From the Touchline: Shouldn’t a Manager Only Manage?

From the Touchline

The modern manager is part showman, part lawyer, part negotiator, and part masochist. At any level, from the Premier League to the semi-professional leagues, the man in the tracksuit or coat and tie roaming the side lines is an intermediary between the players, fans, and ownership. At the highest levels, those managers who succeed are those with great media skills who can assuage a Board and keep his players happy. The diverse skill set needed to be successful managers probably leads to the insane churn of managers; in the Premier League, for example, the median length a manager stays at his club is less than two seasons.

It was not always this way. When the game was young, the manager was a nobody. He was a person on the side lines who did what his title describes: he managed the players. The gaffer would travel with the club, man the bench, and handle logistics during the match but often it was the Board who made starting XI selections and compiled the roster. In fact, up to the Great War era, board members were closer to what we consider the modern manager than the actual managers.

What changed? According to Barney Ronay in his book The Manager, it was the crowds. The new leisure class spent their free time in at the field, watching their favourite squads and becoming emotionally invested in their success. When the squad played poorly, the crowds grew restless. As Ronay wrote, “The ruling elite responded with a general retreat from view… there was a sense a buffer was needed, a dispensable layer of ballast against the ire of the masses”. Thus was born the modern manager, a man pushed in front of the fans as the person responsible for a club’s fortunes. As time passed, managers embraced this and by starts and stops grew into what we know today as the modern manager.

What began as a fall man grew into a jack of all trades. To be the appropriate foil, the position needed to acquire multiple skills. To deflect press criticism, managers need media training and learn the skills of manipulating frenemies from the papers. To acquire better players, he needed to learn about contract negotiations and man management. In essence, as he grew into the role thrust upon him as face of the club he moved more and more away from the role he originally held – the guy who would guide the players on the field to victory.

Does the modern manager do too much? Is the constant pressure to be good at many different things too much for most candidates to succeed? Is that why successful managers like Max Allegri and Pep Guardiola constantly talking about retirement? Perhaps, but as complex as modern clubs are it is nonsensical that one man needs to hold so many roles.

Matthew Syed and Malcolm Gladwell both note that to excel in a field, a practitioner needs to spend about 10,000 hours of purposeful practice in a craft. Managers generally start their profession later in life, either after a playing career or front office position. If you want your manager to continue learning and improving, why not allow them more time in the film room or studying other coaches’ tactics and methods. If a club wants to improve its manager, it should consider hiring people to take on the other responsibilities a modern manager holds. Many clubs are moving towards hiring a sporting director who controls transfers and player-personnel, but why not hire a communications team to deal with the media? These professionals can handle the day-to-day interactions with the media as well as hold pre and post-game press conferences. Envision what the press team for the U.S. President is, well, supposed to be – a buffer between the boss and the media.

The modern manager is a person like Jose Mourinho or Zinedine Zidane – suave and professional at all times that can exude the smartest person in the room vibe in all situations. The manager position may be better off however, if the people in that position can have tunnel vision. Maybe the better managers are hermits, those people who hunker down and learn every aspect of how to win a match on the field rather than finding the perfect match for their tie and pocket square.