Just as you begin to think the self-serving, cash-rich clubs of the Premiership can stoop no lower, along comes a moment to leave even the most cynical observer stunned by the sheer crassness of the behaviour of those entrusted with running football clubs.
This week, the directors and management of Blackburn Rovers ought to stand up to account for actions that fly in the face of all remaining standards of decency in the game.
Tony Parkes is too much of a gentleman — and too much in love with the club that has been his life for 35 years — to round on Blackburn’s manager Mark Hughes and the other little men who took the decision to sack him as the reserve-team coach at a board meeting last week, and then did not have the guts to tell Ewood Park’s most loyal servant that his days with the club were over.
Instead, Parkes was left to speak of his ‘shock and disappointment” at learning of his dismissal when his daughter heard a local radio report three days later. Here is a man who exemplifies a word that seems to have become a little old-fashioned and outmoded in football — loyalty.
Parkes signed as a player from non-league Buxton in 1969 for £3 000 and never left. First as a player, then as a coach and six times as caretaker manager, he served Blackburn and could be forgiven the cosy notion that he was in a job for life.
‘My daughter was up before me and heard something on the news which said I’d been sacked and that Mark Hughes was bringing in his own backroom staff,” said Parkes. ‘I just said: ‘No, it must be wrong because he’s got his backroom staff so this must be old news.’ But then I got in my car to drive in to training and put my radio on and, lo and behold, it’s true.”
In other words, Blackburn’s management and administrative staff were ready for Parkes to turn up at the training ground, as he has done for virtually his entire working life, only to show him the door.
The Sun had also got wind of the story, so perhaps the players he was about to train might have been able to break the news having either heard or read about it at their breakfast tables. The whole scenario is almost too laughably inept and lacking in human compassion to be believed.
‘I’ve read where managers got the sack on the beach when they were away from the club and I’ve always thought Blackburn Rovers wouldn’t do it that way,” Parkes added. ‘Obviously it has happened this time. I’m not blaming the club or Hughes, but between them they got it wrong. I think I deserve a bit more respect than listening to my daughter saying she’s just heard it on the radio.”
Now, amid much shuffling and embarrassment all round, not least because the fans have been horrified by Parkes’s treatment, Blackburn have been forced into some public consumption of humble pie. Already there has been talk of a testimonial match and offering their long-standing servant an ambassadorial role.
But messages to a Blackburn supporters’ website should leave Hughes in no doubt that he has some serious bridge-building to do in the weeks ahead, especially with Rovers looking and playing like prime relegation candidates.
‘After 35 years you would have thought the manager would have the guts or decency to tell you to your face,” wrote one aggrieved fan.
Hughes was contrite, saying: ‘I totally agree he’s found out the worst way but that wasn’t of my making. There’s no way I would be disrespectful to Tony. He’s done some fantastic work for this club.”
But his excuse will not wash with Rovers fans, nor will his explanation about why the news of the sacking was delayed, leaving it to leak out in the media. Hughes has to appreciate he is now the main man and is accountable for all his decisions, or his foray into club management might soon turn sour.
As a player, Hughes had an exemplary career, but one of his former international teammates, someone who has no axe to grind against Hughes, told me recently: ‘I honestly think the jury is still out on Sparky as a manager. The problem will come when the fans turn against him, for whatever reason, because he has never been used to that sort of criticism.
“As a player, he was a hero figure, then he had success as manager of Wales after years when they did nothing. But now he has taken on a club that has lost its manager [Graeme Souness] and is not in a great state. The test will be how well he copes with that, and whether or not he is able to turn it around.”
The testing time has arrived. After two months in charge results suggest Blackburn’s fortunes on the pitch seem to be showing few signs of improvement with Hughes at the helm.
Quite rightly, he would say he needs time to make an impact. But a long-term strategy needs the understanding of the fans and their early love affair with Hughes has now been sorely tested by the shabby treatment of Parkes.
‘There’s no animosity from me towards Blackburn Rovers. I hope they do well,” Parkes said after his sacking.
Others, perhaps less charitably, might argue there would be some sense of poetic justice if relegation proved to be the club’s fate this season. —