SIMON Davey had been under pressure before. Indeed, it seemed as though he had been under pressure from the moment he took charge of Barnsley in November 2006.
Even when he led them to the FA Cup semi-final two seasons ago – with victories over Liverpool and Chelsea along the way – the pressure didn’t ease up that much.
As of tonight, though, Davey no longer has to worry about Barnsley.
There were mutterings before this afternoon’s match against Reading that Davey would be done for if he didn’t win. He had guided Barnsley to two Carling Cup victories this season, one over Lincoln and the other against what was effectively Reading’s reserve team, but the Championship form had been hopeless – one point from four games. A team who have spent the last three seasons on the relegation rack were already looking set for the same again.
Add in the suggestions that Davey was close to being sacked during the summer after beating the drop on the final day of last season, and it becomes clear that this was one manager who was never going to survive a bad start. At 7pm, just over two hours after a 3-1 home defeat and loud protests outside the ground, the club’s official website released a statement confirming that Davey was no longer manager.
And yet for the first 20 minutes this afternoon, it looked as though Barnsley were going to win handsomely. A little bit of tactical tinkering following striker Andy Gray’s arrival from Charlton had given Davey’s side a threat on the wings that been singularly lacking the last time I’d seen them, in a tame surrender at home to Coventry a fortnight earlier.
Sure, Jamal Campbell-Ryce was still wandering all over the pitch like an Arctic explorer minus his compass. (Is he a winger? Is he a midfielder? Or does he transcend tactics? Someone please explain.)
But Davey had altered the formation from 4-4-2 to 4-3-3 in an attempt to use that free-spiritedness to Barnsley’s advantage. And in the early stages, it worked, with Jon Macken – effectively playing on the right side of the front three – whipping in a couple of dangerous crosses from which Gray almost profited.
One such cross just eluded Gray and passed perilously close to Liam Rosenior’s hand before the Reading right-back managed to scramble the ball behind. The respite, though, was brief, as Gray rose unchallenged to head in the resulting corner, delivered by Hugo Colace.
It looked like being a happy return to Yorkshire for Harrogate-born Gray, whose father Frank played with great distinction for Leeds and Scotland, and whose uncle Eddie scored one of the greatest goals ever seen at Elland Road, in a televised match against Burnley in the early 1970s.
Gray junior, himself once a youngster at Leeds, has been around the block a bit – Barnsley are his 11th club, and he’s only 31. If he was hoping his career might start to settle down a bit, subsequent events would disappoint him.
Once Reading figured out that the way to stop Barnsley was to halt the flow of crosses, they started to get on top. Alex Pearce swept in an equaliser after the home side had failed to deal with a corner – and they struggled against set-pieces all afternoon, with keeper Lee Steele flapping more or less every time he faced a high ball under pressure.
But the moment Davey’s fate was sealed came eight minutes into the second half. And again, Steele was involved.
I was too far away to get a clear view as to whether Steele brought down Jimmy Kebe inside the area as they chased Brynjar Gunnarsson’s ball over the top. But I knew as soon as the keeper came off his line that Barnsley were in trouble, because he had struggled to take anything cleanly all afternoon. Kebe went down; referee Michael Oliver – a man still young enough to qualify for a 16-25 Railcard – awarded the penalty, and Barnsley’s players and fans went berserk.
As Noel Hunt converted it, the first chants of “We want Davey out” could be heard from the home sections. Minutes later, Hunt turned home Kebe’s cross from close range, and Davey must have known the game was up.
If he didn’t, a crowd of Barnsley fans gathered outside the main stand afterwards to chant for Davey’s dismissal at such a volume that he must have been able to hear it in the dressing room.
Barnsley later stated that Davey had left by mutual consent, but at his post-match press conference – conducted around 90 minutes before his exit was confirmed – he said that he was prepared to continue as manager.
“I won’t ever give up on any job,” he said. “Until someone tells me otherwise, I’ll be fighting to win the next game.”
It soon became clear that Davey would not be around for the next game.
Davey has suffered disappointment in football before – his playing career was almost finished at the start after he was released by home-city club Swansea as a teenager, and he had to retire from playing at the age of 27 due to a back injury.
But it has had its memorable moments too – he played alongside a young David Beckham at Preston, and will always have those astonishing FA Cup victories over Liverpool and Chelsea to treasure.
Davey, though, is a man used to facing setbacks, and fighting to overcome them. And that’s why Reading manager Brendan Rodgers’ post-match assertion that Davey would bounce back sounded more than just the platitudes of a winning manager.
In the end, Davey went the way of most football managers. But it’s hard to believe that he will be out of the game for long.