In an age where footballing identity is becoming a more complicated issue than ever before, the Premier League has developed an obsession with prodigal sons gloriously returning to dugouts, hailed as the heroes to turn sinking ships around.
At the end of the 2012/13 season, just one full-time manager – Roberto Martinez at Wigan Athletic – had represented his club as a player. Fast forward to the current campaign, and that number has multiplied to seven, over a third of the whole division.
Managerial careers kicking off at former clubs is nothing revolutionary. Like any industry, especially horse racing when you look at the betting offers for Grand National 2020, it’s about who you know as much as what you know and logic dictates that most opportunities will be found with former employers.
That is a permanent theme throughout the lower leagues of English football, and explains three of the seven managers mentioned above – Dean Smith took the Aston Villa job when they marooned in midtable in the Championship, while Chris Wilder has guided Sheffield United from the third to the top tier and Eddie Howe has undergone a similar journey at Bournemouth.
But what’s so unusual about the current crop is the number operating at the top of the English game, especially when coupled with their lack of experience at that level.
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A single season of playoff-reaching football at Derby County earned Frank Lampard a shot at his beloved Chelsea. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, whose only previous Premier League stint was overseeing Cardiff’s relegation, is at the Old Trafford helm and most recently of all, Arsenal appointed Mikel Arteta in December for his first ever full manager’s role, having previously served as Pep Guardiola’s assistant.
By anyone’s reckoning, clubs of such magnitude appointing managers of such limited experience is a monumental gamble. So what exactly is drawing all of these clubs to such unprecedented managerial risks? Why have club connections become a managerial qualification in their own right?
Because it can’t be overstated just how a deviation from the norm this is; the last Arsenal manager to have previously played for them was George Graham, appointed in 1986, while United’s last was Wilf McGuiness in 1969, and Lampard is Chelsea’s first of the Roman Abramovich era.
There are numerous factors involved here, the most immediate being how tried and trusted managers have failed to deliver the necessary success at those aforementioned clubs.
Unai Emery couldn’t turn Arsenal back into top four mainstays, David Moyes, Jose Mourinho and Louis van Gaal only seemed to exacerbate United’s post-Ferguson problems and Chelsea, for all their trophies over the last 15 years, have never been able to build anything long-term.
There was once a long-standing trend of foreign names taking precedence over English ones, purely due to the perceived wisdom that European managers are more tactically astute than our own, and while Solskjaer and Arteta may not be true Englishmen they compensate through sheer familiarity and experience in the Premier League.
Perhaps the shift back towards names we’re already heard of is a reactionary reversal of that phenomena; football has a knack of operating in cycles.
“I won’t ever be going to a top-four club because I’m not called Allardici, just Allardyce.”
Sam Allardyce, former Bolton, West Ham and Everton manager
But even with that in mind, there are plenty of English managers – albeit most painfully pigeonholed as long-ball merchants – already well-qualified to work at Premier League clubs.
If the top sides are simply sick and tired of the foreign names, why not give Sean Dyche or Eddie Howe a shot at the big time? Sure, both have their own strengths and weaknesses, but they are unquestionably more proven than Solskjaer, Lampard and Arteta.
Yet the Premier League boasts its own shining example of how effective bringing in someone who truly understands the club can be. Guardiola returned to Barcelona as a coach in 2007, initially overseeing their B team, and by the end of 2012 he’d created arguably the greatest club side of all time, and certainly one of the most distinct in playing style.
Many have tried since, including Guardiola’s subsequent clubs Bayern and Man City, but none have quite replicated the incredible possession football Barca produced between 2008-2012.
“It was our style, it was our philosophy, and it did not matter which team we played, or on which pitch, whether artificial or on grass, it was always the same. We prepared for the games the same way, whether at home or away, and I think that gave us a very, very clear identity.”
Dimas Delgado, on playing under Guardiola with Barcelona B
Are United, Arsenal and Chelsea hoping to find their own Guardiolas in their reigning incumbents – managers who combine with their coaching abilities with an inner knowledge of the club to forge their own playing identity that makes the team far stronger than the sum of its parts?
