Why Aren’t English Managers More Intelligent? Part Two

I’d gone to Blackwells – the old Broad Street one, using the original narrow entrance in preference to the wider swing doors – to get something second-hand from their top-floor department. It was mildly annoying to have to shoulder my way in – blast these tourists, coming in to gawp – and slightly more annoying to find nothing worth the money after the long trek upstairs. I fretted my way back down. The ground floor was even thicker with people by this stage, as if coaches were offloading directly into the new fiction section. I pushed my way through, trying to stay this side of politeness, but my temper frayed altogether when I found the entrance blocked by a wall of suits. I pulled them aside, got through to the door, which opened in front of me: Muhammed Ali stepped through it, and shook my hand. The room erupted into applause.

The next day I caddied in a competition featuring Henry Cooper.

I’ve never really wanted to meet sportsmen. Those competition prizes – a day at Highbury, a coaching session at your school with Phil Neal or whatever – left me cold as a boy. Sam Tyler meets Bobby Charlton in a nightclub in “Life On Mars” (surely a continuity error) and fawns. I couldn’t do that.

There is always an exception to the rule, and my exception is Sir Tom Finney. Finney – brilliantly talented, intelligent, interested in his sport’s development, but trapped by maximum wage, retain-and-transfer, the decrepit state of significant sections of English football in the 1950s – exemplifies both what is fantastic about our national game and what is frustrating and self-defeating about it.

And there are other men who I would have liked to have interviewed. But they are all dead. Fred Pentland, English coach of the first foreign side to beat England. Jimmy Hogan, Hugo Meisl. Jack Reynolds, the father of Ajax, who was interned with P.G. Wodehouse during World War II. Herbert Chapman, of course. Sepp Herberger. Clough was famously uninterviewable, but left one of the great autobiographies behind him.

It’s a list that speaks for itself of our next reason why English managers don’t come across as well as their foreign counterparts.

The most intelligent English managers work abroad

Today, Stuart Baxter at Helsingborgs; yesterday, El Tel, Roy Hodgson, and the others in the long ago. In the period 1905-1939, it is as if only Herbert Chapman stayed, and his project, the creation of a great metropolitan London side, was something no one had seriously attempted before. There was good reason why this was so. Norman Fox writes of Jimmy Hogan:

He soon realised that the continental players had a different attitude from those in England. They said it was up to them to get themselves fit, what they expected of the coach was not the typical British notion that stamina would win in the end and that being deprived of the ball all week would make them all the more hungry for it on Saturday. They demanded to know how to improve their ball skills and how to use them to produce effective teamwork.

Stuart Homfray adds:

He took over at Fulham in August 1934, but the players disliked his ‘unconventional’ training methods (he actually used a ball) and tactics, and there were many complaints about his style from the more established players. After 31 games, Hogan was sacked whilst recovering from an operation in hospital – the board stating that “seasoned professionals did not need coaching.”

Time and time again in the biographies of these pioneers you find the phrase “Scottish passing game” and “English long ball game.” It’s repetitive and deeply depressing.

The Tradition of the English Professional

We saw in Part One of this post that Edwardian football did not have the large pool of ex-players to draw upon for management – the game simply hadn’t been around long enough to generate it. In any case, it was felt – and not unreasonably – that the players themselves were the experts at playing. That Herbert Chapman thought different did not make him a pioneer in England – it made him that very English thing, a man admired and looked up to, but not emulated.

The professionals were experts enough to beat everything foreign that came their way for a very long time – England didn’t lose to continental opposition until as late as 1929. In such circumstances, isn’t it forgiveable to suppose that the English way continued to be the best? Where was the evidence to the contrary? When a casually-thrown-together England team appointed by amateur non-players could see off hyper-motivated “World Champions” Italy, or defeat the Master Race in its rats nest in Berlin?

Where no demand is felt, none exists. The tradition – that the players, the professionals are the experts at playing, had fifty years free to set in cement before 1953 and the defeat to Hungary first cast real doubt on it.

Even the pioneers working abroad took some of it in with their mother’s milk. Jimmy Hogan, late in life, said:

I am a British coach. I still maintain that we have the best players, but it is our style of playing the game that has gone wrong.

