Following the news of Graham Westley’s departure from Preston North End, Bruce Halling assesses what went wrong at Deepdale for the former Stevenage boss.
After Saturday’s 1-0 defeat at Colchester, the end surely seemed nigh for Preston North End boss Graham Westley. It was their second successive defeat to a side below them in the table in a time where they desperately needed results, and talk of the club being sucked right down into the relegation scrap looked as though it were becoming more and more of a reality. When the final whistle blew at Huish Park on Tuesday night with Preston slipping to yet another defeat, it marked a run of just one win (a scrappy 1-0 at bottom club Hartlepool, at that) in fourteen games stretching back to November, and it proved to be the final straw for the Deepdale hierarchy, with Westley leaving the club the following day.
Westley leaves with the club in 17th place in League One and looking a long way from the club which was knocking on the door of the Premier League just a decade ago. Given his track record at pretty much every previous club he has managed, most notably of course Stevenage, it comes as a surprise that he was unable to translate his previous success into anything substantial at Deepdale, but it was perhaps these successes which indirectly contributed to his failure in Lancashire.
The Westley way of doing things was built upon quite a simple formula. He would arrive at a club at a time where he would be able to assess the quality of the squad at his disposal (this would usually be either during the season or right at the start of the summer) and decide upon a small number of players that he believed were capable of doing what he wanted them to do. He would then get rid of the rest of the players, before recruiting en masse. The recruitment policy was quite strict and rigid. He would recruit a number of players from his previous club, whom he knew could fit into his way of doing things, add in some players with experience of playing either at this level or a slightly higher level to bring knowledge to the dressing room, and then add a few players from a lower level whom he believed had the talent to perform at the level he would expect of them.
This way of doing things had served him very well in the past. He had won non-league honours at Farnborough, leading the club into the Conference and then to a 7th place finish in their first season at that level. In his first spell at Stevenage, this system again proved successful but he was unable to lead the side to promotion. He then looked like he was going to translate the same system into success once more at Rushden & Diamonds, but was mystifyingly sacked despite having won over half his games in charge at Nene Park. The only club where he hadn’t attempted to replicate this system was at Kettering, as he was only there on a short-term deal as caretaker manager.
Westley’s return to Stevenage saw him again deploy the same way of doing things, with a clearout en masse followed by a big recruitment drive, with several players arriving from Kettering and Rushden, and the results would soon follow. He guided the team to the FA Trophy before back-to-back promotions saw him take the club not just into the Football League for the first time in their history, but right up to the third tier. Stevenage had even looked possible contenders for a third consecutive promotion early on last season, which is undoubtedly what made him such a strong candidate for a position at a bigger club – one which he ultimately took when Preston came calling thirteen months ago.
There was an initial period of struggle for Westley upon his arrival at the club, which was not particularly surprising given he was having to work with someone else’s squad. As is par for the course, Westley again dismantled the squad during the summer and brought in his own men to do the job – including a number of players from former club Stevenage. This time, however, the formula didn’t provide results, with Preston’s league record this season showing just eight wins from 31 games. Perhaps the most interesting point to note is the particularly disappointing form at home, just three wins out of sixteen, which falls far below the expectations of any club, let alone one with Preston’s ambitions. Given that impressive form in front of their own fans was a cornerstone of previous Westley teams – again, most notably his Stevenage side – this points to something in the strictly controlled Westley formula going horrendously wrong.
His method of recruitment leaves him wide open to take the flack if it doesn’t work, and that’s exactly what has happened in this instance. Whether it’s the fact that the players he’s recruited can’t make his system effective, or whether his system isn’t maximising the potential of his players is largely irrelevant. It’s Westley’s team and it’s Westley’s system. It hasn’t produced the results and so the buck has to stop with him.
The answer as to why can be found by looking beyond the statistics. There were two key things that made Stevenage a particularly dangerous side – one was their ability to move the ball around fluently and create chances, the other was their supreme level of fitness. I remember watching their game at Colchester last season and the way they dismantled their opponents – particularly in the last 25-30 minutes of the game – was incredibly impressive and not something you generally see from a club outside of the top flight. Yet these attributes have not been translated across into the Preston side we have seen this season, and it is Westley’s inability to make his formula work that has ultimately contributed to his failure.