01 Jul 2009

Crossing the line

What happens when you go from being one of the lads to the gaffer? Good players can become great managers but, says Warwick Business School’s Dr Sue Bridgewater, few are prepared for the transition.

Imagine the scene. You consider yourself part of the team. You join in with changing room banter, are respected for your on-the-pitch skills, and are perhaps even a mover and shaker on the social scene.

Then the manager is sacked and the chairman calls you in. You’re delighted to be offered the role of caretaker manager, perhaps in time becoming permanent. The players will love having one of their own in the top spot and will give you their unstinting support. Won’t they?

As director of the PFA and LMA Certificate in Applied Management for Football Managers, it’s fascinating to learn from the expectations and experiences of football players who make the transition into management.

Singled out

When taking up their first managerial appointment – often due to a change in personnel – former players quickly discover that the rules of engagement between the player and manager are very different. They are no longer just “one of the lads”.

Even a manager coming to the role via the coaching route will find the manager’s relationship with his players is different. While it is perfectly acceptable, and probably desirable, for a coach to be close to his players – to put an arm around them and know what’s going on in their lives – the manager must be more at arm’s length.

There are various reasons why. First, the manager needs to be able to make important decisions, for the good of the club, without the pressure or influence of friendships. It’s also hard to get a strategic overview and work out how best to achieve success if you are too heavily involved in the day-to-day action. It can be difficult to see the wood for the trees.

Furthermore, the manager must gain the players’ respect. Taking part in banter is fine, but what was acceptable as a player may not be so for the manager. Likewise, while being the last one to leave the bar might afford a player certain kudos, it sets a bad example as the boss.

Home truths

Sometimes the players are first to recognise the new and invisible lines that are drawn once their former colleague has stepped into management. One player who made the transition to caretaker manager said, “I walked into the dressing room to get changed before the first match. I was quite hurt because they all just turned around and looked at me. One of my friends said, ‘you can’t get changed in here now. You’re the gaffer’. So they made me move to the referees’ room on my own. I suddenly realised how big a step I’d made and how different things would be from now on.”

Another former player spoke of the change in perceptions: “I was very much a social organiser in the squad, arranging nights out for the lads. When I was asked to be caretaker manager, I had just arranged for everyone to go out the following week. I wasn’t sure whether I should still go. Was it acceptable for the manager to go out with the lads? Would I be welcome, or would they think I was cramping their style? I asked the opinion of one of the senior players and he advised me to go, but neither I nor the players felt very comfortable. It was like the end of an era and it happened overnight.”

Power shift

These stories raise a number of issues associated with the transition from player to manager. First, the changes are often unexpected and sudden. Even if the player has given management some consideration and has done his coaching badges, he is likely to be unprepared.

He will need to build a new relationship with the players, even his friends. He may be viewed with suspicion, more so than someone from outside of the club. After all, the poacher-turned-gamekeeper knows what goes on.

The individual suddenly has the power to hire and fire, a change not everyone will find easy to deal with. Senior players may be jealous, while others will feel the need to create more distance. One manager was amazed to learn that one of his players dared not ask if he could run some coaching sessions. He thought he was still approachable, whereas the player was concerned about overstepping the mark with his boss.

Being a football manager is lonely and there are tough decisions to make. Instead of being one of the group, you are the lone figure in the spotlight. Depending on results, you can be the hero or villain, and you’ll bear the brunt of plaudits or abuse far more intensely than any player.

Same sport, different boots

The transition from player to manager goes through several stages. After initial adjustments, players and fans often respect the new manager because of their skill on the pitch. But once this short honeymoon period is over, he’ll be judged on his success as a manager.

Popular myth would have us believe that great players don’t necessarily make great managers. “What about Bobby Charlton?” they say. In some sectors, expert knowledge has been shown to be critical to success. For example, Dr Amanda Goodall’s research at Warwick Business School shows that vice chancellors with strong research records are more successful than those without.

In football, however, our research suggests that there is no particular relationship between how good a player you were and how good a manager you will become. Yet, as Roy Hodgson explained at a recent LMA Business Club event, “being a great horse doesn’t necessarily make you a great jockey”.

Practice makes perfect

The player and manager are, after all, very different. The former is based on individual skill and application, whereas being a great manager is about understanding the abilities of your players and bringing out the best in others. A great player may well have these aptitudes in his locker, but it can take time to develop them to the standard required. There is no substitute for experience and learning by doing. Sadly, in the turbulent world of football management, many young managers are not given long to get it right. The average tenure for a football manager stands at just under one-and-a-half years, with almost half of first-time managers never getting a second chance.