The Creation of a Coaching Tradition Abroad

Men like Hogan were in demand abroad because between 1890 and World War One the fabulous game of football went around the world faster than cigarettes. In Europe, and in South America, the great twentieth century kickabout was getting underway. The new clubs in Austria, Germany, Hungary, Brazil, Argentina, Spain and Italy wanted to build their own footballing rockets – and the British, especially the English, were the footballing rocket scientists. We were the incorruptible referees, too.

From the point of view of these new foreign clubs, football was something for them to learn. The great unspoken project, “catch up with the British” (there were Scottish coaches abroad too) took fifty years. In pure technical and tactical terms, it took thirty – but the formidable psychological lead of the English and Scots took longer to break down. It was 1931 before Scotland lost an international against foreign opposition. They did it in style, going down 5-0 to the Wunderteam of Meisl, Sindelar and a certain Jimmy Hogan.. and followed it up four days later with a 3-0 defeat to Italy. But for those men it must still have been a wonderful holiday, in a Europe not yet scarred by Nazism and renewed war. Were the defeated Scots the very best side available, and were they sober?

In some countries, football slotted into an existing club tradition. Many German sporting clubs, famous for football now, offered tuition and participation in a wide range of sports such as they were in the nineteenth century. The idea of teaching a game, of coaching, was transplanted into football in these clubs in a way that didn’t happen in Britain.

Catching up with Britain was a considerable task. There were just so many people playing football in Britain that, even without ideas of coaching or an emphasis on ball skills, we enjoyed a steady flow of truly wonderful players that countries with less of a grass-roots base simply didn’t enjoy. The strength and resilience of our club structure, built in a comparatively uncorrupt sporting and business culture, in a famously unviolent social milieu, was almost impossible to emulate, and this remains the case to this day.

The sheer size of the task gave it its drive. Even now, and deny it as some countries do, beating England is a relatively rare peak experience for our rivals.

In England, in Italy, in Germany, Brazil, Spain, and Portugal, the vast majority of coaches and managers today are, as you’d expect, former players. Our former players have come from a tradition in which the player is the expert at playing, a tradition long suspicious of coaching per se. Abroad, coaching was part of their game by necessity from the very beginning – it’s not an alien import or an insult. In Italy, there is a college devoted just to training potential coaches and managers. That there is a need for tactical knowledge, and physical training expertise, that these approaches can be improved upon and developed, are as much part of the tradition abroad as “passion and commitment” is to ours.

So when an “untested” top continental player becomes a manager or coach – like Beckenbauer, or Marco Van Basten, or Luca Vialli, or Ruud Gullit – that player is steeped in a coaching tradition and has thrived within it. Some players making the step up, like Jurgen Klinsmann, appear untested but, as in Klinsmann’s case, have been studying modern coaching on their own account for some time.

Something more than raw talent is required for success in a coaching football culture. Within a more cerebral culture, the more cerebral thrive. It’s why there’ve been so many great Scottish managers compared to English; it’s why the best English managers were considered nuisances as players.

The Problem of Translation

Some balance now. How many managers working in England now can you name? I can come up with 40-50 without the need for Google, and you can probably manage the same or more. But how many managers can you name who are working in the domestic Dutch game? Or the French? Or the German? Or the Italian? Or the Spanish? Let alone the Greek, or the Portuguese. Don’t even mention South America, where naming more than 10 clubs in the entire continent is a challenge.

Our impression that foreign managers are more intelligent than their English counterparts is probably based on a kind of fact, as I’ve been discussing here. But it’s important to realize that we’ve built up that initial impression, and taken that basic idea, from a tiny sample. A tiny sample that, by and large, has taken the time learn English, a considerable intellectual task.

My personal list of the greatest managers in the game’s history runs: Hogan, Chapman, Meisl, Pozzo, Busby, Stein, Clough, Revie, Paisley, Herberger, Schon, Michels, Beckenbauer, Ferguson, Mourinho. What a mixture of Wikipedia, archive footage, hindsight and conventional thinking it is too. I don’t claim any special insight for it. I’m not aware that Sepp Herberger spoke English, but all the others did, even the English ones.

