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Why Aren’t English Football Managers More Intelligent?

Posted on 22 October 2007 by JamesHamilton

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.

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