Big Sam and Big Craig

BILLY'S CONTRACT compares and contrasts

Like most Poolies, prior to his appointment I had never heard of Craig Harrison and was in truth surprised and a little concerned about him being appointed as Hartlepool United's new manager. 

From the outside it looked as if he was appointed 'On the cheap' particularly when more experienced managers with impressive CVs could have been better equipped for the role. Harrison's credentials at his previous club The New Saints (TNS) in the Welsh Premier League are impressive, with 6 titles wins and the Welsh Cup under his belt, Lot forgetting numerous forays into Europe. On the surface this looks quite impressive but if we bear in mind that TNS were pretty much the only full time professional club in the Welsh League, that gave them a distinct advantage over their rivals. At of time of writing this I note that they are top of the Welsh Premiership. A bit like the Welsh version of Celtic.

I think what swung the appointment for him was his youth, enthusiasm, positivity, planning skills and attention to detail,which in many respects are similar traits to those of Pam Duxbury, a manager in her own right. Pre-season Craig Harrison was saying all the right things, new signings were coming in on a regular basis and friendly matches were being won. The despair of relegation had almost vanished and the majority of Hartlepool United Fans were now in positive mood and could not wait for the new season and new era to begin.

The first match kicked off with nearly 4,000 fans in the ground 2,600 of them being season ticket holders. The game ended in defeat and the performance put in by Pools mirrored that of the previous season. The excuse given was that the team was still hungover from relegation. Many fans thought that the Dover performance was a one-off but as one match followed another a pattern was beginning to develop of Pools huffing and puffing their way through games, not getting into orbit as expected, but not even having left the launch pad.

As I have mentioned on numerous occasions, it has only been the goalkeeping ability of Scott Loach that has kept Pools from several defeats. I am guessing Loach has been worth 12 point alone to Pools so far this season. Some of Harrison's new signings did not seem fit whilst others were carrying injuries, were found lacking or have yet to discover their form. Fans began to wonder if these new additions were any better than the players that were let go at the end of last season. One comment made, which I would not argue against was that if this current side gained promotion they would be back in the National league again the following season.

Worse still is the standard of football that we are having to endure, particularly at home, where Pools are playing like the away team. Bar the odd flash, the entertainment level at the Vic is nine below zero. After the Aldershot match two of my pals said that was the finish for them for this campaign and they won't return to the Vic unless either Harrison leaves or the football and the results improve massively.

Twenty three games in I have come to the conclusion that Craig Harrison does not know what his best starting eleven or his best formation is. That being the case, if Jack Munns is not suited to a particular formation why on earth was he signed in the first place when another player who could have slotted in seamlessly could have been brought in and fulfilled the role.

Sam Allardyce is big on statistics. As soon as a match finishes he spends hours and hours viewing and reviewing Pro-zone and other sources to see how much ground a player might have covered, tackles and passes made, most/least active period of a player during a game and much more. There is a lot to be said for analysing statistics which can work in your favour. If you look at any of Big Sam's teams they very rarely had a defender on the back post to defend free kicks coming from 'out wide' positions. When he was Bolton manager he studied videos of 400-500 free kicks conceded by his own and other teams.

Let's say, for argument's sake, that Big Sam knew that something like 80% of the time the ball landed in a certain spot within the six yard box, then instead of having a defender on the back post he had him placed on the edge of the six yard box instead, allowing the defender to head the ball clear and not give the opposition the opportunity to attack the ball in the first place. I think he claimed that leaving a defender on the goal line only prevented something like 5% of goals being conceded.

From what I have read Craig Harrison is very much in the same mould as Allardyce relating to stats, percentages and game plans, as well as being over-cautious. Craig Harrison's post-match comments after the Morecambe cup exit horrified me. ''I think the first goal has killed us'' he said. ''It has given them an early advantage and we have to take more risks. It takes the game management away from us.'' To me, what this translates as is that after the first goal which was conceded after only three minutes of play, it was game over as far as Harrison was concerned, despite the fact, including time added on, that, there was another 90 minutes left in which to not only salvage the match but also win it. Alex Ferguson on the other hand would treat the last three minutes of a game as if it were 90 minutes and never give up.

