By Ben Stebbings @Stebbiino
When Legends Become Managers
There was more than a whiff of bitterness exuded in Danny Mills’ withering take down of Stuart Pearce this past week. The BBC pundit held nothing back when saying of the under fire Nottingham Forest manager, ‘he’s not a great coach, he’s not a great tactician, he’s not a great motivator and he struggles with big players who question his authority’. In response Pearce inferred that Mills was perhaps, still more than a little aggrieved at being dropped during his time playing under Pearce at Manchester City. ‘I do apologise for putting Micah Richards in Mills’ place‘ the manager replied sardonically.
But embittered or not, Mills’ claims do hold water; despite Pearce’s good intentions he has rarely threatened to mature into a first-rate coach.
His travails with Manchester City and England’s Under 21s, while admirable for Pearce’s championing of youth (an essential requirement when it came to the Under 21s of course) and his trademark candour, can at best be described as periods of stasis for the respective teams. Seldom did Pearce seem to have a footballing philosophy or a plan of development that would benefit his teams in the long term.
There was a very real sense too when he was offered the Forest job, that it was Pearce’s status as a ready-built club legend that made him chairman Fawaz Al-Hasawi’s favoured choice, rather than any coaching or tactical nous.
Forest, though, are far from the only club to prioritise a candidate’s playing career over their capability to actually do the job.
Take Crystal Palace, who just stumped up a reported £3.5 million to prize club legend Alan Pardew away from Newcastle; a questionable amount of money for one of the more fiscally challenged clubs in the Premier League to pay in return for a manager with a decidedly mixed record. He did get that goal in the FA Cup semi final twenty-five years ago (25!) though so that makes everything okay.
Further down the league are yet more examples: Hartlepool United gambled and lost by appointing, then quickly dismissing, ex-player Paul Murray as boss, Norwich City took slightly longer to realise their experiment with Neil Adams was failing and Fulham recently promoted former defender Kit Symons all the way up the chain in an attempt to rebuild after the scorched earth policy of Felix Magath.
In all cases these appointments seemed designed to offer two things; stability after a period of turmoil (relegation or the fear of relegation) and a temporary solution to fan unrest.
Not all such instances end in disappointment and it would be unfair to suggest Symons, Pardew and Pearce can not bring success to their respective clubs. Indeed, for every mustachioed Boot Room destroyer reeking havoc at Liverpool, there is a Roberto Martinez at Wigan or a Pep Guardiola at Barcelona, proving themselves more than worthy of their club’s trust. However, what can be ventured is that sometimes players attain jobs based on the reputations they made on the field when more attention should be paid to skills shown off it.
The Giggs Conundrum
This is not an argument restricted to managerial roles either. All too frequently club legends are warmly reminded that ‘there will always be a place for you at this football club’, often spoken with an eerily ominous tone reminiscent of an eager gravedigger gently tapping the edges of each player’s allotted pit with his well-worn shovel.
This season it is Steven Gerrard who has been guaranteed some as-yet-unknown backroom position by his boyhood club (it will probably involve a lot of aimless running and mistimed tackling as is his wont), last year it was the Class of ’92 who were taking up long-promised roles behind the scenes at Manchester United. It did not go exactly to plan.
While David Moyes took the brunt of the blame for The Red Devils’ majestic failings, his right-hand men Ryan Giggs and Phil Neville (and their right-hand men Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt) escaped the fallout relatively unscathed.
Although Louis van Gaal insisted on bringing in his own team for the new season it is written in the stars (and on their contracts) that United’s favourite sons will one day return with Giggs’ continued presence on the bench (as van Gaal’s number two and very probable heir apparent) serving as a sort of Trojan Horse insurance policy; he’ll be there to let his ex-team mates through the gates when the time is right.
Considering it was Giggs himself who supposedly vetoed a move for then-Barcelona startlet Thiago Alcantara with the claim that he ‘was not a Manchester United player’, there are foreboding signs that maybe, just maybe, entrusting a billion pound business to four vastly underqualified man-children will not be the best decision United ever make (although it will still prove better than this).
So often the argument is made in these cases that having worked for a prolonged period under one of the best managers in the world (that’s Sir Alex Ferguson for those who have recently arisen from comas) there is no one better placed to understand the inner workings and expert methods of a successful coach. Yet it is also relevant to state, that Giggs and his long-serving team mates have only had the experience of one, admittedly brilliant, manager (disregarding the minimal time spent playing internationals as any self-respecting person would).
Furthermore, Ferguson’s core strengths, by the end of his tenure, were the cult of personality he had spent twenty-five years cultivating in the club, the them-against-us mentality he had spent twenty-five years drilling home to his players and the unshakable self-belief which lead to so many last minute goals that he had spent twenty-five years ingraining into his teams. Three priceless things that Moyes took all of eight months to destroy.
