|Where Did It All Go Wrong for Paul Hurst?|
Written by Herbivore on Saturday, 27th Oct 2018 11:34
The dust has not yet settled on the reign of Town's shortest-serving permanent manager, a reign the significance and memorability of which is likely to be more dependent on our post-Paul Hurst fate than on his mere 14 league games in charge.
Should the new man, Paul Lambert, steady the ship and keep us up then Hurst's legacy will appear little more than a folly, whilst relegation casts it as being arguably the biggest disaster in the club's history.
Let me start by nailing my colours to the mast: Hurst was my choice from more or less day one, certainly once Tony Mowbray had dropped out of the running. Even when Jack Ross made eyes at us and promised sexy football and a dapper figure on the touchline, I remained unmoved. Why? At the time I viewed Hurst as providing evolution and not revolution.
Whatever the more rabid 'Mick out' brigade had to say, Town did not require a radical overhaul in order to improve our fortunes. We were sat in the top half for almost the entirety of the 2017/18 season and flirted with the play-offs for over half the season.
Post-Christmas, as so often under Mick, was disappointing. The goals dried up and so, inevitably, did the wins. Though hamstrung by injuries to the triumvirate creative talents of Teddy Bishop, Emyr Huws and Andre Dozzell then further limited by the disappearance of Tom Adeyemi and a season-ending injury to David McGoldrick, it was evident that Mick's rightful departure left us in relatively decent shape.
That it was right for Mick to go has not changed by what followed, the relationship with the fans was too sour and in an era where two years is considered a long time for a manager to stay in a job, Mick's tenure had run its course.
On such a basis did I hang my hat on Hurst. Having seen his Shrewsbury side play roughly half a dozen times there were clearly some of Mick's best traits in evidence: good organisation, a solid defence, and an ability to stop the opposition from playing.
Importantly, however, there was more passing on the deck and evidence of licence for the more forward-minded players to express themselves with more freedom than we were used to. No, they were not a League One Barcelona, but we did not have a squad capable of playing the famed tika-taka and we did not have the resources to equip ourselves with players who could play that way.
However, take a well-organised mid-table Championship side with a decent balance of youth and experience, get them playing a bit more by keeping the ball better and using it more bravely, what isn't to like about that? Hurst's evolution was the way forward for me.
This brings me on to the first of Hurst's mistakes: he gave us a revolution we were not ready for and did not need. The squad underwent a radical overhaul in the summer with 12 departures matched by as many new signings.
Quality Championship players like Martyn Waghorn, Joe Garner and Adam Webster departed for decent money, whilst experienced campaigners like Luke Hyam and David McGoldrick walked away at the end of their contracts.
Their replacements initially seemed like the kind of signings we had been hoping for, top League One and League Two talent ready to make the step up to the Championship and to be worth significantly more than we paid for them in a year's time. Gwion Edwards and Ellis Harrison fitted the bill perfectly and were later followed by Janoi Donacien, Kayden Jackson, Jon Nolan and Toto Nsiala.
In isolation, each looked a good signing with enough games under their belt in the lower leagues to know their way around a game of football, but young enough to have their best years ahead of them and room for improvement. However, and this is not merely in hindsight, there were too many players with no Championship experience needing to be incorporated into the squad at the same time.
The spine of the team was reduced to Bart, Luke Chambers and Cole Skuse. Less of a spine than a coat-hanger, for all of their qualities on and off the pitch. It was too much to ask six or seven players to step up together with comparatively little experience and quality around them.
This, coupled with the decision to let a number of promising youngsters - some with Championship games under their belt - go out on loan, led to legitimate questions about Hurst's transfer policy. Hurst tried to remedy the lack of proven quality in the squad with three late loan arrivals in Jonathan Walters, Jordan Graham and Matthew Pennington, all of whom know this league, and indeed the one above, to varying degrees.
This, however, leads on to the second key failing of Hurst's short-reign: he panicked. The early games of the season showed some promise. Though the good spells against Blackburn bookended 60 minutes of rather disjointed play and two poor goals, we showed real attacking intent and high pressing in the early and late parts of the game. Indeed, the strong finish seemed to suggest that Hurst's famous focus on fitness would reap rewards.
We largely dominated our next game at Rotherham and were denied a stonewall penalty late on, only to then be mugged by another poor goal to concede.
Promising showings against Villa and Sheffield Wednesday yielded one point and two contentious red cards, but followed on in displaying some promise of better things to come. As when Hurst arrived, tweaks were needed to make us better: cut down on the mistakes, particularly from set pieces, and find just a little more quality and cohesion in the final third.
