Longevity has come up short. The announcement that Arsène Wenger would leave Arsenal meant this season was the last for the longest-serving club heads in football and rugby’s premierships.
Similar to Wenger at Arsenal, Jim Mallinder at Northampton had gone from managing the champions to missing out on a place in the top four for two successive seasons, and the highly likely prospect of a third forced the Saints to sack him in December, 10 years after he was appointed their director of rugby.
If Arsenal’s decline under Wenger was gradual at first before gathering momentum, Northampton were Premiership champions in 2014 having reached their first final the year before. After wobbling for one season, they lost their balance and their struggles in the Premiership were compounded by heavy defeats in Europe: they have conceded 438 points in the Champions Cup in their last 12 group matches, an average of more than 36.
Success in football is often fashioned by finance, the richest rising to the top, although Leicester City were an exception two years ago. Wenger’s misfortune was that the £450m investment by the Arsenal absentee owner, Stan Kroenke, went into the bank accounts of shareholders, not the club’s, but the salary cap in the Premiership provides a more level field, even if it allows for a couple of marquee signings.
Northampton, like Arsenal, are trying to run a model business, investing in the playing side what they earn rather than relying on a backer. The same applies to Harlequins, who recently announced that John Kingston would stand down as Director of Rugby at the end of the campaign, ending a 17-year association with the club, most of which was spent as a coach. Another era is coming to an end.
There have been concerns that rugby union is resembling football, hiring one year and firing the next, but the top four clubs in the Premiership – Exeter, Saracens, Wasps and Newcastle – are models of stability having appointed their head coaches/directors of rugby in 2009, 2011, 2011 and 2012 respectively. Beneath them, only Sale in seventh match that, with Steve Diamond taking over in 2012.
Successful coaches and managers rarely get sacked, unless they work for Chelsea, but what defines success? Would Sale finishing sixth be as notable an achievement as Saracens regaining the title? Wenger was ridiculed for turning Arsenal from a side that competed for, and won, the title to a side content to finish in the top four, which they did for his first 20 years in charge.
By the standards of history, he was mightily successful but, judged by what he had previously achieved, he was failing – as was Mallinder at Northampton – and had to be shoved out in a downfall reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher’s when those she felt owed her loyalty pointed out the blindingly obvious.
Mallinder and Wenger largely relied on the same group of coaches during their reigns and became tactically stale. Alex King was brought in to rejuvenate the Saints’ attack but was cast out when the slump started. Continued success comes down to the art of regeneration, something Sir Alex Ferguson was a master of. While he remained in control at Manchester United, he regularly changed his second-in-command, bringing in a new voice as well as fresh ideas, a silversmith like no other.
Warren Gatland will have been Wales’ head coach for 12 years when he leaves the position after their involvement in next year’s World Cup ends. He has kept his management team intact throughout, tweaked only in the two years he was on sabbatical with the Lions. They last won the Six Nations title in 2013 and, like Northampton, found that tactics that delivered titles once had dated.
Wales are in a far healthier position than they were for most of the 20 years before Gatland took over, when coaches entered the Arms Park through a revolving door, and he regularly refreshes his squad, afraid to drop no one. Whoever takes over will, like Chris Boyd at Franklin’s Gardens in the summer, face a rebuilding job. A number of players who have made their mark with the Lions as well as Wales will not be around for the 2023 World Cup and there will be a stylistic shift.
New Zealand’s Steve Hansen is preparing for his fourth World Cup with the All Blacks, and second in charge, but the management team is markedly different to the one he joined in 2004. The All Blacks through the years have been not only been receptive to new ideas but pioneering, one of the few to look at the positive possibilities of law changes.
There was a time when New Zealand coaches had to sneak back home after failing to win the World Cup but only defeat to a minnow will sour Hansen’s legacy. Northampton’s supporters never had a chance to say farewell to Mallinder and, while the majority accepted the time for change had arrived, they acknowledged his achievements and viewed his departure with sorrow rather than relief.
It is the opposite with Wenger. The mood before the match at the Emirates Stadium against West Ham, the first after the announcement, was as if a distant cousin had departed rather than a close relative. There were not enough at the ground who could remember that for most of his reign the club had never had it so consistently good. The past is a foreign country; the present tense.