The English-speaking foreign managers come across well to us, then – but what are the others like? I’ll have to learn languages to find out.

Is It All Changing?

There are strong rumours, some of them coming from the mouth of Arsene Wenger, that there is a new generation of young English footballers coming through the Academies whose training has been very different from that of their predecessors. (Set that against the more pessimistic views of Sir Trevor Brooking and myself).

There are new approaches being applied – and the new approaches are English. Step forward Simon Clifford.

Alex Ferguson’s “sons” are spreading out through the British management world, and are showing signs of turning the whole thing inside out. Mark Hughes, Paul Ince (now succeeding at his second club), Roy Keane (happily prepared to talk us through his learning curve stage by stage), Alex McLeish, Gordon Strachan (who’d probably deny the influence until he’s blue in face as well as in the veins). Steve Bruce. More are on their way.

There’s even the remnants of a Jimmy Hogan line of descent in the Premiership. Steve Coppell, at Reading, played under Ron Atkinson, who names Hogan as a major influence. I admit that’s a weak link, as I can’t honestly see a trace of Hogan in the Big Ron approach.

Robsons, Sounesses, Megsons and their ilk still rattle around the English management scene. But perhaps the future now lies, not with the ex-lads of old, but in the enthusiasts for learning and growth, the Boothroyds and the Allardyces and the Keanes, who have seen proper management and seen proper coaching and seek to learn how to do it themselves.

English players have undoubtedly raised their game in the face of foreign competition in the Premiership. It’s meant something of a cull – English players aren’t the majority in the Premiership now. But what survives is there on merit. Is the same now happening to management?

What do you think? These have been speculative posts – what’s your take? Let me know in the comments.

5 Replies to “Why Aren’t English Managers More Intelligent? Part Two”

  1. Good post, James.

    The one thing you haven’t considered which is to some degree related, and which might be worth doing so is a Chris Dillow angle of to what degree the manager actually matters? How much would English clubs’ relative performance have improved if there had been no foreign managers? It’s hard to believe they don’t matter anything other than a great deal, but there was something a few years back showing that changing a manager had no impact on a team’s success mid-season, and luck can diguise itself as skill quite easily.

  2. Mmph. The trouble with that piece of research is that it fails to define its terms in any way that convinces. One club replacing a manager and another club changing a manager just isn’t a like for like situation in my view. And then there’s the choice of timescale. MUFC replaced Ron Atkinson with Alec Ferguson in 1986 and experienced no short term change in fortunes. The long-run story is different. But is anyone seriously going to argue that time is the only factor – that if Liverpool had stuck with Souness, say, they’d be where they are now with 2 more Champions League Finals and another Champions League trophy? The study’s right to criticize the English managerial merry-go-round, but I don’t think it makes its own case at all.

    Dillow’s “managerialism” position… I feel boils down to a plea for the case of the socially-diffident (who do all the real work!!) over their socially-confident overlords. A prose version of Amis’s “Ode To Me”:

    So bloody good luck to you, mate
    That you weren’t born too late
    For at least a chance of happiness
    Before unchangeable crappiness
    Spreads over all the land… (etc)

  3. For some interesting thoughts on coaches/coaching have a look at uefa’s Technician publication – http://www.uefa.com/uefa/keytopics/kind=256/newsid=495400.html# – much of it written by another British exile working abroad – Andy Roxburgh.
    That English managers continue to work in something of a timewarp is illustrated by Boro’s appointment of Southgate in 2006. If I remember correctly he preferred working as an ITV pundit @ the World Cup rather than pursuing those tiresome Uefa coaching badges.

  4. It’s a cultural thing. Football has been a working-class game which attracted the working classes. On the Continent, football attracts players, managers and officials from all levels of society.

  5. Your point that the foreign managers we see may not be typical occurred to me after the first post. The same applies to ‘why did the English stop innovating’: presumably most countries aren’t innovating most of the time. At any given time the football culture of almost everywhere is stuck in a rut, I expect.

    The broader point is probably still true, but limited knowledge combined with a dose of the grass always being greener may lead us to exaggerate it.

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