Great Managers of Different Eras

It was kind of Radio 4 and the “PM” programme to ask me about Roy Keane and Sunderland, and quite typical of life at the moment that I came across their email a couple of hours after the programme had gone out on air. But they got me thinking again, and there are some things to add to my previous post.

Regular readers will know my formula for great managers. The really good ones are good right away – they begin at a minor club and take it by the scruff of the neck, showing improved results immediately. They’ll learn from experience, but managers don’t begin poorly and later learn their way to the top. Great managers don’t join top clubs, at least not in Britain – they’ll choose a bombed-out Manchester United, a wet-behind-the-ears Huddersfield Town, a forgotten Hartlepools, a stranded second-division Liverpool, a Wycombe Wanderers. Successful at one club, should they move to a bigger club, it will take about five years (Chapman, Ferguson) to turn things around. (Five minutes if they are Jock Stein). They’ll have a good eye for lieutenants – they’ll be as good at picking their back room team as they are their team on the pitch.

And so on.

But there’s more. And things seem to have changed. Last year, Jose Mourinho was asked what the secret of footballing success was: he answered with one word – players. You can be the best manager in the world, but you must have good players. He’s bought as many of the current greats as possible, and has taken quite a few players with him from his first real club Uniao de Leiria all the way to Chelsea via Benfica and Porto.

Before the introduction of the maximum wage at the turn of the twentieth century, something close to a free market in players existed, at least from the point of view of the clubs. Taking into account the obstructive retain-and-transfer system, the wealthiest clubs were still able to outbid the others in the competition for top players, and those top players achieved wages that reflected their status. In the first thirteen years of the Football League, three rich clubs won ten of the titles. Without the introduction of the maximum wage, it’s quite likely that footballers would have been relatively highly paid as entertainers and sportsmen by 1926, when Dixie Dean (scorer of 60 goals in a league season for Everton) appalled Babe Ruth (scorer of 60 home runs in Dean’s great year) with tales of his tiny wage packet.

The maximum wage took away any chance that financially powerful clubs would come to dominate the game’s honours. Between 1901 and the launch of the Premiership in 1992, it wasn’t strictly possible for a club to get ALL of the players it might have wanted, to build what became known as a galactico side. The last great Liverpool side was the closest to such a team, but they were still largely a team of local boys, lower league finds augmented with two or three existing stars.

It’s not altogether clear whether a true championship team can be bought, without a local core or a youth policy, but what Chelsea have demonstrated is that the players are becoming more important to success in relation to the manager than they were. Chelsea came second in the Premiership under Ranieri, and reached the Champions League semi-final under him – yet he’s a forgotten man in English management now. Neither Benitez’s mix of local talent and Spanish internationals, nor Wenger’s “Europeanised” youth policy, nor Ferguson’s largely home-made team have got close in the last two years, for all that all three are excellent sides in the context of recent Premiership history.

It may be – this is open to debate, but it may be – a reversion to the Victorian scenario: the players your team can afford to buy and to hold are now more important, and the coach’s ability to coax performances less important, than they were. And with that changes the skill balance of the modern coach. We’re leaving the age of Clough, the manager who could make ordinary players reach their absolute potential, and entering the Peter Taylor (Derby, Forest – not the Leicester, Hull, Engand one) era, the manager who has an eye for a player and how he can be jigsawed into a team. The Cloughs of the world are still around – there’s one managing Watford right now – but it’s the spiritual successors of his deputy Taylor who are tucking the trophies under their arm at the end of the season.