This is why the FA, LMA, PFA and Warwick Business School are committed to trying to help players fast-track the skills they will need. Coaching and management qualifications, together with experience, provide a toolkit of ideas and skills.

All managers, regardless of their experience, can benefit from continual improvement, but help is particularly vital in the early transition phase. It is a shocking waste that potentially great managers are judged on their abilities before they have had the chance to mature into the role.

Graham Thorpe MBE

When I first started to coach I had to adjust to the lack of control you have during a game. There’s a sense of helplessness, because unlike the players you can’t directly influence what happens on the field. As a player you feel you have more control over the outcome. But when you start to see that you are making a real difference – perhaps only in small ways at first, but more so the longer you work with players – that’s very rewarding.

After taking level 2 and 3 coaching qualifications, I secured a role in New South Wales, Australia. It was a very professional set-up and in many ways the perfect start to my coaching career. It took me out of my comfort zone.

As batting coach, then assistant coach, I gained experience of working both with individuals and the team. I was an important cog in the coaching system.

One of the most important things I learned during the transition from player to coach was the importance of taking two steps back before speaking. You can have a great playing career, but it doesn’t necessarily make you a good communicator. You have to be able to deliver the right message, whether it’s giving advice to a player or speaking to the media. I’ve learned to stop and consider my response rather than speaking just for the sake of it.

To earn the respect of the players, I always try to be honest with them. As a player, I liked those coaches who were prepared to open up, not only about cricket but life in general. I’ve had my fair share of ups and downs, professionally and personally, so I can put things in perspective and relate to some of the players’ issues. You have to understand how individuals work, what their background is and what makes them tick. Everyone is very different, so what you say to one person won’t necessarily work with the next.

I’m always looking to improve my abilities as a coach and to help my players develop, as sportsmen and people. With experience comes humility and dignity – I want the players to have that, on and off the field.

Tony Adams MBE

When the job at Wycombe Wanderers became available, I was in the middle of a Sports Science course at Brunel University, but I decided to go for it. In hindsight, that was probably the wrong decision. Taking my coaching qualifications, including the LMA’s Certificate in Applied Management, had whetted my appetite for management, and I was impatient. Professional football qualifications add to your palette of skills, but there’s nothing like hands-on management and coaching experience.

That first job was great for developing my business management skills, as it was my remit was to save the club financially. In those early days, I had to let 21 players go and was focusing hard on recruitment to rebuild the club. But, while I stopped the rot in the year I was there, I had little opportunity to coach and develop the players. It wasn’t building my abilities as a manager, so I decided to leave. You never know until you get into a job what it will be like, but I did my best with the resources at my disposal. Faced with the same scenario seven years on, I think the result would be the same.

When I left Wycombe, I thought “right, where do I get trained as a coach?” Holland appealed; at the last World Cup there were four Dutch coaches managing teams, but not a single English one. I met with former Celtic manager Wim Jansen, at the time an advisor for Feyenoord, who agreed to give me a free hand at coaching there. I worked with the under-eights right through to the under-23s, before coaching at Utrecht for a month. I didn’t have such a high profile as a player in Holland, which allowed me to get on and learn. Being known as a successful player can be a blessing – I don’t think I’d have the opportunities I have now otherwise. But at times it can also be a curse because people are always going to think “why haven’t you got a great defence?”

When I joined Harry Redknapp at Portsmouth, he said, “I’ll give you enough rope to hang yourself with son” and told me to get on with it. I knew it would be a very interesting learning experience. The most important thing I learnt from Harry was in recruitment. He really knows the player market worldwide. Working with a seasoned manager is very valuable. It shields you while you learn. It’s important to be yourself, but you can also draw on the influence of your managers. Arsene Wenger was a fantastic physiologist, George Graham was great with detail and organisation, and Terry Venables has great coaching ability and charisma.

Management is a very different job to playing – you need attributes other than on the technical side. But if someone has been very driven as a player, has character and is a club man, it may help in the transition, because successful managers impose their personality on the team.

The best managers are often in their 50s or 60s. Experienced in the job and in life, they are seen as a safer pair of hands for a club. My education is ongoing. I’m still young and have 20 years of development ahead of me.