Dean Saunders: Managerial Roller Coaster

July 18, 2011 by  

Dean Saunders took his first managerial role at Wrexham Football Club in October 2008 and began his maiden voyage with an impressive set of results. This backed up his claims that he was the man to lead the club out of the conference and back into the Football League where they belong.

"I’ve come to get the club back in the league because Wrexham should not be in non-league, it’s a joke and I am determined to succeed for the good of Welsh football”

Since that point there has been a series of ups and downs both on and off the pitch which have served to test the managerial abilities and mental strength of the Wrexham manager. This article will attempt to look at Dean Saunders progression as a manager through his three seasons at the helm.

The beginning of Saunders management career could hardly have started any better, with a five-game winning streak seemingly aided by his refreshing approach to a club that had began to wallow in its struggles.

“I’m not interested in having losers at the club, there has been too many of them here over the last five or six years – and I’m not frightened to say that. This place has been full of losers. We want to get people who will fight for the club, who care about how they play, care about the result and care about the supporters.”

On his arrival at the helm Dean promised to “set in stone principles that everybody will adhere to, so that every morning they will know exactly what is required of them”. This is something backed up by Christian Smith, a player who was on the Wrexham books at that time who says “Dean came into the club with a clear gameplan and pattern of play which was drilled into the squad each and every day for 6 weeks, working on the shape of the team and attention to detail on every player to the point where each player knew what there job was on the pitch.”

After a bright start and good results in the next few months past the Christmas period, the 2008/2009 season tailed off with a 2v1 defeat to Burton. At the time we were in contention for a play-off place and this derailed our season, leading into a disappointing end to the year where the team lost 9 of the last 14 games. A mixture of low morale, other teams learning how Wrexham played and adapting accordingly and the introduction of Andrew Crofts, who was in poor form combined to unbalance the team and contribute to the poor results.

Stung by the poor end to his first season in charge and the frustration of conceding “ugly goals”, the 2009/2010 season saw a more defensive and solid approach to the game by Saunders. This approach had the side-effect of a lack of goals in that season although this could also be put down to the loss of Jefferson Louis, who had formed a prolific partnership with Marc Williams, and the injuries and subsequent loss of form of Williams himself.

The 2009/2010 season was one in which the frustration of fans boiled over, and there were many who called for his head after a series of abject and dull team performances. Tactically we appeared to lack any structure of play other than to play the poorly directed balls from the centre back position to Gareth Taylor. Wrexham’s poor form and the pressure that Saunders felt under led to him relinquishing his role with the Welsh squad which he held under John Toshack in order to concentrate his efforts of Wrexham.

Although hamstrung by a significantly reduced budget for the 2010/11 season, Saunders arguably produced some great signings for Wrexham during the season with Dean Keates, Jay Harris, Lee Fowler and the return of Andy Morrell to the Racecourse the most noteworthy. The transfer activity for last season was also the least active the club had been for quite some time, with the purchases of Brian Carey and Brian Little and the first 2 seasons of Dean Saunders heralding a huge amount of transfer activity as each manager attempting to transform the squad so that it would work with their tactical outlook. Coupled with the minimal activity during the current transfer window it appears that Dean Saunders has a settled squad that he is happy with and that Wrexham at least in terms of the squad should be the most settled they have been for many seasons.

Wrexham played the majority of last season in a new 4-3-3 formation that along with the form of Andy Mangan helped the team to produce more goals than the season before. The improved ability in midfield of Keates and Harris also helped and encouraged Wrexham to play through midfield and use the ball better than previous seasons. The signing and introduction of Lee Fowler later in the season only helped to bolster this approach and his re-signing for the new season may prove to be a major factor in the teams promotion push.

