The self-congratulation wouldn’t reach far beyond the suburbs, though, since it would quickly encounter the muffling sound of growing discontent elsewhere in the north-west. Pockets of a region that has long considered itself the authentic heartland of English football, where a faithful passion for the game runs bone deep, are beginning to resemble bunkers.
While Manchester United and Manchester City indulge in a struggle for local and national supremacy, and Kenny Dalglish continues to slowly but persuasively restore some old values and haughtiness to Liverpool, three of their neighbours are wracked with anxiety. A siege mentality has asserted itself at the DW Stadium, the Reebok Stadium and Ewood Park, where even in October relegation has become a pressing concern.
Blackburn Rovers, Wigan Athletic and Bolton Wanderers are currently the bottom three clubs in the Premier League, and if only Steve Kean appears embattled by his circumstances at Ewood Park, the other two managers – Roberto Martinez and Owen Coyle – are not exempt from a sense of unease, particularly when jitteriness in the boardroom is often a prelude to an impulsive desire for change.
There is no surer indication that stories are being published about a manager’s future than when the subject remarks that he doesn’t read the papers. Coyle unloaded that riposte recently, and it is rare for the Bolton manager to be jolted from the enthusiasm and bright optimism that is such an essential part of his nature. The Glaswegian still seems to able to rely on the support of directors, who take the reasonable view that a fixture list that brought Arsenal, United, Chelsea, Liverpool and City in the opening months of the season does not provide a sound basis on which to take drastic action.
Bolton are now midway through a run of four games against opponents they would expect to be more competitive against, but a win over Wigan and a defeat to Sunderland is still unconvincing. Coyle is a relentlessly upbeat personality, but a cheerful nature and a canny understanding of how to organise and cajole players when pressure is building into a stifling force is no remedy for the lack of goals and hapless defending that has beset his team this season. The failure to adequately replace Daniel Sturridge, whose goals during a loan spell from Chelsea last season elevated Bolton but also confirmed his own status as a player of brilliant potential, is an enduring concern.
“That’s the problem with the loan market, Bolton are finding out it’s not good when you can’t get the player back again the next season,” says Kevin Gallacher, the former Blackburn and Scotland striker. “If you’ve got new faces, and Owen Coyle and Steve Kean are trying to build their teams, you need them to kick off right away.”
At Blackburn, Kean has had to contend with protests among the fans – including a banner that read: “Norway Says Kean Out” – but also the kind of inconsistency among his players that causes a manager’s nerves to be permanently jangled. He retains the support of Venky’s, the Indian firm that owns the club, and dismissed the persistent rumour that a director of football would be appointed to assist him – with Walter Smith and Martin O’Neill among the names speculated – by gently pointing out that the club already has a sporting director in Simon Hunt.
Many of the supporters remain suspicious about the way Kean took over from Sam Allardyce and the influence that his agent, Jerome Anderson, has at the club. Even during the 4-3 Carling Cup victory over Newcastle United on Wednesday night, the tension and the hostility between the coaching staff and the fans was emphasised when Paul Clement, Kean’s assistant, was accused of using a four-letter word to quite abruptly tell some supporters what they could do with themselves. It is the fear of the same message coming out of the boardroom that troubles Kean, Coyle and Martinez at Wigan.
“Fans cry out for managers’ heads, and the longer that goes on, the more pressure there is on the board to do something,” says Gallacher. “Blackburn fans have been against Steve from the start. They didn’t really know who he was at the time, I doubt some even knew that he was the first-team coach. So Steve’s been climbing Mount Everest, with Mount Kilimanjaro right after it. That’s how hard a task he has trying to win the supporters round.”
Of the three, Martinez works for the most accommodating chairman in Dave Whelan, but his Wigan side seems the most ill-equipped to pull away from their position. The Spaniard is an eloquent and thoughtful manager, but his team has a tendency to reflect that, without possessing the uncompromising streak that is often the telling point in a scrap for survival.
Blackburn and Bolton were both promoted to the Premier League in 2001, while Wigan arrived four years later. The north-west has a rich football heritage, but geography alone is not enough to keep vulnerability at bay. “It’s massively important,” Gallacher says of the clubs’ importance to the area. “There aren’t many teams who can take the gamble of keeping the majority of their players [after relegation] and getting back up right away.”