Change is essential for any good team to achieve sustained success. The ability to identify the right time to rebuild, overhaul or simply tweak some aspects of a squad distinguish the good teams from great teams. Accra Hearts of Oak are a great team. Together with Asante Kotoko they have sustained a duopoly over Ghanaian and at times continental football for a large part of their history. The strength of the Hearts of Oak hold on local football has however been weakening as the Phobians have not won the Ghana Premier League for 11 years now and after a poor start to this campaign the drought may well continue for another season.
There are many factors that have contributed to Hearts’ recent inability to win the league title but an unwillingness to accept change is definitely not one of them. In fact Hearts of Oak have been overly zealous in chasing change at the slightest hint of difficulty and that has destroyed the chance for any sort of stability to exist at the club. This change often comes manifests itself in the form of a new manager, the hierarchy at Hearts of Oak have not been shy to bring the axe down hard and quickly whenever results are even slightly disappointing.
Interestingly enough in the early 2000’s this model was moderately successful. Between 2000 and 2009 Hearts of Oak had 11 different managers, and were able to win 6 Ghana Premier League titles as well as an FA Cup and a number of continental trophies. Most Hearts of Oak coaches have been unable to keep their job for more than one full season but that did not stop Hearts from dominating the league in the early 2000’s. One key reason was the concentration of talent at the two big clubs at that time meaning that most other teams in the league were unable to cope with the individual quality of the players at these clubs. The uneven playing field allowed Hearts to dominate even though things were not particularly stable off the pitch.
This system however was unsustainable, as other clubs began to catch up and local talent started spreading out more evenly in the league. Hearts were being tested on a more regular basis. In the 2009/10 season, the campaign after they won their last GPL title Hearts slipped to 3rd, behind Ashanti Gold and Adana Stars. In the next season the trend continued as the Phobians finished in fifth, 14 points behind eventual winners Berekum Chelsea. These seasons were not disasters by any means but the consistent failure to get their hands on the big prize at the end of the seasons meant that the managerial merry go round sped up even more at Hearts.
From the 2009/10 season till the start of the current campaign the Phobians had gone through a quite staggering number of 16 managers. The weight of expectation surrounding the club meant that inaction would be viewed as incompetence by the fans and in order to absolve themselves of blame the executives at the club constantly hung their managers out to dry by not giving them enough time to build any sort of team. Hearts of Oak never finished below fifth during the period between their last title victory and yet no manager was given the support to try and build on the momentum from one season and try and make the next step in the next one. Some coaches in this time period were very obviously out of their league and deserved the sack but that says more about the officials doing the hiring than the coaches themselves.
Terrible planning meant that coaching appointments were made without proper due diligence being done. It is much easier to stick by a manager in tough times when through extensive discussions and effective research the club are sure that he is qualified and his vision aligns with that of the team. When these things are not done it is easy to abandon a project as soon as it hits a bump in the road and many of the managers found out the hard way.
The sacking of Kim Grant last season was as funny as it was impractical. Grant had handled the team in the Normalisation Committee Special competition as well as some pre season friendlies and was attempting to get the team to play his way but all that time was wasted as he did not make it past his first game. To be fair it was a defeat but it was just a single game and the decision was unduly harsh on Grant and had negative consequences for Hearts who placed 9th at the end of that truncated season.
Another debacle involving Portuguese coach Manuel Vaz Pinto meant that Edward Nii Odoom was handed the reins of this Hearts side coming into the current campaign and there was a fair bit of optimism around the team from hand hoping for the end of the trophy drought. Hearts were wasteful in their first game and came away with a 2-2 draw Ashanti Gold, a game in which they took the lead twice. Their next game, a trip to Inter Allies ended in a 1-0 defeat for Hearts and the next day the Hearts of Oak coaching job was once again, vacant. After just two games, TWO games.
It is almost like club executives have been told that there is one perfect coach, a silver bullet who can solve Hearts of Oak’s problems with a wave of his hand and if Hearts sack enough coaches they will stumble upon him. A strange strategy but according to what we have seen it might well be the strategy at Hearts of Oak.
The return of Kosta Papić is not something I am very excited for. It feels like a desperate attempt to regain a standard that has long been lost. Papić is long past his peak and has been very underwhelming since he left Hearts of Oak in 2009. He has had spells at 6 different clubs never managing to achieve much in the 11 years he has been away from Ghana and the he is likely to underwhelm once again. Hearts can make the best of this situation by using Papić as a stopgap and looking for a more long-term option to integrate into the team.
The concept of change is by no means lost on this current Hearts of Oak regime. The numbers are alarming and the turnover is simply not sustainable for any sort of success. The hierarchy at the club needs to put a plan in place and hire a manager who they believe can take the team forward long-term and then have faith with that manager. Most teams become successful by embracing change, Accra Hearts of Oak need to take a break from change and welcome stability in order to start making progress.
By Wepea Buntugu
The writer is interested in both the local and international game and provides new insights on issues on and off the field.