Brian Clough and Peter Taylor, immortalised outside Derby County’s Pride Park
By Steve Graves
Assistant managers, what are they good for? Absolutely some things, we reckon.
First we need to define our terms. Assistants come in all shapes and sizes, and often with job titles which can lead to confusion as to their actual place within a management structure.
The term assistant manager is an all-embracing one, covering anything from a largely peripheral figure at a club to de facto manager and driving force behind football strategy - and everything in between.
Then there are jobs such as first-team coach or head coach, which can muddy the waters still further.
Steve Clarke, one of the highest-profile assistants of recent years in the English game, was recently appointed first-team coach by Liverpool. Credited with much of the tactical groundwork on which Kenny Dalglish has built a seemingly reinvigorated side, Clarke fulfilled a similar role (with more modest returns) at West Ham with Gianfranco Zola.
His previous work at Chelsea showed that even under a seeming autocrat like Jose Mourinho, there was a place for an assistant to offer light and shade as required.
It is clear that while Sammy Lee is technically assistant to Dalglish, Clarke has at least an equal standing within the club’s management structure.
In English football it is difficult to think of a manager who’s operated successfully without assistance not just with coaching but with decision making. In fact the real divide seems to be between those who favour a group or committee of assistants, devolving more power and encouraging a plurality of ideas, and those who maintain a duopoly above a group of essentially subservient coaches.
Clough at Leeds - structural defects?
Brian Clough was firmly in the latter camp, and for some the major failure of his career, at Leeds United, was down to the absence of long-term assistant Peter Taylor. It is undeniable that Taylor should be considered one of the great assistant managers and Clough was always likely to feel his loss. That said, perhaps part of the problem was not down to the absence of Taylor himself but to the entirely different structure into which Clough was parachuted.
Antipathy between manager and players, negative response from the fans, poor results and the looming shadow of his predecessor Don Revie are among the many factors at the heart of Clough’s failure at Elland Road. But he may have enjoyed more success, or at least stayed in the job longer, had Clough not been forced in to a totally alien system - Revie’s ‘family’.
To the outside world Revie is considered in much the same way as Richard Nixon - a man of accomplishments undone by his essentially unsavoury character. Those who were around his Leeds United paint a different picture. Revie’s emphasis on treating everyone involved with the club, including catering staff and players’ wives, as part of his project ensured the loyalty and devotion of many.
This was reflected in the coaching staff, with Revie’s assistant manager essentially the first among equals in a formidable team including Syd Owen (head coach) and Les Cocker (trainer). The collegiate atmosphere reflected the Boot Room created by Revie’s friend Bill Shankly, but was anathema to Clough and Taylor’s style.
Clough brought Derby trainer Jimmy Gordon with him to Leeds, dispensing with Cocker’s services, but fostering the atmosphere Owen and Lindley had been used to under Revie was not in Clough’s nature.
Perhaps Clough took something from his ill-fated spell at Leeds, as Gordon was by many accounts to become a far more important figure during the former’s time at Nottingham Forest than he had been previously.
It would be unfair to claim that assistants and other backroom staff have failed to enjoy success as managers in their own right. During the heady days of English football’s heady European golden age around the turn of the 1980s, on four occasions the trophy was won by managers who’d stepped up on the resignation of erstwhile bosses (Liverpool’s Bob Paisley three times and Aston Villa’s Tony Barton in 1981-82).
It is clear, though, that some high-profile assistants have floundered when given the top job. Brian Kidd, so integral to Alex Ferguson’s development of Manchester United and now assisting Roberto Mancini’s cash-rich City, was unable to save a Blackburn Rovers side heading for relegation under Roy Hodgson in 1998.
The jury remains intriguingly out on Kidd’s successor Steve Mclaren’s managerial career, but the fact that his replacement Carlos Queiroz is reportedly in talks over a job managing Iran might suggest that the Portuguese boss, at 57, has had his last big opportunity in club football.
Queiroz was one of the most influential assistants of the last decade in English football, enjoying a portfolio granting him the kind of power many would have thought impossible under a leader as strong-minded as Ferguson.
For persuading Ferguson to adopt a 4-5-1 formation which did not bring immediate results, Queiroz became a divisive figure among United fans during his two spells at Old Trafford. His influence over tactics and club affairs reportedly angered Roy Keane, while he came to be blamed for United’s over-cautious approach to European games in particular.
Doomed periods in charge of Real Madrid and the Portuguese national team have led to the suspicion that Queiroz does not have what it takes to be a manager in his own right at the highest level. That should not detract from his achievements, particularly during his first spell under Ferguson, who some believe still harbours hopes Queiroz will succeed him at Old Trafford.
