Keeping faith

wsc301 Adam Bate considers why so few former goalkeepers have been managers in the Premier League

Joey Barton may have felt he was insulting Neil Warnock by likening him to the eponymous film hero Mike Bassett, but there is no identikit for the football manager. All sorts of folk have trodden the touchline in England, but only two goalkeepers have ever managed in the Premier League. Nearly two decades on from Mike Walker’s sacking at Everton, it is surely high time we asked the question: where are all the goalkeeper managers?

There are some obvious practical reasons for this paucity. Firstly, of course, there are far more outfield players. Moreover, the longevity of goalkeepers can hamper the smooth transition into coaching, with many still playing at an age when their contemporaries have already received their first vote of confidence.

A common career progression comes through the specialist role of goalkeeper coaching. It is the logical platform for a goalkeeper to pass on their skills. This also hints at the crux of the matter – perhaps the goalkeeper is ill qualified for the task of coaching outfield players.

But there have been famous successes, the most notable being the controversial Belgian Raymond Goethals. His career was tarnished by his involvement in bribery scandals at both Standard Liege and Marseille, but Goethals’s coaching ability is not in question. His finest hour come in 1993, when his Marseille side triumphed over Milan in the 1993 Champions League final. At the ripe old age of 71, he managed to outfox Fabio Capello.
Dino Zoff’s playing career delayed his venture into coaching. He was busy winning the World Cup with Italy in 1982 at the age of 40. Azzurri boss Enzo Bearzot said of his keeper: “He was capable of staying calm during the toughest and the most exhilarating moments.” He certainly needed to be when managing the national team. Zoff’s Italy side were just moments away from winning Euro 2000 when France equalised in injury time and David Trezeguet followed up with a golden-goal winner.

Nowadays, the phlegmatic approach of figures such as LA Galaxy coach Bruce Arena and Belgian title-winning manager Michel Preud’homme continue the tradition. Could these human qualities actually make goalkeepers better suited to management? “The attributes of goalkeeping are involved in management,” notes Peter Shilton. “Most goalkeepers are quite strong characters. You have to take the ups and downs. You have to be able to
accept responsibility.”

The goalkeeper, like the manager, is always observing the game. Both roles demand intensity and detachment. David James, writing in the Observer in 2009, said: “Perhaps that detachment could also prove our strength. Managers don’t need a changing room full of mates. They need to be detached, to take a different view. When Eddie the stats guy at Portsmouth gets a load of data in, he knows I’m the only one that will want to sit down and pore over it. I’m interested in sports science and statistics, training techniques and analysing a match.”
Even the self-consciously cerebral James appears all too aware of the pitfalls of being a goalkeeper-turned-manager. Should he ever overcome the prejudices in the boardroom, there would be another battle to be won on the training field. As James puts it: “I would hate to end up in a dead-end dressing room with a bunch of outfield players all looking at me and thinking ‘Shut up, you don’t know what you’re talking about, you’re just a goalkeeper’.”

One man not afraid to prove those doubters wrong is the current Southampton boss Nigel Adkins. The former Wigan keeper found himself between the sticks for Bangor City in the League of Wales before an impressive interview earned him the manager’s job at the club. Even winning the Welsh title twice proved a false dawn and Adkins had to resort to taking the role of physiotherapist at Scunthorpe United. He was more than just a physio, however: “I was also coach, assistant manager, caretaker and often sub keeper. I threw my heart and soul into Scunthorpe and it helped me understand all the different roles.

When Brian Laws left, Adkins’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the club – no doubt aided by that famous goalkeeper’s intensity – made him the perfect man to take the reins. He led lowly Scunthorpe into the Championship, before switching to Southampton and achieving the same feat with them.

With Southampton near the top of the Championship, Adkins is making headlines as the physio who turned his hand to management. But maybe the real shock is not that a club could achieve successive promotions, but that for the first time in nearly 20 years the Premier League could soon have a goalkeeper who became a manager.

From WSC 301 March 2012