As a Manchester City fan, I’ve been well schooled in the art of appointing a new football manager. The revolving door at Maine Road rarely had time to catch its breath, performing its own bold attempt at a perpetual motion machine.
And after another disappointing managerial reign, the same routine ensued every time. I’d scan the papers, looking out for the gossip about who may be the next boss. And despite the form books suggesting otherwise, I always felt that the club was a sleeping giant and a great catch for any manager. And thus, whenever names were mentioned, there was only one criteria I used to judge my happiness at their possible appointment – were they a “big name”?
It’s a peculiar obsession that seems unique to the British game. A big name will solve all. Someone who’s well known in the game, has been there and (occasionally) done it, someone everyone knows, who has experience in that particular league. Poor track records can be polished over, bad spells excused. And by only looking for experience rather than potential, the same group of increasingly haggard men get passed around the game in a near-constant loop. And it’s not just at the top level either. Smaller clubs will occasionally plump for a big name for no other reason than a publicity stunt. Did anyone really think Paul Gascoigne would make a great manager?
It was a point I was reminded of last week, when football365.com interviewed the sports journalist Gabriele Marcotti, and he made the same point.
“Since David Moyes took the job at Everton ten years ago, there have only been – unless I’m forgetting anybody – two other managers appointed by Premier League clubs from the lower leagues – Paul Ince at Blackburn and Roberto Martinez at Wigan. That’s absolutely extraordinary. What you’re basically saying there is ‘You guys in the Championship all have fun, but in reality you’re all rubbish and the only way you’ll get a job in the top flight is to get (your current club) promoted.’ I think that shows a total lack of foresight and imagination on the part of Premier League clubs. It shows a total lack of appreciation for what goes on at lower league clubs.”
“The thing about the big names is that many people fall prey to that, but while they are big names at big clubs with big budgets, but it doesn’t apply to someone like Wolves. It shows a lack of imagination and maybe more importantly a lack of proper scouting. If I was Jez Moxey and I’m having second thoughts about Mick McCarthy, I would get two or three trusted people who know the game to go an analyse half a dozen guys in the Championship who we might be able to get, look at how they work and how they play, and do all the scouting you would do with a player and go for one of them. But I guarantee you none of that goes on – it’s all personal relationships, it’s like a big boys’ club, and I’m not sure they even know who the guys in the Championship are.”
And as Marcotti pointed out, this is not a situation that is repeated abroad. Would many British teams do what Barcelona do and promote from in-house? Wolves did of course, but only after scouring the world for a “name”, and they did so with the club in a pretty hopeless position.
Even the FA fell into the same trap after the disastrous reign of Steve McClaren, going for a big name, on massive wages. How did that go?
You wonder if chairmen and their boards are pressured by public opinion and the response of fans. It’s the fans who demand the big name, and most chairmen would not have the nerve to appoint a lesser-known man and face the wrath of the supporters. Thus, there are so many average managers floating around, many ex-players that for some reason chairman after chairman think means their skills will be replicated in a managerial position. Of course, many of the best managers were nothing special as players. The media can be just as guilty of course. When Arsenal appointed the relatively unknown Arsene Wenger, the Evening Standard’s famous headline was “Arsene Who?”
The talent is clearly there in the lower leagues. Manager after manager performs miracles on shoestring budgets, whilst fire fighting against massive debts, but play attractive football and get results. There’s no reason they can’t do this at a higher level, unless chairmen think they will struggle with big egos, and bigger egos.
Part of the problem is that there is no patience in football any more. There is precious little time for a manager to build a club, to install his ethos, to patiently work towards bringing success. Many Premiership chairmen want instant results, instant pick-me-ups, they want premiership football at all costs, and won’t take risks. Thus, they turn to men they know.
Even those managers that brought clubs up to the premiership are unlikely to be snared by a big club. There’s little chance of Brendan Rogers or Paul Lambert or Nigel Adkins being snapped up by Liverpool, or Arsenal. I see little reason why.
So who would you rather have as a manager of your club? Steve Bruce or Nigel Adkins? Paolo Di Canio or give Mick McCarthy another go? If only chairmen trusted more in good managers being able to manage at any level, and not pander to the fans who demand a recognisable face, then they could be pleasantly surprised, and some of the relegation stories of recent years could have been avoided.