Where did all the English managers go?

The lack of English managers at the very top level has been well and truly noticed now: last night, Radio 5 devoted ninety minutes to discussing the situation with the likes of Tony Adams, Steve McClaren, Terry Venables and Sam Allardyce. The programme went out live, it’s not clear how much any of the participants had prepared, and the comments rarely went beyond the obvious and the hackneyed. Top clubs won’t give an English coach a chance; clubs don’t give managers long enough; there’s no realistic career path in which to gain experience; chairmen think top players turn into top managers.

Only Richard Bevan, of the League Managers’ Association, came up with anything new. Football management in England, said Bevan, is a profession that needs taking more seriously and whose members need taking more seriously, by those who employ football managers. His job is all about raising the profile and status of managers. This reminded me of the situation in Italy, where a manager is more likely to be considered experienced after a sacking than incompetent – and Italy, let’s not forget, trains its managers properly in an institution created for the purpose.

Privately, I was depressed by the programme. Compared with Scottish or Irish managers, the English ones – Sam Allardyce excepted – came across as inarticulate. And jejune, and ill-at-ease. Even Terry Venables. But then, the programme was live and it was long: plenty of bright, sharp people  crumble at the mic.

What the programme missed was also depressing, but understandable. Here’s my take on the issue.

It’s assumed that there will, all else being equal, always be a through-flow of good English managers. It used to be assumed that there would be a flow of good English players, but not without reason: we’d set things up that way. Almost every school played the game from age 8 upwards; there were junior leagues aplenty, thousands of amateur football clubs, county and regional sides, and an army of volunteers to run it all. Post-war prosperity ate into all that to some degree, but there’s still a structure there that many countries would envy. We had players because we did something to get them. Not as much as Holland, but something.

What have we ever done to get ourselves managers? Even now, I would argue that UEFA ‘A’ and ‘B’ badges do not an infrastructure make. The programme noted, briefly and glumly, that there seem to be as many Scottish and Irish managers as there ever were, but no explanation was offered. I’ll offer one: there’s a cultural difference between Scotland/Ireland and England in their respective attitudes towards the possession of intelligence. England’s a clever, astonishingly literate country – so many people read on buses and tubes compared to Europe and the US – but it prizes the concealment of intelligence in the individual and team sports actively fear it. This doesn’t make for the production of managers, who need to be communicators and influencers (but you can be clever in a Scots or Irish voice without putting backs up). It makes for jobs for the boys, which is what England’s got at the moment.

Anyway: the good English managers are all dead. It’s not just that no English manager has won the Premier League – or, since Heysel, a European trophy. It’s that, with one exception, all of the English managers who have won League titles or European trophies have died. And the period of glory was brief. The first European Trophy won by an English manager, Tottenham’s European Cup Winner’s Cup with Bill Nicholson in 1963, is separated from Sir Bobby Robson’s European Cup Winner’s Cup with Barcelona by only 34 years. And we’ve had another 15 since then.

There were, in those 34 years, a small number of English coaches who were without doubt amongst the world’s best. Nicholson himself; Don Revie; Brian Clough (and Peter Taylor); Sir Alf Ramsey; Ron Greenwood; Bob Paisley; Sir Bobby Robson. (And I’d like to cull the list further – Clough and Paisley are streets ahead… but that’s an argument for the pub).

This suggests to me that there were the conditions, however briefly, in place to produce those managers. Those conditions have gone, and there’s nothing in their place. What conditions? Well…