This is an admitted exaggeration but the point is that a lot of Ferguson’s greatness came from qualities and attributes that are not taught but come through personality and sheer force of will; ergo they are non-transferable. At best, Giggs and friends can hope to offer a pale imitation of Ferguson’s extraordinary, innate skill set. For everything else they must rely on self-taught techniques and methods hoovered up from elsewhere in the game.
A Lack of Progress
Ralf Rangnick, former Hoffenheim and Schalke manager and current Sporting Director of Red Bull Salzburg and RB Leipzig, has been a longtime critic of footballing nepotism. Back in 2008, shortly after his newly-promoted Hoffenheim side had taken the Bundesliga by storm, Rangnick gave an interview to German website Spiegel Online in which he isolated, what he considered to be, the biggest obstacle to progress in the modern game.
Rangnick: …For me, it’s very important that all my colleagues have just one goal in mind: to provide a service to the 25 professional players [that make up a squad].
SPIEGEL: That should seem obvious.
Rangnick: But it isn’t — and partly because the idea of choosing the best person for the job doesn’t always apply when the job assignments are being made. But as long as clubs keep putting clauses in the final professional contracts of the players that had earned it guaranteeing that they’ll be coaching the B youth team or working as chief scouts once their playing careers are over, there will be no progress.
Rangnick seems to have hit the nail on the head and although he is talking about the Bundesliga circa 2008, it is damning that these comments seem equally applicable to the Premier League and, even more so, to the Football League today.
Again, this is not intended as a blanket statement condemning ex-players moving into coaching, – the game is full of good players who have become equally good coaches – rather it is a sincere criticism of the lazy, sentimental and, ultimately, detrimental habit football clubs have of pushing players into coaching roles to which they are ill suited.
The reasoning behind these clubs’ decisions is no mystery. Feeling indebted and grateful towards their best players, the higher-ups offer up a coaching position as a sign of thanks and with the aim of solidifying the bond between legend and club. It is a completely understandable and innocent gesture that absolutely has to stop.
To illustrate the effect of the problem let us generalise a little.
The average lower league British football player is not university educated, spends the entirety of their career in England and rarely plays a different style of football to the league he inhabits (this final point is more notably the case in The Football League). While these things on their own are not essential they do undoubtedly limit a player and narrow his footballing scope meaning they are less likely to have taken influence from progressive and innovative coaching styles across the continent and less likely to be comfortable teaching a footballing philosophy or doctrine outside of that which they know.
The tempting argument in this instance would be to suggest that if the methods and techniques picked up over the course of a player’s footballing career have proven successful for him, they therefore should be good enough to teach to the next generation. This would not be a problem if football was not constantly advancing and adapting itself in all areas, from tactics to fitness, coaching to motivational techniques; if you do not keep up you get left behind. One need only look at the States-inspired surge of statistics that penetrated every facet of the modern game over the past ten years to see how quickly things can progress.
The important thing to take into account here is that when players with little or no relevant qualifications or coaching experience are offered important roles by their clubs, it is not just the players’ reputations that will suffer.
If, as Rangnick suggests, a club legend is given charge of the youth team then the development of fifteen or so young players, at a key stage of their career, is in this man’s hands. If he is clueless as to how to give them the strongest chance of improvement he fails his club and deprives these players of an effective footballing education.
If you want proof look at the legion of foreign centre backs comfortable with the ball at their feet while our own have been taught the, admittedly effective, ‘hoof it upfield’ technique leaving them looking like a deer in headlights at the mere mention of the words ‘take a touch’.
And it is no use arguing either that in lower league football the effects are not felt as badly. All footballers, no matter their ability, will improve if given better coaching, and innovation, whether tactical or otherwise, can be implemented no matter the quality of the league.
In fact, feeding a generation of new coaches, educated and created away from the cliquey confines of the football pitch, may be the very thing needed to produce a wave of new talent and to generate fresh ideas into the English game. For once instead of (outdated) innovation and (cast-off) players dripping down into the lower leagues when their novelty has worn off in the Premier League, the lesser divisions could offer something back. The top flight would look below itself for inspiration rather than to see if their leavings required a second flush. Lower league recruitment could be a genuine alternative to looking abroad and radical new coaching variations could be trialed in The Football League, away from the flashing lights and constant scrutiny of the top flight.
You could rightly question why the FA hasn’t attempted to solidify a mutually beneficial relationship between the Premier League and the lower leagues? Well the answer would be that they sort of have, they just put forward their suggestion in conjunction with a far more controversial proposal.
An Alternative to the FA Commission’s B Leagues
Last year the FA assembled a commission to combat the declining standards (and numbers) of top level English footballers (a commission which coincidentally featured embittered Pearce-basher Danny Mills). The four point plan they agreed upon, made a case for the introduction of B teams for top clubs to allow better competition for their youngsters. These B teams would bob between the lower leagues, unable to gain promotion above League 1 but free to crush the dreams of any small team they happened to play against. Unsurprisingly, the Football League were emphatically against its implementation, fearing it would cripple the lower divisions and prevent the potential for progress of more humble clubs.