That could well be an important part of it too, but the key word here is identity – especially when put into a wider context. Think about how prevalent the notion of “He’s one of our own” has become in recent years.
That song is most synonymous with the rise of Harry Kane but it also captured a zeitgeist, a desperation for fans to feel a clear connection with their clubs again during an increasingly corporate age, a demand for local-lad-comes-good fairy tales to be woven back into the Premier League fabric.
“The growth of “he’s one of our own” as a terrace ditty comes at a time when our football clubs are less recognisably “ours” than at any point in the history of football. The owner is foreign, the players are imported, the stadium is new-build, the manager is temporary, the scarves are half-and-half. At big clubs, the fans are now mostly international. For the locally based supporter, what is left? What more is there to believe in, or to cling to?”
Jonathan Liew, Journalist
And that is by no means surprising – it didn’t happen in a vacuum. The Premier League has become incredibly unique in that it is a truly global top flight that just so happens to reside in one single country – its facilities, resources, players, coaches and fans span all four corners of the world, far beyond these shores.
But that in turn has forced a disconnect between clubs and their traditional supporter base as locality has become of increasingly less importance, and that disconnect has only become more intense through aggressive ticket pricing and the all-round corporatisation and gentrification of modern football.
Why else have we ended up with Arsenal Fan TV and organised fan protests against the ownership at United? It’s because home-grown fans no longer feel their views are being heard by the decision-makers at their clubs and are seeking their own avenues to make their concerns known.
“The change of values is one certainty and it has a profound impact on the key characteristics of the original city or club. For cities that is the character, the pubs, the atmosphere and the feeling. With football it is very similar: there’s ticket price’s increasing, the loss of atmosphere and the feeling of isolation.”
Edd Norval, These Football Times
Appointing a former player, to some extent at least, helps bridge that divide. The power of a familiar face shouldn’t be underestimated when confronted by a disillusioned crowd, and when an identity – not just on the pitch but throughout a club – becomes confused and ambiguous, who better to recalibrate it than someone who has already lived and breathed the club ethos, who understands the club’s traditional values and who has already achieved success through them?
There is an obvious advantage here too – the buy-in. These days, managerial appointments are as much an audition to fans and players as they are a genuine assurance of remaining in the role, and every manager at pretty much every level now requires both to quickly buy into their methods.
That’s a lot easier when you’ve already got the fan base onside and through sheer legacy within the club itself, the players are obliged to listen to what you have to say – at least initially.
“I was probably the last of the old-school era that was built around fitness, running and beating the opponent mentally, physically. Going to depths. What they used to do, a little like the army, was to break you down to re-build you. The difference is that back in the day when I was doing it I was told to do it. Now you have to get that ‘buy-in’.”
Lee Johnson, Bristol City manager
One final factor is yet to be addressed, however, and in the cases of Arsenal, Chelsea and United is perhaps the most significant of all. These three clubs once dominated the Premier League to such an extent that the anomalous Blackburn Rovers were the only club to win a title aside from them in the first 19 years of the competition.
Compare that to their league finishes last season: maybe Chelsea shouldn’t be too picky about finishing in third, but Manchester United and Arsenal didn’t even qualify for the Champions League.
At its most fundamental, bringing prodigal sons home is a cry for the past, a desperation to bring back the glory years, the hope that history can somehow be used to build the future.
Perhaps Lampard, Solskjaer and Arteta genuinely do offer routes back to the top of the mountain; perhaps they’ll never be anything more than a dystopian reflection of the good old days; or perhaps they’re three very different managers in three very different situations who’ll accordingly endure three different journeys with varying degrees of success.
But one thing is for certain; there’s a lot more to this trend than meets the eye, its factors ranging from the failures of foreign alternatives to the dwindling fibres of each club’s DNA. With those problems by no means exclusive to Arsenal, Chelsea and United, perhaps Arteta, Lampard and Solskjaer are just the beginning of this phenomena.