In the first month of 2002 the turnover of managers has shown no sign of slowing down. Andy Lyons meets Bruce Rioch, whose former clubs Derby and Aston Villa have both contributed to the upheaval this year, and he explains his philosophy and reflects on the growing pressure for quick results
When you first go into a club as a manager, do you generally have an idea of how long it will take to do what you think needs to be done?
One of the first things you talk about at a job interview is the length of the contract. Usually it’s two or three years. It’s rarely a five-year deal. If someone offers you two years and it’s a club in the south and you live in the north you might think twice about having to uproot. I’d like to say to a chairman: “What’s your ambition? Let’s look at what you want to achieve.” It might just be staying in Division One or the Premiership. You don't often go in and get the chance to build a club the way you’d want to.
Dario Gradi at Crewe is the only person in the lower divisions who comes to mind who’s had that capability. Most other clubs still go looking for instant results by changing the manager. Maybe it works for a while, but then they’re back to square one. If Crewe had followed that pattern they might have been out of the League by now. At the top end, the model that should be followed is Manchester United. The lifespan of a manager at a club is down to something like 15 to 18 months, as against an average of three years not long ago.
You won promotion to the Premiership with Bolton. Has it got harder to manage a First Division club in particular since then because of the financial gap with the Premiership?
The people who seem the most keen to get out of the First Division and into the Phoenix League or whatever, they keep changing managers. They’re not neccesarily the successful clubs at the top of the division. They’re clubs who’ve been relegated. If they’d planned for the future a bit more maybe they wouldn’t have gone down. Football has been dominated by chairmen lately. They swing to and fro depending on their circumstance. Everyone seems to think there will be two divisions of the Premiership in due course. Everyone says: “We want the whole of the league to survive.” But do they really care about that? It’s dog eat dog. The Premiership want to get the best for themselves and so do the First Division.
What are the knock-on effects of those changes for managers lower down the divisions?
York City have just proved again that there are a lot of difficulties down the leagues. Oldham played at home midweek recently and had 3,000 there. No one begrudges the players their wages, but the costs of running a football club now are such that you wonder if they can be maintained. It has come from outside sources. Some clubs are borrowing money from small groups of people and giving them a return on the profits of a sale. When clubs do go down from the Premier League now they have to get the big earners off their payroll, as Coventry have done. You can’t let those players go out of contract because if you’ve borrowed money from a consortium, say £20 million, they’ll want their money back. Before freedom of contract, Liverpool started offering players another year when they were in the last year of their deal and that’s what a lot of clubs do now, except it’s two years added on.
At the lower end it’s just a constant shuffling of the pack of players. Four or five hundred are looking for a new deal each summer, some get it but some fall off the roundabout. As a manager you might think “well, I’ll replace him with him”, because you might save a few pounds, but you’re not going to get a better player. A lot of players now are travelling up and down the country to train, whereas we all moved with our families whenever we were transferred. And that can affect a club. But even managers aren’t moving house any more.
Players have a lot more freedom and a lot more money now. How has that affected the way you manage them?
It’s a more difficult business now than it was five or ten years ago. The media interest is far greater now, the players have various advisers, even 14- and 15-year-olds have agents. When I was a player, we didn’t think about moving as much because the wages at a new club weren’t likely to be considerably more than what you were already on and you’d have the added problem of moving your family around the country. But it’s good that players are able to get deals for themselves that they couldn’t have got before. The best way to look after the players is to treat them well, build their confidence and above all get results. Winning games makes them happier.
Do you find it helpful to have someone working with you in a director of football role?
If that role was being done by a director of the club, that is, someone from a business background dealing with players’ contracts, then I probably wouldn’t have a problem with that. But if someone was going to be involved in the football side, I would want a say in who that might be. From 1980 to 1995 I negotiated all contracts with players myself. I had support from other members of staff to tie up details, especially at Bolton where the then chairman and the secretary helped out a lot, whereas at Arsenal it was the total opposite, with all contracts being handled by other people at the club. Contracts today are so involved, with players’ image rights and so on, it’s better that financial specialists rather than managers deal with those things now. On the other hand, what can happen now as well is that club chairmen and chief executives are involved in dealing with agents too and that can cause problems for the manager.
What was your relationship like with your various chairmen?
One of my chairmen sat with me one day and said he wanted to take the players into the 18-yard box and try a set piece. I said: “You’re not going to do that.” There was no way I was going to allow that to happen. A couple of weeks later I was sacked. We were in the top two or three in the table in Second Division at that time. But I’ve had good chairmen. Colin Henderson at Middlesbrough was excellent, he didn’t get involved in the football side at all, Reg Burr at Millwall, too. Some football knowledge on the part of a chairman can be dangerous if they want to make the decisions that should fall to you. A good chairman will advise and listen, but I don’t think they should be making suggestions about team formations.
The demands on managers have changed so much. Are the things you learned from old-school managers such as Bill Shankly still relevant?