Assistant manager/head coach/first team coach roles require specialist skills which may or may not be transferable to the manager’s job. It is equally the case that measuring the success of such staff in isolation is virtually impossible. Lee, for example, was found wanting as a manager at Bolton Wanderers, but has been a trusted ally to Sven-Göran Eriksson, Rafa Benítez, Sam Allardyce and Gerard Houllier. Lee even survived the nuclear winter that was Hodgson’s spell at Anfield, emerging blinking into the sunlight alongside Dalglish and Clarke.
Lee must get something right as an assistant, but even dedicated Liverpool fans would be hard pushed to say what beyond a generalised ‘feel’ for the club he served as a player and an obvious enthusiasm for the job.
Pat Rice - the unsung assistant
Few assistants can embody this sense of indefinable efficiency, of success built on undoubted yet seemingly intangible qualities, than Pat Rice.
Rice, a fine right-back over a 20-year career as a player with Arsenal and Watford, has spent the years since 1984 working in various capacities at Highbury and now the Emirates.
Since 1996 and the appointment of Arsène Wenger, the Frenchman has had Rice at his side as assistant.
Rice’s Wikipedia entry describes him as playing a ‘key role’ in Arsenal’s unbeaten 2003-04 season and twin Doubles under Wenger. A cynic might question such an assertion, given that Arsenal’s brand of football and coaching philosophy is very much the product of Wenger’s vision of the game. Given that Rice was youth-team coach under George Graham’s pragmatic regime, it’s hard to imagine he contributed much to developing that vision, at least initially.
Rather than the driving force Queiroz was allowed to be, with questionable results, or the quiet but influential likes of Clarke, Rice is the ultimate team man, implementing his manager’s instructions without ever claiming glory for himself.
Wenger has gone some way to explaining Rice’s success as assistant, attributing it to his winning mentality and affinity with the club. Even to his boss Rice’s qualities err on the side of the un-pindownable. Lee may well see Rice as a model for his own career, and would be wise to do so.
While Pat Rice may not be poached by Real Madrid, as Queiroz was in 2003, or ever attain the semi-mythical status of a Peter Taylor, he can retire (perhaps at the end of this season) having been at the heart of a remarkable project to transform a football club from top to bottom. Arsenal fans should treasure him while they can.
FROM a distance of a quarter of a century, the appointment of Kenny Dalglish by the Liverpool board in 1985 seems by turns perverse and supremely logical.
Since Bill Shankly’s reign and the creation of the ‘Boot Room’, as much a philosophy and management system as a physical entity, the club had appointed from within. When Shankly retired he was replaced by one of his right-hand men, Bob Paisley. On Paisley’s retirement Joe Fagan stepped in, the club placing an emphasis on continuity and lineage rather than experience of the top job.
While Manchester United had floundered in the wake of Sir Matt Busby’s departure in 1969, Liverpool built on and largely retained the methods of Shankly. The Anfield job was only ever an internal vacancy.
With that in mind, Dalglish made sense. Since replacing Kevin Keegan in 1977 he had become part of the fabric of the club, lionised by the fans and showing an affinity with the club few matched.
But in another sense, the Scotsman represented a radical departure. Paisley, 55 when making the step up and Fagan, 62, were both experienced coaches. Dalglish was 34 and coming off the back of a season in which he had played 51 times in all competitions.
Given that his energy had for so many years been devoted to playing the game with such distinction, there had to be an element of risk in offering him the keys to English football’s most jealously-guarded kingdom. Yet Dalglish’s comparative youth was only part of what makes his appointment so striking today.
For Dalglish, appointed for the beginning of 1985/86, was to remain a key part of the Liverpool squad he now managed until mid-1987.
Not only was the new man expected to step up to the job without prior experience, he was also to juggle the demands of maintaining his own physical condition and playing focus alongside the day-to-day decision-making and long-term strategic thinking required in the manager’s role.
Looking back at the circumstances of Dalglish’s eventual departure it might be tempting to conclude the pressure of combining the roles told, but of course the tragic and entirely unexpected events at Hillsborough in April 1989 would make any such conclusion unsound.
For Liverpool FC, opting for a player-manager was a step change in their hiring policy. But in the wider world of English football, the decision marked the continuation of a long tradition.
Player-management in context
In The Unforgiven, their account of Don Revie’s Leeds United Rob Bagchi and Paul Rogerson document the 32-year-old Revie’s appointment at Elland Road. The authors put his appeal to the club’s board down to a combination of availability, knowledge of the club and advantageous (ie low-paid) contractual terms.
The fact Revie was significantly cheaper than his predecessor reflected a trend among boards in the decades immediately following the Second World War to cut costs - a parsimonious tendency which was to infuriate Brian Clough, who in many ways forged the template for the modern image of the football manager at Derby County in the 1970s.
