Saturday, 5 February 2011

Those who can, play. Those who can't, manage: Why great players don't usually make great managers

Sometimes, possibly too many times in my case, you get things wrong. I spent much of 2010 criticising Martin Johnson's management of the England Rugby team. Now, however, I probably ought to hold my hands up and admit I got it wrong. This is not in response to England's win over Wales last night in the Six Nations opener, but rather for the way he has changed the whole team over the past couple of years.

Two years ago England needed fresh personnel and revised tactics. Johnson has, contrary to my belief that he was not the right man to do so, delivered with both. This is not a post about Martin Johnson though. I believed that Johnson was not the right man for the job because he was awarded the position for his reputation as a player, not a coach. This ultimately relates to the bigger question which I am going to explore today - do great players make great managers?

To examine this question I thought I would do some research. Using the current crop of twenty Premiership managers, I wanted to see how many medals they had between them, with the help of trusty Wikipedia of course. So here is a list of the league's managers with how many major trophies they won as a player – this includes top division league titles, domestic cups (but not Community shields or the like etc.), European competitions (again not including Super Cups) and International tournaments:

Arsenal – Arsène Wenger - 1
Aston Villa – Gérard Houllier - 0
Birmingham – Alex McLeish - 11
Blackburn – Steve Kean - 0
Blackpool – Ian Holloway - 0
Bolton – Owen Coyle - 0
Chelsea – Carlo Ancelotti - 13
Everton – David Moyes - 1
Fulham – Mark Hughes - 11
Liverpool – Kenny Dalglish - 23
Manchester City – Roberto Mancini - 10
Manchester United – Alex Ferguson - 0
Newcastle – Alan Pardew - 0
Stoke – Tony Pulis - 0
Sunderland – Steve Bruce - 9
Tottenham – Harry Redknapp - 0
West Brom – Roberto Di Matteo - 5
West Ham – Avram Grant - 0
Wigan – Roberto Martinez - 0
Wolves – Mick McCarthy - 3

Total = 87 – that is an average of 4.35 pieces of silverware gathered as players by the current group of Premier League managers.

OK, so what can we learn from this tedious number crunching? On this list of twenty, ten (50%) never lifted a major footballing trophy. Remove recently appointed Dalglish from this list and the average drops to 3.2. The point here is that with a handful of exceptions, the top managers in England right now were not remarkable players in any way. Great players do not make great managers, more often than not great managers did not shine on the pitch. But why?

It is not that complicated. The two are very different areas of expertise and often being an outstanding player will restrict your ability to teach others how to play. To use an example from outside of football, a MENSA member with an IQ of 170 could not necessarily teach an uninterested eight-year old child about the wonders of fractions. A simpler person would, on the other hand, probably have far more success.

The example if often applied to managers like Roy Keane. Very gifted players who are unable to appreciate how players of a lower quality cannot match his own high standards. The transition is a far from straight forward one. Being able to motivate, man-manage, coach, buy well in the transfer window, have tactical nous and deal with the men upstairs is a long way removed from being a successful footballer. It requires a different set of skills and characteristics that are not connected with being a superbly skilled player.

Diego Maradona serves as a good example of this. His record prior to getting the national job at Argentina was woeful. Yet he was entrusted with the role because he was an icon. A living legend. Unfortunately, his managerial skills do not in any way relate to his dribbling skills. He may gain immediate respect from the players and have charisma but he also opted for playing Jonás Manuel Gutiérrez at right-back in the World Cup. Enough said.

Martin Johnson may have proved me and many other doubters wrong over the last year. He remains, however, an exception to the rule that great players do not make great managers. Football has its own exceptions too, of course, both in past and present. On the list above there are some extremely talented players who are now managing at top clubs.

The news of Gary Neville's retirement also contributed to me deciding to write on this topic. The former United right-back has already earned many of the FA coaching badges and looks certain to coach and probably manage in the future. He was, love him or hate, a great player. Yet it must be remembered he was very successful within a great club, playing under a great manager. How he would fare as a manger himself with players of a lower quality than he had known thus far in footballing career is completely unknown.