  • Career dissatisfaction. Every man on our list lived through World War II. Greenwood, Nicholson, Ramsey and Paisley had their playing careers interrupted by it. Clough’s playing days were ended by injury, and he never got over it. Revie and Robson had full playing careers, but Robson “won nothing” in his and hated the fact. Keane, Adams, Southgate, Ince and co. had brilliantly successful, personally fulfilling careers. An earlier generation had finished playing but still had it all to do.
  • International and club humiliation at European hands. First it was Hungary in 1953. Ramsey played in that one: Revie changed his entire game because of it. Then it was Real Madrid, Benfica, Inter, Ajax, Bayern… not until Liverpool’s 1977 side was there an “English” team considered unequivocably, emulatably the best on the continent. But by then, the England team were embarrassingly bad. It’s hard to remember now, when England are assumed to be World Cup quarter-finalists and Premiership sides fill 3 out of 4 Champions League semi-final places, but for many years English managers fought as underdogs: there was something to prove and real humiliation to avenge. That feeling went before Heysel.
  • Northern Cultural Dominance. All of our list bar Ramsey were born in the north of England – and most of the northerners are from Middlesbrough or Newcastle. Of course, that’s to do with professional football being as much a phenomena of urban industrialization as machine shops, cotton mills and shipyards. Most people who played the game lived in the north. But in the sixties, seventies and early eighties, northerners were far more prominent in all of the most visible walks of national life. Where have they all gone, the Morecombes and Wises, the Barbara Castles, the Parkinsons, the Harold Evanses, the Alan Bleasdales? The working class voice of clichee used to come from Manchester or Liverpool, and the person using it was avuncular, middle-aged and smartly dressed: he was a warm and comforting figure that I knew well as a boy. But the Etonians are coming, and the working class clichee voice is Danny Dyer’s and despised. Cockney used to mean Michael Caine. We got accustomed to a world in which people from any background were starting to come through to national leadership, and then that world went away again.  What Brian Clough stood for – brilliance, hope and rootedness, in one man – went with him, and we don’t know when we’ll see it again. His modern successors lack the polish and glamour that our age demands of leaders. Now, Roy Hodgson,  you have to be posh or foreign, a Cameron or a Mancini. Signor Allardice was right. For the rest of us, there’s the X Factor.
  • A blue collar world. It’s old hat but true: football failed to follow the advice of a million working class mothers to go white collar. It’s starting to, now. But our great English managers predate, most of them, the days of universal secondary education. All of them possessed the intellectual strength to go on to 16, 18 and 21, but couldn’t. Today, it’s still unusual for an Englishman going into professional football to bother much with school after 16, but the question is whether potential Paisleys aren’t taking the risk that football represents as a career choice when staying on (and more than half of schoolchildren now express a desire to make university) offers such comparatively certain rewards. Football was never a great bet, and our great English managers won a hidden lottery to reach the places they did. But you have to be in it to win it, and with fewer boys playing football seriously in the first place, it has to be asked if men like our greatest managers aren’t now just choosing washing machines, cars, compact disc players, electrical tin openers and a fucking big television over the risk of football and the slim chance of great, grand adventure.

In short, I’m saying two things: there aren’t the English managers there were, and the big four aren’t entirely wrong to steer clear. But those that are around – Allardyce, Hodgson – aren’t given the chance because the culture’s played them crook. And Hodgson’s 63.. If this is to change, three things need to happen. First, “show us your medals” has got to go. Only one of the big four is managed by a man who was also any kind of player. There’s little real connection between great playing success and managerial brilliance. Second, England needs to set up a managerial college along French lines. Third, Richard Bevan’s efforts to raise the image of the profession must succeed, and the consequence must be that managers are given time and backing. If the structure of the league, which so penalizes failure now, must change to accommodate that, then so be it.

What mustn’t happen is any kind of affirmative action. It’s too late to appoint an Englishman to the England job just because he’s English: after Sven, after Capello, the second-choiceness of the situation would overwhelm anyone but the thickest-skinned. The next Englishman in the job must have the job because he’s the best of a superb bunch. And there’s many years of hard work and change before that comes about. In 1977, the choice was between Robson, Clough and Greenwood: that’s the level we must now demand.

14 Replies to “Where did all the English managers go?”

  1. Jeff Randall, I realise, but he did have this interesting statistic


    More than 40 per cent of London’s FTSE 100 companies are led by executives from beyond our borders.

  2. COUGH!
    “Tottenham’s European Cup Winner’s Cup with Bill Nicholson in 1963, is separated from Sir Bobby Robson’s European Cup Winner’s Cup with Barcelona by only 34 years.”….

  3. “Where did all the English managers go?” To the sort of sides that knock ManU and Liverpool out of the Cup.

  4. Only decent English manager at the top level is Harry Redknapp, sadly their seems an air of dis-trust follows him!
    There are some good ones comoing along though, especially in the lower divisions.

  5. Now this is an interesting read. And like what Tony said, “There are some good ones comoing along though, especially in the lower divisions.”, thats what im looking forward too. 😉
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