovery gave rise to one of those vivid financier's phrases: the Dead Cat Bounce.

It doesn't bounce because it's recovering: it bounces because it's dead.

There's a similar phenomenon in football: the Managerial Rebound. It's a fact of footballing life that whenever you change a manager you get a positive response. It looks like a recovery, it feels like a recovery, but sometimes it's just a Dead Cat Bounce.

Sometimes - quite often - the bright new start is followed by defeat, despair and all the same old same old that happened under the last guy

Sometimes a new manager will lead his new club forward: escape relegation, win the FA Cup, become manager of the month, be hailed as a messiah and gleefully answer lickspittle questions at press conferences.

And sometimes he won't. Sometimes - quite often - the bright new start is followed by defeat, despair and all the same old same old that happened under the last guy: reflecting the inadequacy of the manager, the limitations of his players, the institutional incompetence of the organisation and the flawed assumptions on which they operate.

A new manager always looks like a great decision. That's the nature of football, and the nature of human beings.

And we have a classic example of this right now as Aston Villa prepare for their visit to Stoke City on Saturday. Seldom has the Managerial Rebound been so perfectly showcased as it was in last weekend's FA Cup tie between Villa and Leicester City.

A newly appointed manager, Tim Sherwood, was watching from the stands. He was not yet officially in charge of the team. He watched as Villa looked precisely like a club that has scored 12 goals in the Premier League in 25 games (the next lowest has 22) and had no idea at all where the next one would come from.

So Sherwood dived into the dressing-room at half-time and addressed his new team. Villa came out - in football-speak - "a different team". They won 2-1.

Tim Sherwood snarled his way to sixth place with Tottenham in 2013-14 © Getty Images

What magic words did Sherwood impart to his star-struck players? Well, a guess would be: "Run about a lot and whack the ball up to the big lump up front". Not a bad idea, actually - the Villa midfield doesn't rival the Bauhaus as a hotbed of creativity.

The point is that you or I could have done it. If we were the ones newly in charge, in command of the players' destinies, we too would get a positive response to our first appearance. "Knock it forward to Christian Benteke, lads. And I mean early."

A new manager is like January 1. A new start. A chance to make new resolutions, to do better things, to become a better person. Yes, I'll go to the gym rather than just pay the subscription, I'll remember that it's 21 units in a week, and we'll all have a proper sit-down dinner once a week.

When a new manager comes to a struggling club he shifts despair into the pending tray. Every player ups his game, knowing that there is a man to impress. The fringe players have a new chance to take the eye, the established players have a warning to take nothing for granted. And for a match or two, everything is wonderful.

Sherwood may well have profound skills in the art of man-management but the team's response to his arrival doesn't prove anything

That's why owners and chairmen love to sack managers. It gives them the illusion of decisiveness, of ruthless efficiency, of real power wisely used. You almost always get the fans approval: manager-baiting is one of the nation's important blood-sports. What's more, the man you appoint will always get results.

At least at first. And this short-termism is one of football's enduring flaws: a tendency not to look for a solution to deep problems, but to prefer something that covers them up. Short-termism also pleases the fans: not a tribe that over-values such traits as rationality.

So it's no surprise that Sherwood's instant intervention had an effect. It would be more surprising if it didn't. "Training was electric," said the Villa player Ashley Westwood after Sherwood had taken charge. Well, of course it was. Sherwood may well have profound skills in the art of man-management, not to mention a Clausewitz-like understanding of the nature of conflict, but the team's response to his arrival doesn't prove anything.

Managers need to be judged over time. The greatest managerial art is transition. Creating a winning team is comparatively straightforward: doing so again and again is remarkable. That's the achievement of Sir Alex Ferguson and, at a somewhat lower level, Arsene Wenger.

Jose Mourinho has had his success by moving from club to club and has never worked the art of transition in the same way. Rather, he has exploited Managerial Rebound technique on a serial basis. It's some talent, but a lesser talent than Ferguson's. Perhaps he will pull off the transition trick with Chelsea, or perhaps he'll have one of his rows, go elsewhere, and work the rebound trick yet again.

Sherwood may go on and do great things with Villa. He had a win record of almost 60% when he was with Spurs. They finished sixth in the table when he was sacked at the end of the season in 2014 after six months in charge.

He takes on a club heavy with a history of mediocrity, at least in recent seasons - it is hard to believe that Villa won the European Cup in 1982. His immediate task is to avoid relegation and to beat their local rivals West Bromwich Albion in the FA Cup in early March. Such things are within the scope of Managerial Rebound, especially with a sparky manager.

But beyond that? That's the question that matters, that's when we'll find out if Sherwood is any good at managing a football team. In the meantime, he must surf the wave of enthusiasm that comes with Managerial Rebound and have the wit to make plans for the long-term improvement of the club … while remembering that successful exploitation of Managerial Rebound doesn't necessarily make you a managerial genius.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd

Writer Bio

Simon Barnes was Chief Sports Writer at The Times and UK Sports Columnist of the Year in 2001 and 2007. He writes about a wide variety of sports for, as well as and ESPNcricinfo. He has written more than 20 books including The Meaning of Sport and three novels. On Twitter he is @simonbarneswild

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