I learned from a number of people, but Bill was a big influence. He’d left Liverpool by then and would come down to Everton’s training ground when I was a player there. I’d ask him things like: “What do you look for when you go to sign a player?” He’d say: “He has to be fit.” And, OK, you have to have the ability as well, but he was saying that he didn’t want a player who might play only 20 games a season, who had niggles with hamstrings or whatever. He wanted continuity. So later, when I was sizing up a player to buy, I’d always look back at their playing record to see how often they had to miss matches. He’d say that to make a great club you have to have great players. He talked about building players’ confidence, making them feel brilliant. Ronnie Wylie, who was coach at Aston Villa when I was there, was very important too. But I’ve taken something from most of the people I’ve worked for. Alec Stock, when he was my manager at Luton, used to come in to the dressing room and say: “Boys, I want you all to go out there and play with a little bit of class and a little bit of style.” And the words “class” and “style” made a big impression on any 17- or 18-year-old. If you can give the spectators a winning team that plays good football, you’ve got something going. And if you can give them a team that may not win all the time but the football’s terrific, you’ll keep them longer. I used to say to the young players at Middlesbrough, like Gary Pallister, Tony Mowbray and Stuart Ripley, if you can play the way I want you to play you’ll all have a career in the game – and they all have. You need to give the players confidence to play a certain way.
The Derby team you played for in the mid-Seventies produced a lot of managers, as did the Leeds team of that era. Why do you think cases like that sometimes arise?
That’s true, although not many of those Derby players went on coaching courses – Roy McFarland went, and I did. Whereas at Aston Villa in the early Seventies, out of a squad of 20, 16 went into management or coaching. That was the influence of the manager and the coach at the time, Vic Crowe and Ron Wylie, encouraging us. We’d be talking about football all the time. I used to go to work in the same car every day with Ray Graydon and Chris Nicholl. We’d stay behind after training together, and talk about tactics on the team coach. It was gently fed to us to make decisions. When I was a captain at 23 or 24, the management would say to me: “If there’s a problem on the pitch during the game, you should deal with it.” So if were playing, say, Leeds, and Eddie Gray was causing havoc, I would tell one of my team-mates to go and man-mark him, then we’d have to adapt the rest of the team accordingly. You had to think about how to deal with an individual yet still function as a team. You can learn from being given responsibility. When I was at Luton as a 16-year-old, there were never more than four apprentices at any one time, and we’d stay behind twice a week to train with the youth team. I’d open the stadium in the evening, we’d train, get changed, I’d turn the floodlights off, clean the place up, lock the stadium and go home. Then I’d have to go in early to drop off the keys in the morning for the groundsman. No 16-year-old would be in a position to do that at a stadium today.Do you think this generation of players is less likely to stay on to become managers now that they earn so much while playing? I’d talk to players at my clubs and ask them: “Would you want to stay in the game until you’re 55?” And most would say yes. In that case, I say the only way to do it is to be a coach or a manager and to do that these days you’re going to need diplomas. My son Gregor, who’s playing for Shrewsbury, is 25. He was on coaching courses with Mick McCarthy and Peter Taylor when he was 19. It may not guarantee him a job, but at least he has the qualifications. But you’re not likely to see a player who’s spent ten or 15 years at Manchester United going to manage Bury in the future. I think Premier League players are more likely to get jobs at the top level because of who they are – and because they have the qualifications.
Arsène Wenger has been given a lot of credit for introducing new methods at Arsenal since he took over from you. Do you feel that reflects unfairly on your time there?
I’d coached in America for three years and had picked up a lot of information from other sports. I took a lot of those ideas to Middlesbrough when I started there in 1986. We tried specialist coaching for different areas of the team. Brian Little took my forwards, Colin Todd coached the defenders and I might take the midfielders. We were looking at diets and ways of preparing players back then. More science has come in since then – we tended to do a lot by eyesight rather than technology, which has certainly improved a lot. When I took over at Arsenal they had just been in the Cup-Winners Cup final, but in the League they were 20-odd points off qualifying for Europe. They finished equal fourth in my first season, and were knocked out of the League Cup in the semis. I was a new face coming into a club with maybe different ideas. Yes, I was firm and sometimes people object to that. Some didn’t like it at Arsenal. If it’s a high profile person objecting then it’s always bigger news. But if you look at events today, at players going out drinking and being involved in trouble, I didn’t have that at any of my clubs. I have some rules. No personal phones at the training ground, for example, whereas at some clubs they’ll have the mobiles going off all the time. Punctuality. That’s quite simple. I need the players to operate. If one’s not there out of 11, the teamwork goes out of the window. And playing the game in the right manner. If you get too many cards, you are going to lose players and lose games. They’d say “he’s too much of a disciplinarian”, whereas I always thought it was a good balance. But if you’re winning it covers up a lot of issues. It’s like Malcolm Allison said: “If you’re winning, you can walk around town with a fedora on. If you’re losing, you’d better take it off.”
Given the number of foreign players here at all levels, and a fair few managers, how do you see the future for young talent in both areas?
I’ve always felt if you’re British and you’re good enough you’d be in my team. And if you’re British and you’re good enough you’ll be in charge of a club. There’s been a big deficit in the development of football in this country. We’ve had to absorb social changes – no more parks football, no more playing in the street, schoolteachers not taking matches outside school hours, kids having different leisure interests and so on. But the academy system we’ve got now will give youngsters the practice they need and we’re getting back on track.
From WSC 181 March 2002. What was happening this month