In the week that Andre Villas Boas arrived at Chelsea off the back of a treble win with FC Porto, Alex McLeish moved to Aston Villa. The elephant in the room? McLeish got his next big chance a month on from his second relegation with Birmingham City. McLeish’s rise is a reminder of British football’s obsession with football men. And whilst Villas Boas has proved his worth and reaped the rewards, he remains the exception, not the rule.
It’s hardly controversial to suggest McLeish is a manager in the first instance because of his time as a high-profile player. And that, of course, is the crucial criteria for being considered a football man. Without an inside-knowledge of Motherwell’s recruitment process at the time, we can’t say that his role as a prominent figure in Alex Ferguson’s Aberdeen side was the sole reason for his appointment as their player-manager, but his incomplete training as an accountant seems an unlikely second guess.
Working under Ferguson’s genius, alongside experience playing, would go some way to justifying any managerial appointment. Pep Guardiola and Ferguson are just two former players who have proved themselves winners off the back of playing.
But McLeish’s perpetual rise speaks beyond that logic. His handy reputation as a player, even now, outweighs his achievements as a manager. This season’s League Cup-relegation-combo works as a neat microcosm for the rest of his career. He broke the Old Firm duopoly with a second place league finish at Motherwell, but followed it with two seasons of lower-table fumbling. Similarly, promotion and a Scottish Cup run with Hibernian earned him a chance at Rangers, where he drifted unimpressively on to be overshadowed by Martin O’Neil and Celtic. For a man given every opportunity to win, mediocrity has followed him with a closeness that can only be described as unhealthy.
But in British football, even mediocrity is enough to propel the likes of McLeish beyond any ability they demonstrate. Alan Pardew is another Premier League manager who has stumbled into jobs with a football background – at Crystal Palace – as his main backup. He’s landed opportunities at West Ham and now Newcastle after just three promotions in twelve long years – with sides that had them coming, at that.
Pardew is the master of doing just enough. He’s satisfied Newcastle fans this season with a mid-table finish (with expectations at an all time low), securing an all too decent reputation at West Ham with a cup run before a shambolic follow-up season and a sacking, and drawing sympathy for his sacking at Southampton because it was too early. These are the men who regularly secure high profile positions.
Of the twenty foremost grey-suit wearers in the world – the Premier League mob – only Roy Hodgson, Brendan Rodgers and Andre Villas Boas haven’t played some form of league football. Clearly that doesn’t make the majority incapable managers, nor does it make the minority great ones, but it does place most managerial achievements under a cloud – if competition is almost exclusively between a very specific type of candidate, how can the scale of victory be placed in full perspective? Pulling managers from such a small pool then, at least deserves questioning.
And on the rare occasions that questions are asked, football men tend not to have the answers. Jose Mourinho proves an especially fierce interrogator. Taking into account his level of success across different clubs and countries, he’s the most successful coach in the world, and yet he played amateur football for all but a couple of dozen appearances in his time as a player.
At Chelsea, before the club’s owner began interfering heavily in team affairs, he out-fought Sir Alex Ferguson to two league titles. At Inter Milan, he proved that his Champions League victory with FC Porto was no fluke. He has consistently shown-up the football men. Yet without the favourable intervention of Sir Bobby Robson, who famously involved him in management decisions during his time at Barcelona, his potential as a coach might never have been realised.
That reliance on the haphazard when it comes to hiring coaches who have been anything other than top players seems ingrained. Arsene Wenger is acknowledged as a landmark appointment more often than is interesting, but his small-time playing career isn’t often cited as a part of his revolution because, evidently, that aspect of it has never taken off. Premier League clubs, on the whole, still trust football men like McLeish, even whilst a man like Wenger can list his league titles.
It’s not just Wenger either. Never players, Gerard Houllier and Rafael Benitez both brought European trophies to Anfield, but after seeing Roy Hodgson fail, Liverpool has now moved in entirely the opposite direction, installing Kop hero Kenny Dalglish as manager. That move may or may not come off, but it in terms of broadening British football’s horizons, it represents a backwards step. The safe, default option is always the football man.
This intolerance of outsiders appears to be less prevalent outside of British football. Houllier, Wenger and Benitez were all required to be established managers by the time they got to British football, whereas Arrigo Sacchi, one of the most influential coaches in European football history for his time at AC Milan, was a shoe salesman and amateur coach before being given a chance as a youth team coach at A.C.Cesena. He set a more inclusive tone in Italy with his oft-quoted line "I never realised that in order to become a jockey you have to have been a horse first". Such inclusivity is lacking in the British game: Roy Hodgson had to move to Sweden to get his break in management.
More recently, Schalke’s Ralf Rangnick has benefitted from the kind of inclusivity not found in Britain. Germany’s most talked about coach last season only made it as far as Stuttgart’s amateurs as a player, but a chance as manager of SSV Ulm’s youth side allowed him to, eventually, move on to Hoffenheim, before proving his point with Schalke and a run to the Champions League semi-finals.
Which bring us back to Villas Boas, the latest non-player to make waves, and the latest manager to move to the Premier League. Like Mourinho, he was helped into football by Sir Bobby Robson. The story goes that Robson valued his ambition as a precocious teenager living in the same apartment block as him, and helped him get onto a coaching course before giving him his first job, as a scout, with his then team, FC Porto. From there, time spent following Jose Mourinho around Europe as a head scout and a job as coach of the British Virgin Isles lead to his first big job, rescuing Portuguese side Academica, and eventually, a treble win with Porto in his first full season as a coach.
Villas Boas took fifteen years to earn his big chance. Without massive ambition he would never have been able to demonstrate how a good a manager he is – already, at the age of 33 – and British football would certainly never have seen him. The timing of his arrival in the Premier League is unfortunate for Alex McLeish, because it invites a comparison with him, when there are so many men destined for chance after chance regardless of taking any.
Undoubtedly there are football men out there who are born for management, but it will continue to be disappointment and a missed opportunity that British footballing culture refuses to explore outside its own form of establishment. Andre Villas Boas should encourage decision makers to break the cycle, but history suggests he won’t, however well he does.