Back in October 2019, Michael Eisner did something rarely seen from an owner in the modern footballing world – he publicly backed his struggling manager.
We are living in an age of football whereby it is often easier for owners and board members to sack those in the dugout as soon as the mood turns on them. It usually boosts or maintains their image in the eyes of the fans and more often than not gives a short-term boost to their results as well.
There were plenty of raised eyebrows around the South Coast when it emerged back in 2017 that Eisner, the former CEO of Disney, was interested in buying Portsmouth Football Club from the supporters’ trust.
Fans had been in ownership of Pompey since 2013 after financial issues had wrecked their status as one of England’s premier clubs, but they had risen from the ruins and following their promotion to League One in 2017 they had began to catch the eye again, not least the eyes of the Eisners.
The Tornante Company, owned by Michael, bought a majority stake in the club and Eisner placed himself as the club’s new chairman with his son, Eric, also appointed as a director.
Having worked his way up to billionaire status, many perhaps would have expected a brutal, no-nonsense approach from their new head honcho. Having lived his life at the very top of film for 31 years, you would have been forgiven for imagining him as a Jordan Belfort in ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ type figure, firing people at the drop of the hat who make the tiniest mistake.
This may have been the thought running through Kenny Jackett’s mind too. Just months after taking over the reins from Paul Cook, the club takeover was completed.
Flash-forward over two years and it is October 2019. The Pompey Supporter’s Trust AGM is in full swing with plenty of chatter over the immediate future of the club following a shoddy start to the season.
At this stage of the League One campaign, 16 matches had been played and Portsmouth sat outside the play-off places. Just six wins had been celebrated by the Pompey faithful and, coupled with their play-off failure five month earlier, frustrations were growing with the man in the dugout.
Fans accused Jackett both of not caring, with a lack of emotion being shown in his post-match interviews following defeats, and employing a turgid, negative brand of football.
At this stage, it would have been oh so easy for the Eisners to just get rid. Jackett had, afterall, been in charge at Fratton Park since 2017 – maybe his race had simply been ran. One phone call could have ridded them of all this hassle.
It would have been just as easy to just skirt around the topic perhaps, not giving a definitive answer either way. But pragmatism prevailed and Michael Eisner took the decision to emphatically back the boss at one of the fans’ biggest events of the year.
Suffice to say that the video message from him at the AGM took many fans by surprise. He emphatically threw his support behind Kenny Jackett – ripping up the rule book in many ways for how modern football club owners are supposed to act.
Premier League side Watford were just two months away from sacking their second manager of the season, after all. In League One Sunderland’s patience with Jack Ross had snapped and even Ipswich are now on the verge of huge payout as they consider sacking Paul Lambert.
Too use a melodramatic cliche, this was Eisner jumping in front of a bullet for Jackett. The blame for poor results had now shifted onto the owner.
Is it a coincidence that since the message was sent, that Pompey have won 11 out their next 18 matches in League One, losing just four? Almost certainly not. Eisner saw that Jackett still had the fire to win the promotion as well as the tools to do it. Focusing on those facts, rather than fan fury, is pragmatism in a nutshell.
They now sit in third place, winning eight out of their last ten matches, and are now sat just three points behind second-place Rotherham United and five behind Coventry City – two other clubs benefitting from longer term managers.
Is the Eisners stance likely to mark a shift in the way that managers are treated accross the board? Hopefully, but probably not. It has become all too easy to excuse the sacking of managers after mere months in the job as ‘just football, baby!’
Success for the Eisners this season, therefore, would be a success for the club but also a much-needed success for pragmatism in football.