Where Do E-Land Go From Here?
Was it the right decision?
In some ways the writing was on the wall for Rennie before a ball was even kicked last season. It's fairly clear that at least some of the leadership team had expected to be promoted in their first season and that a play-off exit was not in the script. I'd be surprised if the topic of changing the manager wasn't at least discussed at the end of last season. At the very minimum it must have sown some seeds of doubt.
Over the close-season investment in the squad seemed to reflect either a scaled-back ambition or a vote of no confidence in their coach. A number of first team players left the club and the replacements brought in, with the odd exception, largely looked like squad filler rather than the kind of reinforcements needed to mount a serious title challenge. With Daejeon, Busan, Daegu, Gyeongnam and the Police teams all looking strong and with E-Land looking to be putting the brakes on any serious investment that was always going to be a big ask.
And so it has proved. Fifteen games into the season E-Land have been unconvincing to say the least. The form guide currently reads 1 win in 8 matches, including an embarassing exit in the FA Cup to a university side, and the team have only managed 5 victories in the league this year. A 3-1 defeat to tiny Chungju depsite taking an early lead epitomises the kind of form that has seen this decision taken.
Of course there have been mitigating factors also. Rennie would rightly point to a rather glaring anomaly that means of those 15 matches only five have been played at home. The team remains unbeated at Jamsil this season and with four home games in a row on the fixture list it's possible that things would have looked rather different in July. There's certainly a case to be made that waiting until the round of fixtures was complete would have allowed a fairer assessment to be made.
Elsewhere, injuries and suspensions haven't helped. Nor have dips in form to key individuals. Joo Min-kyu's goals and Kim Jae-sung's midfield drive were key elements in the team in 2015 but both look a shadow of themselves this time around. Cho Won-hee's absence has been obvious as has the lack of the left-foot of Kim Sung-ju during his stint with the army. Questions can certainly be asked about some of the recruitment decisions although we also shouldn't forget that this was a club that had no players at all when Rennie took charge so some leeway has to be granted for slip-ups in this department.
On the plus side, Rennie had shown a willingness to develop young players. No fewer than 16 players made their professional debuts during his 18-month tenure and several have some signs of reasonable potential. None of them though have really done enough to capture the imagination or to suggest that they can go on to bigger and better things. At times also it has felt that the young players have been included more through hope than expectation and while the faces have changed in the team, performances and results have not.
Too often the team has looked like square pegs in round holes and the lack of tactical flexibility has perhaps been part of the reason for Rennie's downfall. The 4-3-3 has persisted even when it clearly isn't working. Players like Kim Min-je, Kim Tae-eun and Yoo Seung-yeol have become ever-presents despite looking out of their depth at times often being shuffled around the pitch to unfamilar positions to accommodate them in the eleven. Others like Choi Chi-won or Kim Jae-yeon were brought in and promptly disappeared.
It was clear that a few key signings would be needed in the summer window to steady the ship and push on to challenge for the title. Sitting 11 points behind a Gangwon side that almost went out of existence 6 months ago is hard to excuse even though there are no doubt several reasonable ones, not least of all a hack and slash approach to the footballing budget at a time when the competition was getting tougher rather than easier.
Ultimately though, to me at least, it looks as though Rennie has paid the price for failing to get promoted at the first time of asking when he had a squad and a budget capable of doing so. For a club in it's very first season of existence that seems harsh, but football is not renowned for its patience.
For fans of E-Land the next appointment will be telling and give a clear signal as to whether this is a move towards a re-invigorated E-Land 2.0 or the start of further disinvestment and decline.
In the immediate term, coach In Chang-soo will take the reins as a caretaker. One would assume that Rennie's right-hand man Dan Harris will also move on although this remains unconfirmed. It's unlikely In will take the role on a permanent basis and a few names have already been touted for the position, most notably Seol Ki-hyun.
Seol would certainly make sense as an appointment in that he is a high-profile football name with a wealth of top-level playing experience at home and abroad. He should also be eminently get-able; a K-League appointment would surely appeal following his stint a university coach. No doubt the board would have taken note of his name when his side knocked E-Land out of the FA Cup also.
One thing's for certain, the next boss will almost certainly be a Korean. It simply makes economic sense for them to seek out a domestic option not to mention that there tends to be a 'once bitten, twice shy' reaction to failed foreign managers. Another import would be very surprising.
In the background to all of this murmurs persist that E-Land are possibly having second thoughts about the project and that the ambitious aims of 2 years ago have given way to cutbacks and a lack of support. This would certainly reflect the overall mood within the K-League of chaebols faced with significant business challenges wondering if funding football clubs is really a wise use of their funds.
Of course there remains so much unfulfilled potential within Seoul for a second club and for E-Land to push on to fill that gap. Certainly a well-funded E-Land side based in the capital and with funds to invest in the team would be an interesting prospect for most Korean coaches outside of the biggest Classic sides.
An approach for Gwangju manager Nam Ki-il would be a real sign of intent. He's worked wonders at the Guus Hiddink Stadium just to keep the citizen team in the Classic and now has them genuinely competing in the top half of the league. The likelihood is that the ceiling for improvement at Gwangju is close to being reached and, unless he his eyes on a bigger prize, he may be able to be persuaded that taking one step back in order to go two or three forward in the long run makes sense.
Of course this would rely on E-Land still having ambition to take the club forward and it's not clear that is still the case. Fans won't be reassured by considering the fate of their previous attempt at entering the football arena - E-Land Pumas were dissolved in 1998 after only a handful of years of competition. It will take more than just a change of manager to deliver promotion and one wonders whether E-Land have the desire, or indeed the ability, to invest further in the club in all areas.
This appointment will certainly be telling. Momentum is rapidly being lost from the E-Land project and the wrong decision now could be hugely costly.
A Personal Note:
On a personal note I would like to add that I have had the pleasure of meeting Martin Rennie and some of his staff face to face on a few occasions and have shared a fair amount of banter both on and offline with Dan Harris. Regardless of ups and downs on the park you will never meet two nicer people in football and they've generally gone out of their way to engage with fans and share their thoughts on what's going on. You can't fault their effort or dedication to the team and I wish them all the best for the future whatever that brings.