It is a question which will draw numerous answers, but Aberdeen and Bristol Rovers would seem two of the most pertinent. They are disparate clubs but have shared in the misfortunes of one manager; the 55-year-old was dismissed from his post at the Memorial Stadium on Saturday having led the club to 12 wins since taking charge in January, only four of which came this season.
His sacking has brought the sort of contrition you would expect from the Rovers squad, the kind which can often seem hollow when a manager is no longer around to hear it. It is a sentiment which will resonate at Pittodrie. McGhee was sacked by Aberdeen in December 2010 after a series of poor results – and one particularly bad one – left the club sitting indignantly at the lower end of the league table with only goal difference keeping them off the bottom. Much more had been expected of a man who had represented the club in Gothenburg, and of a manager who had taken Motherwell into the UEFA Cup in his first season in charge.
The decision to leave Fir Park had been understandable; McGhee's prior affiliation with Aberdeen made it seem a comfortable reunion, while he was aware that the assets of his squad were attracting the sort of interest his club would be unable to ignore. His success had been endorsed by the cumulative talents of Ross McCormack, Paul Quinn, Chris Porter and David Clarkson, each of whom would be playing elsewhere within a year of his departure.
He had expected comparable strength at Pittodrie – the squad had just qualified for Europe after all – but it was one he would not be able to marshal. A manager will founder on poor results but McGhee's most serious wounds were not collated in a league table, a failure to command universal respect from within the Pittodrie squad undermining his regime. "The way I looked at it was that when the manager came in at Motherwell, all the boys took on board what he was trying to do and look what happened there," said Jim Paterson, who served under McGhee at Motherwell, Aberdeen and latterly Rovers.
"At Aberdeen, the players wouldn't buy in to what he was trying to do. He was doing exactly what he was doing with us at Motherwell but at Aberdeen some boys were set in their ways under previous managers. In that case, it didn't work out. When you are telling players to do one thing and they are going out and doing another, then you've got no chance."
That last comment was paraphrased by McGhee in the aftermath of a defeat by York City on Saturday, the manager indicating his players had been "unwilling or unable" to follow instructions.
Some found McGhee irascible during the darker days of his reign at Pittodrie – he once invited a journalist to "go and look me up on Wikipedia. I've got a track record" – and within a dressing room there will always be personality clashes. Those can be salved by success but it is when a club finds itself in trouble that relationships can become vulnerable. "We had a great end to the season last year and that raised expectation levels," said Paterson. "When things don't go the same way people start to ask 'what's up?'"
The struggle to maintain momentum is also informed by the absence through injury of Rovers' most potent goalscorer, Matt Harrold, and captain Adam Virgo. It seems trite to suggest that it is up to a manager to make more of what is left in his squad during such strife, and McGhee will be disappointed he was not able to harness the better qualities of Derek Riordan and Garry Kenneth, whose own goal put York on their way on Saturday.
There was similar dissatisfaction with those he left behind at Pittodrie. That side has since been rebuilt and had spent part of this season being sized up for a European place. Where McGhee goes from here is another question entirely.