The benefit provided by a strong backroom staff or assistant has long been up for debate. Many wonder just what Pat Rice does alongside Arsene Wenger on the Arsenal bench, other than put out cones and occasionally don sunglasses so he resembles a sub-standard Elton John impersonator. Alex Ferguson, however, has famously benefited from a series of much-acclaimed assistants. Both Brian Kidd and Carlos Quieroz were revered for their work as number twos, but like Gary Barlow, couldn’t cut it when they went solo.
Last week, Chelsea clearly felt that Ray Wilkins was expendable and that Carlo Ancelotti could manage managing just fine without him. On the other side of London, West Ham obviously felt Avram Grant needed all the help they could get. Two-headed football club-owning monster Gollivan appointed former Reading and Southampton coach Wally Downes as a Defensive Specialist. Downes has drilled back fours before for the likes of Steve Coppell and Alan Pardew, and was seemingly brought in to tighten up a leaky defensive unit.
It was a surprising appointment. The cultured Israeli Avram Grant and loudmouth cockney Downes are chalk and cheese: the odd couple of football management, thrown together by a pair of owners playing cupid. In many ways, the appointment could have been seen as undermining Grant and paving the way for his eventual replacement by, say, a figure like Copell.
Whatever the methodology behind Downes’ arrival, the turnaround since he rocked up has been extraordinary. A 3-1 win over Wigan was followed by the 4-0 hammering of Manchester United in the League Cup.
I’m not suggesting for a minute that Downes is solely responsible for the revival in fortunes. Carlton Cole’s comments last night, however, would suggest he’s played a significant role:
“Wally Downes is having a real impact, he’s got us working together as a team, and hopefully this week can prove a real turning point for us this season.”
And within Cole’s quote lies the secret of Downes’ impact – and it’s nothing to do with perfecting the offside trap. Downes is an unbearably energetic and infectious personality to have on the training ground. That’s yet another way in which he is Grant’s antithesis. You’ll never see Grant barking instructions from the touchline. Equally, you’ll hardly ever see Downes sitting down.
It’s a simple strategy, but the effects are already clear. Bringing in someone who isn’t afraid to bawl out the players, to crack a joke as well as the whip, appears to have sparked some life out of the previously catatonic Hammers.
Where’s Wally? He’s the short one screaming at the players. And making, so far, quite the difference.