Why Aren’t English Football Managers More Intelligent?

There’s a definite urge – don’t you have it? to say that English football managers just aren’t as intelligent as their foreign counterparts. In a comment left on an earlier post, John Sinnott said “I’ve done lots of interviews with overseas players and managers and invariably they were always smarter and brighter and more analytical than their English peers.”

There’s a lot of truth in that. Here’s why.

English Education

Professional football emerged onto the scene at the same time as state education. Many Edwardian players were the first people in their family who were able to read. There are conditions specific to the Edwardian situation, but by the time Bobby Charlton was at grammar school in the late 1940s and early 1950s, intelligent, talented young sportsmen were being encouraged away from the playing field and towards white collar careers. Brian Clough’s long-time captain, John McGovern, was bound for university and a very different kind of life when Old Big ‘Ead intervened. Education creams off some of the brains that might otherwise have been inclined to football.

The Maximum Wage

The Maximum Wage for footballers was introduced in 1901 at a level of £4 per week. At the time, this was well in excess of what most players could hope to earn, so there was relatively little opposition to the move and much of that was weak. What’s more, £4 per week would remain a good wage in relation to what could be earned in mine, mill or factory. The maximum wage would remain good in such limited terms until after the Second World War. The effect on many contemporary players was small. But the long-term effect the Maximum Wage would have on the game was not. League football became permanently class-based. In 1901, it was far from unknown for an amateur player like Vivien Woodward to turn out for England. The Maximum Wage finally closed the door – which, it must be admitted, was already swinging to – on middle class players, or intelligent boys for whom there were other, more lucrative options by the time the 1950s consumer boom was underway.

That wouldn’t have mattered so much was it not for the unconscious creation of a management tradition in the ’10s and ’20s.

Only a Horse Can Become a Jockey

Edwardian Secretary-Managers weren’t always former players – there simply wasn’t the pool of ex-professionals in retirement that would exist a decade later. But by the 1950s, it was assumed almost without question that a manager would have played, preferably at the top level:

To be a good coach you must first have been a good player (Bill Shankly)

There are arguments for and against this position. A glance at the Premiership shows Arsene Wenger, Avram Grant, Sven Goran Eriksson, and Rafa Benitez amongst those who failed to reach the very top as players for one reason or another. Jose Mourinho, recently at Chelsea, was another.

Mourinho himself has argued that a good former player will have an instinctive feel for parts of the game that the intelligent non-playing observer will miss.

Whichever side of that argument you are on, one thing is clear. Management has not been a way back into football for Englishmen who missed out on playing. Becoming a player is the footballing equivalent of the 11+. Fail it, and you are gone for good.

Sir Clive Woodward was a brilliant young footballer, invited to trial by serious League clubs. His father disapproved, and packed him off to a rugby-playing navy boarding school. He’d eventually find himself in rugby, both as a player and a very successful coach, but when he sought to bring his expertise into his first sporting love, he was obstructed and rejected. Sir Clive Woodward is a case study in the self-imposed exile of English football from the possibility of bringing in intelligence and innovation, not from outside itelf, but merely from outside the ranks of former players.

Kinds of Intelligence

There is an urge – don’t you feel it? to assume that the kind of intelligence you possess is the kind those purblind other people need in order to progress. The same goes for your outlook: I’ve often pondered what a middle-class English football culture would look like. One where the kind of impulse that creates a Beagle 2, or a Concorde, held sway.

So when surviving England players from the ’50s and ’60s lay into “blackboard manager” Sir Walter Winterbottom for being too much the well-spoken scholar, it’s natural for me to want to leap to his defence, to say “you could all have done with a bit more of that.” Natural, too, to watch blurred 1970s interviews with Rinus Michels and to feel Holland-envy.

But football isn’t a Space Race or a work of art, for all that it can feel as exciting as the first and as beautiful as the second.