The desire to trim expenditure was perhaps not a consideration for the Liverpool board, but Dalglish was an inheritor of this post-war trend and represented its last stand at top-flight level until Chelsea appointed successive player-managers in Ruud Gullit and Gianluca Vialli.
Just as few might have expected a player to be given such a high-profile job, so it might seem illogical that an experiment which was to prove so successful would in fact mark the end, rather than the beginning of a trend.
The evolution of the manager
In 2011 it is inconceivable that a major English club would appoint a player-manager in anything but the most extraordinary of circumstances.
That the picture has changed so comprehensively in the 25 years is down to a range of factors.
The football world has undoubtedly become smaller, with the influx of foreign players in to Premier League squads being followed by an openness to managers from abroad on the part of fans and boards up and down the country. Since the Premier League’s inception in 1992, no English manager has led a team to the trophy.
Clubs are no longer limited to a few well-known names likely already to be at other clubs on lucrative contracts in the English game. Whereas once, in the closed loop of the old Football League, there were barely more than a handful of bosses available with experience of winning trophies, now directors can look to the European leagues and beyond to find leaders with enviable track records and a willingness to move to England.
Chelsea’s experiments with Gullit and Vialli were more about star power and the influence of the continental game than about the true origins of the player-manager. Their appointments, on handsome salaries and with great fanfare, could not contrast more with that of Revie in 1962.
Those who favour a person-centred reading of events could point to a series of influential managers whose successes in the English game helped bury the concept of the player-manager.
Earlier we touched on Brian Clough’s impact on the game, defining the image of the manager as an omnipotent leader of men, at once gregarious and unknowable. Clough strove to banish for ever the world of selection committees and board involvement in football decisions, a closed shop which had often made the appointment of a pliable player-manager attractive.
Alex Ferguson’s appointment at Manchester United in 1986, followed 10 years later by Arsene Wenger’s arrival at Highbury, further chipped away at the idea of the player-boss. While Ferguson got his first managerial job at the age of 32 he, like Clough, had already retired from the game through injury and was ready to devote his entire energies to off-field planning.
Wenger, having had only a modest career as a player, became the touchstone for the manager-as-professor school of thought. He further emphasised the precise and time-consuming work now accepted as being at the heart of getting results on the pitch. Wenger’s success at Arsenal, and Jose Mourinho’s at Chelsea, made the days when Dalglish faced the weekly decision of whether to pick himself seem a long time ago.
Arsenal fans may not recognise it, but Wenger in some ways carried on the work of his predecessor, Dalglish’s great late-1980s rival George Graham. While Graham had been a fine player, he was very much in the mould of managers like Clough, setting out a clear (if unentertaining) vision of how he wanted his team to play and employing a dictator’s hand when required.
Dalglish and Graham were conflicting characters whose teams pursued different paths to success. That Graham came closer to embodying the blueprint for future managers is telling.
Now Dalglish is back, though only in the wildest of Liverpool fans’ dreams will he be pulling on the red shirt again. His comeback may see the return of ideas and structures which would have been familiar to football fans in the mid-1980s, but one thing is certain: as a player-manager he was a throwback rather than a trailblazer, even 25 years ago.
NB: Thanks to the excellent Tottenham Think Tank for pointing out my glaring omission of Glenn Hoddle - player-manager both for Swindon Town and Chelsea. The latter club’s mania for continuing the trend when everyone else was abandoning it would be worth an investigation on its own.
THE biggest story in English football management in 2011 so far is the reappointment (resurrection?) of Kenny Dalglish as Liverpool manager. The decision itself has been debated endlessly, though at the time of writing the club’s reversion to a flexible 4-2-3-1/4-4-1-1, reintroduction of pressing and the promising imminent arrival of Luis Suarez from Ajax is being overshadowed by the seeming determination of Fernando Torres to leave Anfield before the January transfer window is closed.
Rather than focus on these decisions and challenges, whose ultimate outcomes remain unknowable, we’ll look at some of the wider questions brought to the fore by an appointment which seemed at once inevitable and yet somehow otherworldly.
An oft-repeated criticism of the club’s move was that English football had changed so significantly in the decade or so since Dalglish last managed at this level, he could not bring his ideas to bear. Many went as far as to say Dalglish would inevitably hark back not to the late 1990s, but to the period ten years earlier when he and Liverpool bestrode the English game, with the Scotsman leading what we would only later come to realise was the last great team of Liverpool’s golden age.
In a series of posts this week, we’ll look at management trends specifically over the period since February 1991, when Kenny Dalglish first resigned the manager’s job he’d coveted since arriving at Anfield as a player in 1977.