What followed post-Sheffield Wednesday, alongside the arrival of the three loanees (taking our total to a Jewell-like six), was a veritable ripping up of the early season blueprint. Selection became somewhat scattergun. Six changes were made for Norwich, including dropping thrice Player of the Year Bart, bringing in all three loanees - none of whom had enjoyed the fabled 'Hurst pre-season' - and moving to a 4-4-2.
It appeared that Hurst wanted to go all out for the short-term gain of three points, and it didn't work. We led, briefly, but aside from a good 10-minute spell after half-time we looked the poorest we had all season. Gone was the attempt to play passing football and press the opposition, instead we reverted to direct balls to Walters and into the channels. This, for me, was the first real warning sign.
What followed over the next eight games was a mish-mash of line-ups and formations rarely stuck to for more than 45 minutes. An experiment with 3-5-2 against Brentford resulted in a car crash of a half, at the time the worst Town performance since the end-times of Jewell. That accolade was soon taken by the performance against QPR, whilst honourable efforts to match it were made against Bolton and Middlesbrough.
At home at least we have seen only one good half of football - the second period against Brentford where we ostensibly returned to what was looking like it could work in the opening five games of the season - in more than two months.
Away from home things have been a little better, a first win at Swansea showed fight and some of the incisive counter-attacking play Hurst's Shrewsbury had upset the odds with last season. It was a false dawn.
A third key error Hurst made, seemingly underpinning some of the others, is the way he approached the task of managing Ipswich Town. It seems that he underestimated the job at hand, that he did not necessarily appreciate the size of the gap between League One and the Championship. It may be that in League One a side being well-organised and super-fit is enough to be competitive. In the Championship, such things are a minimum requirement.
There have been rumours for some months now of disquiet on the training ground, a manager and his assistant too keen to stamp their authority on a group of players who are not known for causing problems.
Perhaps that management style worked at the lower level, where Hurst's and assistant Chris Doig's own playing careers elevated them above the players they had plucked from non-league, hungry to prove themselves. Stepping up a level and with relatively little to fall back on in terms of name, experience or reputation worthy of the Championship, perhaps a less bombastic approach was required.
Finally, and crucially, perhaps Hurst just was not good enough. On the pitch he made the crucial error of abandoning the things that have worked well for him elsewhere and that led to early promise here at the first sign of trouble.
From Norwich onwards, the calm and measured approach we expected, the organisation and clear way of playing instilled at his previous clubs, was replaced with an entirely haphazard approach to selection and style. We did not know how we were meant to be playing because Hurst did not know how he wanted us to play. We lost our identity, and Hurst lost his.
On the other hand, off the pitch it seems that Hurst and his team were not able to adjust to managing a bigger club in a tougher league. If stories of disharmony are true - and there are enough of them to think there must be a kernel of truth at least - then it is quite a staggering achievement to have turned a relatively placid but committed squad of players against him in a relatively short space of time.
The methods of focusing on fitness rather than training with the ball, particularly given the two early season issues of poor set-piece goals conceded and a lack of cohesion in attacking play, also looks very naïve now.
Ultimately, Hurst was both too flexible and too rigid. He was too eager to make changes on the pitch, too reticent to make changes off it. Taken together, that simply looks like a man out of his depth. Perhaps Hurst will learn from this and come again in the Championship, however on the evidence here it appears that he may have found his level. No doubt managing Ipswich Town is a hard job, we have a small budget but retain a level of expectation. The club is weighed down by a history that becomes ever more distant.
However, Hurst was fortunate to inherit an experienced Championship squad with a very decent spine, coupled with a generation of young talent that would be the envy of most clubs at this level and a few above.
We were set up for an up and coming manager to prove themselves, at least with a season of mid-table safety. Hurst, somewhat like the proverbial kid in the sweetshop, or perhaps the bull in the china shop, ripped it all up in an attempt to make the club his own. It failed. It may not have done had he stuck to his philosophy, but he further ripped it up again just five league games into the new season and all chance of success was lost as chaos reigned.
Hurst can point to some bad luck, bad decisions and circumstances beyond his control contributing to the lack of points accrued in his 14-league game spell, but that would be to paper over the cracks. He made fundamental errors at different stages of his tenure and these errors suggest that the job was just too big for him.
Assuming Lambert can keep us up, I wish Hurst well. He seems a decent and honest man and clearly has something about him to have achieved what he achieved in the lower leagues. However, his spell at Town has to be considered possibly the biggest self-made disaster of the Marcus Evans era, and there have been a few.
Town move on, and we have to hope that the promise in the squad left by Hurst can be realised under a new manager. Time will tell, but the job inherited from Hurst looks an awful lot more challenging than the one that Hurst took on less than four months ago and that is the measure of his failure here.
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