Generating less controversy and somewhat lost in the haze of furor was an additional plan to reform the loan system:
The strategic loan approach is designed to allow clubs from the top two English leagues to loan players to a lower division ‘partner’ club to enable greater opportunities for 18 to 21-year-old English footballers.
This proposal was not as slapdash in its creation as project ‘B team’ and actually seems, dare it be said, viable, but for it to work it is vital a better standard of coaching be attained. If the lower leagues could get themselves in a position where a higher level of coaching persuades a Premier League heavyweight like Chelsea to entrust more of their younger players to a team like Southend, rather than siphoning the majority overseas (mostly to Vitesse Arnhem), all tiers of the domestic game would benefit and, moreover, significantly improve.
There is one key problem here, the elephant in the room throughout this hypothesis (is that what this is?); England may not have enough coaches at present. I use the word ‘may’ because at the moment it is not entirely clear.
The FA highlighted the problem in their report, typically underplaying the issue it should be said.
Area 3 – Coaching and coach development, essentially at grassroots level, have not yet reached a satisfactory level and impact
There it is, the key ingredient to a better national game, wedged stealthily between Area Two (‘Regulation of the player market’) and Area Four (‘Quantity and quality of grassroots facilities’ – also important).
In terms of comparing ourselves to the nations we aim to emulate we seem to be lagging far behind.
England currently has 1,161 coaches at UEFA ‘A’ Level, compared to 12,720 in Spain and 5,500 in Germany and the problem deepens at pro license level, having a mere 203 coaches at this stage, with 2,140 and 1,000 in Spain and Germany respectively.
And yet these problems are perhaps not as severe as they first seem. Head of FA learning Jamie Houchen has suggested the stories of England falling adrift of their European counterparts in coaching is a myth:
“UEFA deals in A and B licences for coaches. At the FA we have developed our own pathway which we have refined for our own needs – Level One and Two certificates – but UEFA don’t include the latter within their figures.
It is hard to truly assess Houchen comments without having prior knowledge of the differences between UEFA’s A and B licences and the FA’s Level One and Two certificates. Are UEFA’s qualifications of a more elite class or is it the case, as Houchen proclaims, that the FA’s Level One and Two certificates allow you a similar standard of learning while mysteriously ‘refining it for our needs’ whatever they may be?
If the coaches are, indeed, present (all 70,000 of them) it begs the question why many of them have not been funneled (or ‘encouraged’ if you want a more humanistic take) into the upper echelons of the national game.
Is it a matter of reluctance on many’s part to pursue a career in coaching if they have not played football professionally i.e. do they only use their qualifications to teach at a grassroots level?
Or is it a case of doors shutting in the face of outsiders once they reach a certain level of league football? Certainly, there seems a reactive tendency in the game to dismiss the opinion of anyone who has not played as being lacking or somehow unworthy. This is in spite of the fact all arguments favouring that line of thought were long since proved redundant when Arrigo Sacchi uttered the immortal line
“I never realised that to be a jockey you had to be a horse first.
If exclusivity and nepotism are, ultimately, the reasons, no amount of Level Two certificates will cure the problem. It would need to be routed out from its core at an individual club by club level of their own volition.
However this is, admittedly, all speculation. The recognition of a problem (stagnation of English coaching) compounded by a secondary problem (the preference to give high-responsibility positions to unwarranted ex-players) met with a solution (giving opportunities to a fresh batch of outsider coaches, unaffiliated with the playing side of the game) that inevitably may be hampered by yet another problem (lack of said coaches).
Maybe if these problems were corrected in the English game a player like the aforementioned Micah Richards would have matured into the defender he initially threatened to become, thanks, in part, to a rewarding, well-coached loan spell at a lower league club (let’s say Oldham).
Maybe if these problems were corrected the aforementioned Danny Mills and the rest of the FA commission would have been praised for their well-thought out ‘strategic loan proposal’ and would not have deemed it necessary to suggest a radical reformation like the B league.
Maybe if these problems were corrected Stuart Pearce, likable though he is, would not have been presented with enough rope to hang what little is left of his reputation with and then leave the rotting carcass for hungry crows and resentful pundits to pick apart.
If not I guess we’ll always have that feeling of schadenfreude derived from watching players we once so admired going back to the home of their greatest triumphs and self immolating for our own amusement. It’s not a feeling as nice as national pride or love for one’s footballing culture or any of those sweet, chocolaty emotions other footballing countries have, but it will do and, ultimately, isn’t ‘it will do’ English football’s policy in a nutshell anyway?