Can you manage?

Barney Ronay examines why average players often make good bosses while star names struggle

It is a footballing axiom that great players rarely make great managers. No swag-bag of playing honours, no bulging armoury of international caps can prepare a middle-aged footballing man for the vertiginous leap into management. In fact, the most successful man­agers in English football currently – Sir Alex Ferguson, Arsène Wenger and Gérard Houllier – all eked out relatively mediocre play­ing careers.

A cumbersome centre-forward, Ferguson played semi-professionally until the age of 23 before spending four disappointing years at Rangers, the most no­table part of which involved being made scapegoat for a 4-0 defeat by Celtic in the 1969 Cup final. Sim­ilarly, Wenger began his playing career in the French Third Division before spending three years with Strasbourg, while Houllier trained as a teacher and worked in England before returning to France at the age of 26 to become player-coach of Le Touquet, and then manager at Lens and Paris St Germain.

Compare Houllier’s tenacious managerial car­eerism with the feckless coaching CV of Kevin Keegan. Keegan – among the finest players of his generation – is a contender, in financial terms, for the title of least successful English manager of all time. His record of winning just two First Division titles while spending close to £150 million at three clubs is an astonishing tour de failure, a landmark in the paradoxical evolution of the big-name player turned managerial also-ran.

Sir Stanley Matthews is probably the archetype of the breed. The first footballer to be knighted for ser­vices to the game, the legendary Wizard of Dribble took the helm at Port Vale two years after retiring from play­ing. Unfortunately, Vale were abruptly expelled from the Football League – a sentence commuted to relegation from the Third Division to the Fourth – as the great man was caught up in a scandal over irregular pay­ments to players. Matthews resigned and never dipped his toe in managerial waters again.

The baton was taken up by Bobby Charlton when he became manager of Preston North End in 1973, over­seeing the club’s relegation to the Third Division the following year – this despite Charlton himself playing 38 games for the club, receiving a CBE for services to football in the process, and bringing in fellow World Cup winner Nobby Stiles as player-coach.

Bobby Moore endured a similarly disastrous spell in the hot seat at Southend United, whom he joined in 1984 after serving his managerial apprenticeship un­der Harry Redknapp at Oxford City. Amid board and dressing room discontent the club were relegated in Moore’s first season, and he resigned three games from the end of the next with the Shrimpers 20th in the Fourth Division.

The swinging Nineties saw an escalation in big-name managerial failures, as a trend emerged among Premiership chairmen of appointing recently retired players straight into high profile management po­sitions.

Perhaps encouraged by the initial advances of cash-rich Newcastle under a wild-eyed Keegan, Mid­dles­brough allowed novice coach Bryan Robson to spend close to £100 million in four seasons, in fruitless pur­suit of the kind of success Captain Marvel had achieved on the field with Manchester United.

Elsewhere, the sanguine Ray Wilkins floundered at QPR, the urbane Gianluca Vialli flattered to deceive at Chelsea and Watford, and at Celtic the disastrous ap­pointment of managerial novice John Barnes, and his departure after seven months in 2000, seemed to signal the end of this strangely self-destructive trend among starry-eyed club chairmen.

Currently, of the managers of the top seven teams in the Premiership only Bobby Robson enjoyed significant success as a player; while of those tipped for suc­cess neither Steve McClaren nor David Moyes were even remotely feted during their playing careers.

Theories abound as to why so few high-class players make it into the top bracket as managers. The received wisdom is that players who worked hard at making the most of their own limited abilities are more likely to be able to encourage others to do the same. Gifted players, on the other hand, are seen as instinctive creatures, un­able to understand the physical processes behind their own success, and likely to become impatient with the lesser talents in their charge.

This attitude is consistent with the essentially Eng­lish philosophy that the path towards true wisdom lies in running around a lot. However, if ever a player epitomised the notion of making a little go a very long way it was Keegan – yet he stands alone as per­­haps the most profligate example of celebrity managerial failure.

And what about Carlton Palmer? As a player Palmer made much of his limited abilities, captaining three Premiership clubs and playing for England 18 times. Last season, on his first day in charge of Stockport County he arrived at the club wearing a brand new camel-coloured overcoat and carrying an empty briefcase. Even more encouragingly, he appeared to have a natural aptitude for shouting.

In spite of which, during his first season in charge County finished 22 points adrift at the bottom of the First Div­ision, and are currently battling a second suc­cessive relegation. Clearly, Palmer needs time to learn his trade, and to the club’s credit he is still in charge at Edge­ley Park. He may yet even achieve his stated am­bition of coaching the England team. But as an ex­ample of the perceived link between over-achievement as a player and managerial success, he certainly seems to be bucking the trend.

Having played under both Brian Clough and Alex Ferguson, Roy Keane ought to have a fair idea of what it takes to succeed as a manager. In his autobiography, Keane, he lionises both men. Of Ferguson he writes: “The manager is the only man in here. Yes, he’s hard. He radiates purpose. He’s intense, focused, driven. His commitment, his insatiable hunger never cease to amaze me.”

Clough receives a more anecdotal tribute: “When I walked back into the dressing room after the game Clough punched me straight in the face. ‘Don’t pass the ball back to the goalkeeper,’ he screamed as I lay on the floor, him standing over me.”

Ferguson and Clough, in Keane’s eyes at least, pos­sess a hunger for success that borders on the psychotic, and perhaps this is a prerequisite of lasting success in a business defined by such absolute boundaries of tri­umph and failure. There is a sense of incompleteness about the playing careers of most great managers, usually grounded in either a lack of achievement (Fer­guson, Wenger et al) a career-ending injury (Clough) or even, in the case of Sir Alf Ramsey, the intervention of a world war, which began when the future World Cup-winning manager was 19 years old, and claimed the first six years of his playing career.

Certainly Ramsey’s experience, and latterly his man­agerial demeanour, seem to fit a pattern. Great managers don’t tend to look very happy. Red-faced, squint-eyed, they prowl the touchline, railing at per­ceived injustices even as their team scores its fourth of the afternoon to go ten points clear at the top of the table. There’s no place for complacency – or for happiness, peace of mind or a sense of ful­filment.

This may be why so few top managers willingly re­tire from their post. There’s no slinking off, Keegan-like, at the first hint of adversity, no golfing semi- retirement like that of Kenny Dalglish during his time directing Barnes at Celtic. At the top they cling on to the very end.

From WSC 195 May 2003. What was happening this month