Footballers need to be barked at by sergeant-major types. (John Aston, ex-Manchester United)

He didn’t know how to handle players, how to talk to them. He spoke too well, too precisely, like a schoolmaster. Walter had this impeccable accent, whereas football’s a poor man’s game, players expect to be sworn at, a bit of industrial language. (Sir Bobby Charlton on Sir Walter Winterbottom)

Communication, in other words. You can have all the ideas in the world, but if you can’t take people with you, they are as good as none. It’s been part of Sam Allardyce’s success that he has brought in new ideas by the cartload, to Bolton and now to Newcastle, whilst making them sound like bootroom tradition. It’s not just intelligence, but intelligence properly applied, and less intelligence, well applied, will trump genius delivered by tactless, insensitive, arrogant means. The intelligence that writes a novel, or composes music, or builds a business, or creates technological innovation, is not the kind that holds a team together and makes the most of its combined, limited, strengths.

There are managers who can do both. Jose Mourinho would be considered an intellectual in many English circles if they knew more about him. But that doesn’t stop him playing a very effective leader of his band of brothers. The question is, do class vs intelligence issues keep the English Mourinhos out of the game? We can’t really know. I think so, probably. But it’s only my hunch.

English football is like the National Lottery

Steve McClaren is reported to be earning £2.5million per year as England coach. Premiership stadia are the newest and best in Europe, and so are many of the training facilities. Why isn’t football becoming attractive as a career choice to the middle classes?

Perhaps it is, but the trend is too new to show up. But I don’t think so.

Because, in a white-collar, middle-class world, football is a handle people can grasp when they want to make working-class claims. It’s the preservation railway of a long-finished class war. And middle class values of intelligence, change, creativity, aren’t welcome because, by and large, we don’t want them to be. Football’s always been an entertainment more than a sport for the English, and now it has that escapist quality; it’s a place where you can STOP being so middle class and can shout and swear and drink and just stop thinking for a little while.

And it’s fake money: there are only twenty Premiership coaches, and 81 English players, in the Premiership. Since 2004, the National Lottery has created nearly 500 millionaires in the South East alone. If we have such long odds on tapping into Lottery winnings, how much less chance do we have of cutting in on Premiership wealth in playing or coaching roles? Instead, the middle classes are in charge of the new football support industries – reporting, broadcasting, product placement, kit design, stadium development, market expansion. Sport medicine. Even catering. Everything except what is going on on the pitch itself.

So, why aren’t English managers more intelligent? Because there are too many ways in which you can not become a football person, and not enough ways in which you can change direction, and become a football man later on in your life. Because you have to have been a horse. And because, ultimately, we just don’t want this sort of change to happen. It would be like asking for a more intellectual version of “Play Your Cards Right.”

Football’s a heritage industry, and it ain’t that kind of heritage. Be careful what you wish for.

7 Replies to “Why Aren’t English Football Managers More Intelligent?”

  1. Firstly I resent the bigoted assumption that middle class = intelligent, working class = thick

    “Football’s always been an entertainment more than a sport for the English, and now it has that escapist quality; it’s a place where you can STOP being so middle class and can shout and swear and drink and just stop thinking for a little while.”

    The middles classes don’t shout and swear at football, and because they’re the people who can afford to go to matches these days they’re the reason the atmosphere’s so crap.

    Secondly, why the assumption that amateurism is bad? Italy, that takes a meaningless game so seriously that they’ll dope and bribe their way to victory; they have the problem if you think about it.

    But you’re right football is philistine. A clever person with balls and charisma can force change though, even in England, but ultimately it’s unimportant, it’s only sport…

  2. I’m not sure I would place much store by the maximum wage argument for the two reasons you give – even in 1960, when it reached its lowest, it was equivalent to about £35,000 today – not an absurdly low income for someone in their 20s(and there were other potential benefits), but more importantly if it had been (as it was in the 1940s) more like £50,000, would it have made much of a diference given the tiny chance of becoming a top footballer?

