The rise and wane of the English-style manager (and what England will lose when they’re gone)

With a click of a remote, the modern soccer fan can flit effortlessly from Chelsea versus Man United in London to Juventus-Lazio in Turin or Bayern against Dortmund in Munich. As stars like Eden Hazard blur into Carlos Tévez then Thomas Müller, we stare groggily at the magnificent, endless, globalized spectacle being played out in front of us in gleaming stadiums by athletes from every continent, trying to remember what game we are watching, or where it is taking place. “If it’s Tuesday, it must be Munich,” we think, our heads throbbing.

It wasn’t always like this. No man is an island, wrote John Donne, but with its draughty, brutish terraces, muddy pitches, halftime pies laced with botulism, and Luddite-esque devotion to the long ball game, there was a time, not so long ago, when English soccer felt a world apart from its European cousins. The five-year club ban from European competition in the 1980s and `90s also added to the sense of not so splendid isolation. Even today, the relatively small number of English players keen to ply their trade abroad can give the national team a parochial air.

Nowhere did English soccer differ from the game in Europe, not to mention the rest of the world, as much as in the manager’s dug-out. While in Italy and Spain and South America they talk of “coaches,” who are usually hired and fired at a bewildering rate, in English soccer, men like Bill Shankly, Matt Busby, Brian Clough and Alex Ferguson rose to become powerful, dominant figureheads, involved in every aspect of their clubs, from which players to sign to pushing for stadium redevelopment. Such managers straddled the divide between the cynical world of business and finance in the boardroom and the supposedly purer realms of the dressing room and training pitch.

“The system in England is exactly the contrary to Italy,” Italian journalist Giancarlo Galavotti of Gazzetto della Sport newspaper told the BBC in 2004. “The involvement of the chairman historically has been of primary importance throughout our history.”

Herbert Chapman (center), chats with a key member of his team, Alex James (right), on the field at Wembley Stadium before the 1932 FA Cup final.  (Photo by J. Gaiger/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

Herbert Chapman (center), chats with a key member of his team, Alex James (right), on the field at Wembley Stadium before the 1932 FA Cup final. (Photo by J. Gaiger/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

Perhaps the first of the great British Ozymandian managerial figures was Herbert Chapman at Arsenal. “I am going to make this the greatest club in the world,” he said after accepting a job as “secretary-manager” of the club in 1925. At the time, Arsenal had yet to win a major trophy, but under Chapman, the Gunners would claim two league titles and an FA Cup. The team went on to win the league another three times in the years following his untimely death in 1934.

But just as important as laying the foundations for the successful Arsenal of today, Chapman, as well as championing such innovations as numbered shirts and floodlighting, arguably changed the power structure at the heart of England’s clubs. In an era when the director was king and coaches had a relatively minor role in the running of a club, Chapman “altered this dynamic fundamentally,” as Barney Ronay described it for When Saturday Comes, “establishing him­self – through a combination of opportunity, ambition and genial bloody-mindedness – as the central figure in the club’s dealings on and off the field.”

Not that the relationship between chairman and manager has always run smoothly, or that Clough and Co. won all their frequent run-ins with directors. “Brian had a free hand in running most aspects of the club and it was becoming increasingly apparent to me that the time had come to separate the duties of team management and general administration,” Derby chairman Sam Longson wrote in his diary during one of the more turbulent moments of Clough’s reign at The Baseball Ground.

Now, however, the arrival of the newfangled creation known as the technical director, or director of football, has made the “gaffer” an endangered species – and English soccer may be losing something in the process.

“I think I was the first to have the title,” said Lawrie McMenemy, director of football at Southampton between 1993 and 1997. “I’d finished with England and Southampton brought me back on to the board. They asked me to take over as manager but I didn’t want to. We decided to bring in a younger person on the provision I would work with them. As I was already a director they invented the name director of football”.