The point Craig made about 'having to take more risks' comes across as a negative. It gives the impression that Harrison's mindset is one of not losing at any cost even at the expense of winning. The second bit about 'The management plan' suggested that there was no plan 'B' whatsoever. It would seem to the outsider that he has a rigid plan in his mind which he will not deviate from. The trouble with these so-called management plans is that even with the best planning and preparation, due to unforeseen and unexpected circumstances as well as outside influences, such as plain bad luck, or just bad management in the first place, they can go spectacularly wrong. (The Air raid at Arnhem during World War 2 springs to mind).

 Several contingencies should be built into any so-called plan. What if a player gets sent off, What if the pitch had been turned into a a quagmire a few hours prior to kick off, What if Pools go two goals up in the first ten minutes do the tactics change? If we go a goal down the best we can expect is a one all draw. If we go two goals down it is game over - as I said earlier there is no plan B.
" Alex Ferguson ...would treat the last three minutes of a game as if it were 90 minutes and never give up."

After the draw with Tranmere, Harrison said “Performance-wise, we were good for an hour, but the last 10 minutes we ran out of steam a bit."  This tells me that either his tactics were wrong, his players were not fit, or his tactics caused the players to tire. Having seen the game, Pools were hanging on for a point and were confined to their own half for most of the second half, chasing Tranmere players down. As per usual we had eleven back for every corner conceded. Then the players had to sprint after any clearance in the hope of starting an attack only to find themselves running back again into their own half as Tranmere promptly sent the ball back there It is little wonder that the players ran out of steam.

Harrison must have a statistic logged somewhere that if a team defends with eleven men back in their own penalty box that there must only be a 10% (or whatever) chance of the opposition scoring. I would challenge this as there is:
The possibility of conceding a penalty
The possibility of conceding a penalty and having a man sent off
The possibility of scoring an own goal
The possibility of conceding another corner
The Impossibilty of scoring on the break as there is no outlet further upfield waiting to break.

For the record in the consecuctive home matches against Tranmere and Sutton, both teams scored late goals from corners despite Pools having eleven players back in their own half, which speaks volumes. In the home game against Aldershot when defending a Pools corner the Shots had a forward stood on the halfway line. The ball was cleared and reached the forward who spun round leaving two Pools defenders in his wake and was almost one-on-one with Loach, who fortunately dived at his feet to prevent him getting his shot away. However other positive outcomes could have occurred for Aldershot just because they kept a man 'up top':
Aldershot score
Aldershot gain a penalty
Aldershot gain a penalty and Loach sent off.
Aldershot gain a corner.

For the record in this same match Pools did not have one shot on target. I see many parallels between Craig Harrison and Big Sam in the way they operate. Caution being the main one. Allardyce has been in management for over 25 years and with the exception of winning the Irish league with Limerick and the old Third Division title with Notts County then later getting Bolton and West Ham promoted to the Premiership via the play-offs, he hasn't had a lot of success. However whilst he won't win many cups or titles he is the master at preventing teams from getting relegated or keeping them mid table.

When he joined relegated West Ham, who had a talented and experienced squad and money to spend, they were favourites to win the Championship by some considerable margin. In the event because they played their home games as if they were the away team, they drew far too many matches and only scraped into the play-offs by the skin of their teeth, only narrowly beating Blackpool, who gave them a real run for their money in the play-off final.

I think Craig Harrison is over-complicating things and probably is spending too much time looking at stats and the numbers game. He should be looking at turning defeats into draws and draws into wins. If I were in Craig Harrison's shoes I would ship out half a dozen of the current squad and bring in a box-to-box goalscoring midfielder, a centre forward and if Keith Watson is out injured for the rest of the season I'd sign up an experienced, preferably nasty, centre half who has been round the block a few times.

The moment the ref blows his whistle Harrison should have his team coming out of the blocks fast and slick a la Danny Wilson style as opposed to the slow, tedious, side-to-side Danny la Rue style we now see each week at the Vic. Harrison should stop overly worrying about our opponents and instead have them worrying about what Pools are going to do to them. If they score one goal, Pools' mindset. along with that of our opponents, should be that Pools will score two or perhaps even three goals.

Hartlepool United  P22  W8  D7  L7  F23  A22  Pts 31

The above is Pools' position in the National League table as it stands prior to Saturdays match against the Macc lads. Reading it, and taking in the detail you could imagine someone saying 'If I did not know otherwise I would say that this was a team that was managed by Sam Allardyce'.

Big Sam didn't lose the England job because of his techniques, and now he's got the Everton job will that only confirm to Big Craig that he's doing things right?