Ince demise highlights flawed thinking
Paul Ince's sacking once again exposes a major fault line in English football, the belief that a good player can instantly move into management and become a good manager. On the continent, they look at this English phenomena in wonderment.
Earlier this year, walking around Clairefontaine, the French Football Federation academy, I discussed the issue with Gerard Houllier. There was a lot of talk then of Alan Shearer becoming the Newcastle manager and thus emulating the likes of Bryan Robson, Gareth Southgate and Stuart Pearce, who had moved instantly into the top-flight of football management once their playing days were over.
"Would a manager of a big company put somebody without experience into a key position in his company? No, he would not, but they do it in football," Houllier told me, adding that managers needed to be "developed" and "prepared" for their roles.
The former Liverpool boss added: "I have never felt that England had this culture of developing coaches, but it is such a big country of football. Whether it is Bryan, Stuart or Gareth, I'm sure that they would have liked to go up the different steps and to have two or three years as an assistant manager."
Houllier also made the important point that in moving from player to manager a person needs to change. "As a player, you think of yourself and your career," he said. "The manager has the vision of the club to deal with and has got to think of a strategy."
Houllier may have a vested interest as he would clearly like to manage again in the Premier League, but his views are still worth considering. While Ince did acquire some experience of management at Maccesfield and MK Dons, it pales into insignificance compared to the steps the Frenchman had to climb on his way to the top.
Houllier is not the first continental coach to raise concerns about the management pathway in England. I recall years ago being told by Berti Vogts, then coach of Germany, that when he decided to go into management he had to go back to school first. I thought I had misheard him. "School?" I asked. Yes, he replied. In Germany, before you become a manager, you are put through a course of instruction which is in effect like going back to school, he explained.
Modern players in Britain may earn the required badges and pro-licence, but they are fast-tracked into management and often get their qualifications after they have got their jobs. This lack of preparation may explain why some of our great players have not made it in management.
Look down the list of some of our great post-war managers. The playing careers of Nicholson, Paisley, Wenger and Ferguson were hardly stellar class. Busby and Shankly were distinguished players while Clough might have been one had circumstances not denied him. Nevertheless, the latter will be remembered as a great manager not a great player.
Compare that with moderate or non-existent success of players like Robson (Bryan not Bobby), Souness, Hoddle, Hurst, Moore and Keane. Yes, Dalglish did the double with Liverpool, but in the end he found football management too much and even Liverpool fans remember him as a great player rather than a great manager.
Sir Alex Ferguson is well aware of the statistics and in a recent interview with GQ magazine discussed why Sir Bobby Charlton, perhaps the greatest of post-war English players, never made it as a manager. The interviewer pointed out that successful football managers had to be hard men who didn't take prisoners, not gentle, naturally retiring men like Charlton, who had not enjoyed a successful time as manager of Preston North End.
Here is what Ferguson said:
"No, you're right. I have spoken to Bobby many times on that subject. But he told me the one thing he found hardest was... he explained how he was doing this exercise with the players which involved switching the direction of play. They couldn't understand what he was talking about. To Charlton, who was such a beautiful, graceful player, it was a skill that came instinctively. But he discovered that his players not only couldn't do what he was asking, they couldn't even understand it. He told me it was at that moment that he decided this job was possibly not for him. So I don't believe that football management comes down simply to temperament. Things come naturally to a great player, he does not have to work it out. But a manager is forced to work things out because he is dealing with a squad of many talents and many temperments."
Three things have contributed to the modern tendency of players like Roy Keane to rush into management before they are ready.
First, compare Ince, or even more so Keane, with a truly great manager like Bill Shankly. Ince did gain managerial exposure with Macclesfield and MK Dons, but Shankly had to go through the grind of the lower leagues for a decade before coming to Liverpool, who, when he took over, were playing in the then second division. Yes, the two eras are very different. In those days, players did not earn millions. For Shankly, he would have earned more as a manager than a player. But players like Keane have made so much money before their career ends that the idea of learning the trade of management through the lower leagues for several years makes little sense.
There was not such a glare from the media spotlight in those days either. Or for that matter fan power. Both have clearly had an impact on the way football boards react.
Modern football does not provide directors with time to pause and carefully consider their options before making managerial appointments. Football directors may be successful men before they come into the sport, but, desperate to get success and fearful of what fans will say, they often opt for the easiest route. They hope that they can keep the supporters quiet and buy time by appointing a well-known player .More often than not, all they do is buy trouble for the future, as the situation at Blackburn shows.