Tony Pulis is unveiled as the new West Bromwich Albion Manager with Terry Burton, Technical Director, on Jan. 2, 2015 (Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)

Tony Pulis is unveiled as the new West Bromwich Albion Manager with Terry Burton, Technical Director, on Jan. 2, 2015 (Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)

These days, from Txiki Begiristain at Manchester City to Terry Burton at West Brom, technical directors are everywhere you look in the Premier League. Even in the lower divisions, they are as commonplace as the once alien sounding phrases they enjoy bandying around, such as “head coach” and “the project.” Such men usually have a closer relationship with a club owner than does the coach and are generally responsible for player signings, reducing the power of the old style managers and ushering in a flatter, supposedly more democratic structure of communication and decision-making.

Not that the transition from the past to what looks like the future has been entirely without rancor. Damien Comoli was sacked as the Liverpool Moneyball revolution became more like Ben Stiller’s Dodgeball (thanks to the arrival of duds such as Andy Carroll, Stewart Downing and Charlie Adam), Harry Redknapp quit as Portsmouth boss when Milan Mandarić brought former Panathinaikos director of football Velimir Zajec to the club, while David Pleat was director of football at Tottenham when both George Graham and Glen Hoddle were sacked – yet survived himself.

In some ways opposition to the directors of football is a reflection of social fault lines as old as the game itself. While the backgrounds and life stories of the likes of Clough, Shankly, Don Revie at Leeds and Ferguson all differed, the greatest of English football’s “gaffers” were usually hard men and usually from the north of England or Scotland, the sporting embodiment of the industrial trade union leader, caught in the middle of the eternal class war between “the bosses” or ”them upstairs” and the working men in the stands and (during the 1970s and `80s, at least) on the pitch. Love them or hate them, such figures were easily identifiable to the fans on the terraces – tough but fair, hardworking men who, before the game took them on a different path, had lives not unlike those that cheered them on (perhaps why Alex Ferguson’s support of the oft-reviled Glazer family ownership of Manchester United caused such affront among many fans).

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In that sense, the old style managers represent something of a lost era for English fans. While only the most xenophobic of supporters would claim that the influx of foreign talent into English soccer has not made it a more appealing spectacle today than it was 20 or 30 years ago, to a certain generation of fans, the passing of the bond that existed between club and community, of which the old style managers were an integral part, is to be mourned.

The complications of English nationalism, often shadowed by ideas of racism and right wing extremism, have tainted the word “local” in some contexts, but in soccer, it continues to exert a considerable emotional pull. While they achieved none of the success that the likes of Yaya Touré and Sergio Agüero brought to the club, a certain generation of Manchester City fans still glow with pride at names such as David White, Paul Lake, Ian Brightwell and the other four graduates of the 1986 FA Youth Cup-winning side who went on to become first team regulars for the club, while a few years later, a crop of youngsters emerging across the city at Old Trafford would lead Manchester United to considerably greater success. A fan may cherish a foreign player who gives his all for the cause, but the idolatry that drips from the Harry Kane “he’s one of our own” chant at White Hart Lane is on a different emotional plane entirely.

“There’s a natural pleasure in seeing one of us succeed,” says Spurs fan Martin Cloake in this Daily Telegraph profile of Kane. “That sense of identity has been lost for many supporters, not just at Spurs. I guess Kane has been so seized upon because he represents a return to old values. Having someone who cares for the club as much as you do, who’s a fan like you, it’s a nice reaction to what’s happening with football generally.”

There are clearly shades of managerial gray between an old style Caesar like Clough and a technical director/coach partnership, but, just like the local lad who grows up to play for the team he once watched from the terraces, many of the “gaffers” were part of the culture of club and community in a way their modern predecessors are not. They may not have supported the club they managed (they rarely did, in fact) and they might not always have stayed very long or been particularly successful, but they were part of the fabric of a game that provided a reassuring sense of identity. They were a point of pride for working class communities that were coming under increasing threat from the Thatcher government’s jackboot approach to the dismantling of British industry during the 1980s.

But neither English miners nor football traditionalists could hold back modernity’s onward march for long. Now the technical director is part of the firmament of an English game that has been awash with money and investment since the Premier League revolution back in 1992 and, latterly, the arrival of wealthy overseas owners such as Sheik Mansour (Manchester City), Roman Abramovich (Chelsea) and the Fenway Sports Group (Liverpool).