For an insight into Dean Saunders’ approach to management and where some of his infamous statistics come from Christian Smith tells us

“….he will have stats for every single game, each game Mal Purchase will be on the bench with a clipboard marking down everything that happens as a team and individually…all the coaches and manager watch dvd’s of games, win, lose or draw every single day of the week. Team meetings which will be called when he spots something ”

During the abysmal 2009/2010 season there was a lot of disparaging comments from fans when Saunders post-match comments would argue that the players were not following through with his instructions and that the team had won 34 throw-ins and 17 corners in the game but failed to capitalise. Christian Smith backs up Dean’s claims that players failed to carry out his instructions properly by saying “fans may think dean was just saying he had gone over it as an excuse but he would go over it every single time so it was never just an excuse it was the actual truth”.

Dean has also worked hard on the training pitch to improve young players that he has brought to the club. The progression of Obeng and Cieslewicz under his tutelage is there to see. He has also looked to take a chance on players who have lost their way in life a little such as Jay Harris, Lee Fowler and Andy Mangan and has been rewarded by the faith he showed in them by their performances on the pitch. During the first season in charge the loan signings of Joe Allen, Ryan Flynn and Andrew Crofts, although he failed to impress, demonstrated Saunders’ ability to spot talented players and bring them to the club.

There has been some signings which have been questioned by fans and in fairness can come in for justified criticism such as the decisions to take on some of the more experienced players like Suffo, Jansen, Sakho, Gyan and the misfiring signings of players such as Steve Abbott, Aaron Brown, Kristian O’Leary. However, there was clear logic in the decision to capture experienced players in the hope that their quality and composure would shine through in the Blue Square Premier. This has not proved to be the case apart from Frank Sinclair perhaps proving the exception up until the last half of the 2011/11 season.

With the fact that Dean was still learning what was needed to succeed and in the majority of cases the only players available within budget are on free transfers, mistakes in the transfer market are inevitable and if you get more right than wrong then you are doing well.

Ironically, in what is one of the most turbulent and unsettling times in the history of the club, on the pitch Wrexham now look a much more settled squad not only aware of what the manager requires of them but also able to go out onto the pitch and execute those plans.

With the improved performances and results last season which ended in qualification for the play-offs and battling against many sides with a significant budget advantage over his squad, Dean Saunders seems to have finally found his feet in this league.

With the exception of Mangan and the current uncertainty around Chris Maxwell, Dean Saunders has managed to use the relationships he has built within the squad to keep hold of the core of the team from last season and added to it with the impressive signings of Chris Westwood, Danny Wright and Jake Speight. On the pitch at least it would appear that this is the year that Saunders has a team capable of battling for promotion to the Football League and back where both he and the fans feel the club belong.

Indeed Christian Smith has commented that “all in all it took him a while to understand the league and stuff but he’s got there in the end and now its only a matter of time before promotion happens added with a little luck along the way”.

If there is an area which could still be significantly improved upon for Saunders and to continue his learning curve it would be with regard to in-game management. Dean is so busy kicking every ball and winning every challenge with his players on the touchline that this can sometimes affect seeing the game in perspective and mean that changes which could be made to change the outcome of a game are not made or happen to late. Contrary to this however, there has also been instances of over-management when the team are in the lead with the tendency to sit deep and alter the formation to add another defensive player to the side resulting in Wrexham inviting pressure from the opposition, conceding goals and surrendering leads. Indeed at the end of 2010, Wrexham were second in the half-time league yet finished the season in eleventh highlighting an inability to kill off games.

In conclusion, Dean Saunders has gone through a roller coaster of ups and downs during his first role in football management but it appears that he has realised the players needed and the balance of play required to not just compete in the Blue Square Premier but to challenge for the title.

Whether this learning curve, would have been shortened had Dean been able to have Terry Darracott by his side is an unknown but surely it would have helped to have an experienced coach by his side over the past few seasons as well as the ever-loyal Brian Carey who is still learning too.


Kev Daniels

Many thanks to
Christian Smith (Wrexham 2008, 2009-  2011) for answering my questions, it was of great help to writing the article.