    I prefer the jockey/horses argument, suggesting that class structures that came into being decades ago persist. I would suggest, perhaps, that there was also a barrier to middle-class or better-educated (or both)youths becoming football players put in place by their schools. In Leo McKinstry’s book he notes that Bobby Charlton was to go to a ‘snooty’ (in the words of his primary school headmaster) grammar school that didn’t play soccer. In the end the local authority agreed he could go to one that did. But this must have had an impact on others, and maybe for similar reasons there was parental disapproval of soccer outside of school hours?

  3. Tracey, with regard to bigoted, I refer you to your own comments on two previous posts which used the term “homoerotic” as a pejorative. I can’t say that your comments apply to me, but I wouldn’t find it particularly offensive if they did – it would just be the equivalent of finding an actress a good actress, and attractive at the same time. I don’t make the equivalence working class=thick: I do make the equivalence working class=fewer educational opportunities and second chances, which – if you look at Brian Clough’s early life, was, and probably still is, all too true.

    Matt, it is absurdly low if it isn’t going anywhere – and footballers’ careers ended at 30-35 years of age. Tales of post-football poverty are legion. Given what we know about the lifestyles of players, I’d wonder if your figures are accurate? given how many sought second jobs in close season etc. and given how many weren’t actually paid the maximum in any case.

    I didn’t want to refer to Bobby Charlton’s grammar school simply because I’m rereading this excellent biog at the moment, and don’t want to rely on Leo K’s research too much. Rare to find a football book where so much hard work has gone in – he must have spoken to every surviving acquaintance of the Charlton family 1920-date.

  4. I should clarify the figures the bit. The £37,500 is today’s figure for £20 a week in 1960 (and the £50,000 is today’s figure for £12 in 1947 in terms of where it would put you in the income distribution – in fact I co-incidentally was reading an old statistics book last night which had a table of the income distribution of 1960 which suggested about 2.7m people earned more than £1,000 a year, which would about fit with £38,000 today (on a larger population).

    I thought that indicator was the best measure of how well-paid the job was compared with other jobs. In terms of living standards, its very hard to compare but the usual method, the RPI-adjustment, suggests the maximum wage in purchasing power today was about £16,000 a year, relatively unchanged from 1947.

    So not bad for the time, but as you say not going anywhere, a maximum not an average (and presumably the need to keep some differentials meant that the maximum dictated a lot of wages lower than maximum), and surely asimportantly no guarantee of income after your time is up. So I’d agree – badly paid as a lifetime career, but I’d have still though the expectation of earnings was much the more important, ie the tiny chance of becoming a professional football player.

    I did read somewhere that the middling professionals were in favour of the maximum wage, or at least were persuaded to be in favour of it, as it kept differentials low.

  5. My favourite Maximum Wage story comes from 1927, and the meeting between Dixie Dean of Everton, fresh from scoring 60 goals in one Division One season, and Babe Ruth, fresh from scoring 60 home runs in one baseball season.

    The conversation turned to their respective wage packets..

    There will be part two to this post, because retain-and-transfer has a big part to play and mustn’t be left out. Tom Finney should have been financially secure by 1960, but Preston wouldn’t let him consider offers from foreign clubs. Charlie Mitten had the same, I think disgraceful, treatment from MUFC.

  6. Just to add, apparently 10% of players received maximum wage in the interwar years, and this steadily rose as the maximum wage relatively didn’t. But as late as 1955/56, apparently a skilled manual workers wage was £622 a year, and (the maxiumum wage was meant to be double this but obviously wasn’t) a first division player received £772 and a first-team player in the first division got £832.

  7. A question of education?

    Apparently research has shown that it takes around 10 years and 10,000 hours to reach an elite level in sport. Those hours are made up of sport-specific training, physical training and other sports (in earlier years). That works out at three hours a day over 10 years….

    A schedule not conducive to excelling at school…

    Then again my father always tells me of a conversation he had with a Dutchman about the Britain’s attitude to the EU 30 years ago – “But you’re an island aren’t you”

    By the way on the subject of class some interesting articles on Spiked Online re football v rugby



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