Indeed in English soccer’s brave, no longer so new, world, the technical director arguably makes a lot of sense. Back in the 1970s and `80s, when clubs such as Clough’s Derby County were largely run like neighborhood corner shops, chairmen were, if not exactly happy, then at least reluctantly willing to trust their managers with a limited transfer budget. “Our judgement of players was beyond doubt or reproach. We had nothing to prove in that department and I didn’t feel the need even to consult the chairman or directors,” wrote Clough in his autobiography.

But things have changed now. Clubs float on the stock market, billions of dollars are at stake, and agents such as Jorge Mendes wield unseemly influence. While it may be hard to consider Manchester City’s recent signing policy as a successful model of anything, it is more difficult still to imagine Sheik Mansour handing over the more than 300 million pounds the club has spent on players in the last four years to a single, idiosyncratic Clough-style figure – no matter how much he might trust his judgment.

One of the most visible examples of the dangers of doing just that came when Leeds United chairman Peter Risdale allowed the relatively inexperienced David O’Leary to spend almost $150 million (much of it borrowed) on new players between 1998 and 2002 as the club fruitlessly chased the Champions League gravy train. The spree sent Leeds into administration, and the club is still recovering today.

Just as important as financial responsibility, however, is the sense that a technical director gives a club a greater sense of stability and a more cohesive, joined-up structure. The club eschews dependence on a solitary managerial demagogue who is likely to take half his backroom staff with him on departure, potentially destabilizing the club for months if not years.

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Nowhere has such a structure been embraced more openly than at Southampton, a club that in recent years has risen from League 1 to the upper reaches of the Premier League. In a recent interview with Gary Neville — whose transformation from Sir Alex Ferguson’s own “shop steward” at Manchester United into an intelligent and passionate observer of the game is a metamorphosis as surprising as any change in management trends — Southampton’s Head of Football Development Les Reed discussed the club’s executive set up.

For Reed, the secret of success for a team like Southampton, which will always be financially outmatched by bigger sides, is to plan ahead in order to make the club as shock resistant as possible. “We have a whole department for the recruitment of players, but it struck me some years ago that when a manager leaves, that’s when the club reacts and starts looking for a new one,” he told Neville. “Whether they are fired or attracted to another club, as with Mauricio [Pochettino], you have to be as far ahead with potential coaches as potential players.”

A technical director should allow a club to spread the decision-making process around and embrace input from a number of areas. In theory, the manager’s autonomy is reduced, but the role makes a club more efficient by maximizing its other areas of knowledge. In an era where the game has been redefined by Spain, Barcelona and Germany –teams that have emphasized the twin strands of a modern, attacking strategy and joined-up player development from the juniors to the first team – it seems the logical path forward. According to Reed, thinking like this is applied throughout Southampton, from the youth system to player recruitment.

“The first stage is – what do we think we need?” he said. “Then (current head coach) Ronald (Koeman) might say – we need another winger, or cover at center-back, or whatever. We then have a discussion about the type of player. The coach can then leave the recruitment department to discuss potential targets, and these would then be set out for Ronald – ‘Do they fit, what would be your preferences in order?'”

Yet in some parts opposition to the technical directors remains. Other than exceptions like Chelsea’s José Mourinho or Arsenal’s Arsene Wenger, the diminished authority and independence of a manager is likely to make him more expendable, especially given a director of football may add his voice to the chorus calling for his sacking. While Premier League clubs went an impressively long stretch without firing a manager earlier this season, overall, the signs are that chairmen are growing more trigger-happy year by year.

And while the technical directors and the more often than not foreign coaches working under their tutelage are in general a welcome and modernizing addition to English soccer, their emergence might also be seen as part of a somewhat joyless homogenizing globalization of the game. The old managerial fire breathers such as Clough and Ferguson have been replaced by troupes of young company men and smart middle managers, another little piece of the idiosyncrasy of English football has been chipped away, and the game now looks much the same from Manchester to Minnesota. The Premier League is a more slickly watchable and professional prospect these days than was English soccer when the big managerial beasts stalked the land, but that does not mean it has not lost something with their passing.

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