My point - great players can make great managers but they are not great managers because they were great players. In fact the reality would appear to be that they succeed in spite of the fact that they were great players, something that often makes the transition into management more difficult.

Thoughts, comment and opinions please...


  1. The best example of a fine player not understanding why their charges can't do stuff is apparently Hoddle.

    That said, I think Cruijff is probably crucial to this argument. In my opinion, the best all-round player to have played the game (Maradona was more gifted as was Pele but Cruijff inspired so much more and created so much more). Look what he did at Ajax and, more importantly, Barcelona where he really started the dynasty that is astonishing the world right now.

    Also, Beckenbauer achieved a lot as both a player and a manger...

    There's no reason as to why former players should succeed but, also, no reason why they shouldn't.


  2. Cruyff and Beckenbauer are not good examples as they only worked with elite teams, which do not require the same type of coaching/management that the mid- to lower-level teams require. The test of a good manager is to see how a they improve the performance of a team. Dan Finkelstein (Fink Tank) of the London Times has some good thoughts on this topic.

  3. Ruud Gullit is another prime example of a manager who can never understand why his players aren't as good as he was. There's a very good point above about Cruyff and Beckenbauer - how successful would they have been if they hadn't been 'parachuted' into jobs with Barcelona and Bayern (lucky manager counterpoints to your argument on Busquets?). Personally, I've always felt that the very best players have never had to really understand the game. When things come so instinctively, you don't always stop to wonder why. As a teacher, I know some of the most important qualities you can have are rapport and communication skills. Great players have a tendency to be aloof, loners, arrogant - none of which feature prominently on the skills required for management.

  4. Thanks for the comments guys.

    Rob, I think I have to agree with the cbales01 and Michael when I say that these examples succeeded because they were managing players like themselves. This makes it both easier for them to be successful, because they had extremely good squads, but also easier for them to coach and manager players who are, like they were, great. I do not, however, want to say that they were not great managers for those teams, rather that those teams were unique examples where they could succeed. They were not prototypical clubs for a traditional manager's true skills to be tested.

    Michael, I completely agree with your last point. As I say at the end of the post, any great players who do become great managers do so in spite of their greatness which often is a hinderence. Management (like teaching) requires a completely different set of skills, characteristics and way of looking at the game - things which after missing in supremely talented players who, like you say, never really had to think or understand the game in the same way. I suppose that was the point I tried to make with my MENSA example - the naturally gifted will always struggle to help those who do not share the same innate ability. Being a great manager or teacher is a different gift altogether.

  5. I think the conclusion is correct, however there is a slight flaw in the argument. Managers are pretty much individuals when it comes to managing a team successfully, however as a player they are part of a team. Never does one player win a trophy single-handedly (Maradona in 1986 is perhaps the only possible exception).

    Case in point: Carlo Ancelotti. With 13 trophies to his name as a player you are comparing him to Arsene Wenger who only won 1 trophy as a player. But to say that Ancelotti was a better player than Wenger is misleading because Ancelotti was part of the great AC Milan of the 80s/90s and Wenger wasn't.

    A better argument would be to compare teammates. Take Gullit, Rijkaard, and van Basten. All three were great players, they won the Euro 88, won lots of trophies with AC Milan. As managers though, only Rijkaard has been successful - and that only with Barcelona. He did well with the Dutch National team in 2000, got relegated with Sparta and got fired from Galatasaray. Gullit and van Basten are pretty much failures as managers.

    And with that the conclusion is the same as yours: great players can make great managers but they are not great managers because they were great players.

  6. Cruijff did slightly more than ''work with elite'' players. Without Cruijff, you don't have Barcelona as we know it.

    Further, if the analysis holds then why do so many elite players then fail when managing top clubs (indeed, why does anyone fail when working with elite players)!


  7. I agree with you. Obviously there are some exceptions but most of the players that they try to be coaches they fail


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