Football Management: A Rough 100 years

When Herbert Chapman took over as secretary-manager of Leeds City, the press hailed his appointment. He was thought to have done well at his “first” club Northampton Town (his first as a manager: he’d had a supremely peripatetic playing career) and the hope was that he’d translate that success to Leeds. War intervened, then scandal, and in any case he looks to have been building a career outside the game before being “rescued” by Huddersfield Town.

What’s interesting here is the press interest – the expression of the idea that a manager, rather than a new player or set of new players, meant a new dawn for a club. It’s not something that I’ve researched enough for my own satisfaction, but most of what I do know indicates that the teens of the twentieth century are an early time for the existence of the celebrity manager. Chapman was the first English celebrity manager – later, when his favourite media, radio and the likes of Pathe News, came into existence. But otherwise, the development of management went as follows:

  1. The Secretary/Manager: The Secretary/Manager was a mix of CEO and coach, an intermediary between the board and the players. Although he was responsible for team performance, in terms of physical fitness and in terms of the players who joined the club, there is little evidence that tactical guidance or strategy was any part of the remit. Players were the experts on playing – what tactics there were would be hammered out in the dressing room between one or two senior players. It was discussion of that kind at Newcastle United that eventually made the offside situation so hard to crack that the laws of the game were changed in order to cope. Chapman was conscious of the lack of overall strategy and tactical planning, and deliberately took a different path as a manager, but the older managerial role persisted well into the 1950s.
  2. The Manager as Leader: I’m not terribly happy with that subtitle, but still. Chapman, and perhaps also Jimmy Seed, presaged a period that to some extent endures today: one manager sets the whole tone for a club and attempts to mould it in his image. It’s at its height in the 1950s and 1960s and the names all roll off the tongue: Busby, Cullis, Nicholson, Shankly, Revie, Stein, Mercer, Allison, Clough/Taylor. Note that last pairing: the idea of the “assistant manager” started there. The “Manager As Leader” scenario is only really possible while clubs remain at a certain size. With Manchester United, Chelsea, etc. today, the size of the task is beyond one man – which means that the manager, whilst still seen from outside the club as leader, simply isn’t in full control, and needs to be a good delegator and colleague, soft skills if not exclusively middle class ones.
  3. The International Manager: This is another idea that seems obvious now but wasn’t always. England have been playing international matches for 135 years. They have had a team manager in the modern sense for 44 of those years. Team selection has been more consistent with a team manager than in the days of the old selection committee. But a team manager for England can’t manufacture international class players, and so there’s a reasonable chance still that the best England side ever wasn’t 1966 but 1946, or 1957, or 1961.. or, to be fair, 1970. Or 1988, if only they’d been fit. Or 2006, likewise.

    Alf Ramsey’s appointment in 1962 marked something of a change in attitude. Prior to that, the England team had been regarded by the FA as the cream on the milk of English football – a means of showing the best players recognition. It was a reward, an end: the success of the England team was, relatively speaking, unimportant. (Likewise the FA Cup, which was the end of term celebration, a way to thank the FA’s thousands of volunteer workers in the field who toiled all year to keep the huge structure of English football going from grass roots up – the kind of people who are increasingly forgotten now by comparison). Ramsey’s predecessor, Winterbottom, had a remit that was as much about reforming the coaching and youth structure of English football for the post-war era as it was about actually managing England: selection was never entirely in his hands. The FA saw coaching as best done by men with teaching skills – were they so wrong in that? an attitude that collided with the players’ attitude that they, and not the likes of Winterbottom, were the experts. Players’ autobiographies of the time are littered with anecdotes of the resulting culture clashes. But it’s a tribute to Winterbottom’s efforts that the dip in the quality of English football in the early to mid ’50s came to an end.

    Ramsey’s appointment said that the FA were now interested in success for England in a serious way – presumably with the World Cup in ’66 in mind. But the idea of a single man running the entire show isn’t obviously the correct approach. It’s now thought, by me amongst others, that had Chapman lived, he would have become de facto the first England manager in the modern sense of the word (and in fact he did take England out to play Italy in the early ’30s, blotting his copybook by locking himself out of the changing rooms in Rome). But Chapman himself wasn’t in favour – instead, he looked to the creation of a three-man selection committee, feeling that the job was too much for one person to take on. The idea of the smaller selection committee was very much in the air in the ’50s, and has echoes now in men like Tord Grip who act as extra sets of eyes, ears and brains for the man in charge.

The first singlehanded international managers were Europeans – men like Pozzo of Italy, and Herberger of Germany – or, and this is much more interesting in its way, Englishmen in Europe. The coach of the Spanish team who were first to beat England, in 1929, was Fred Pentland; the coach of the Austrian Wunderteam with Hugo Meisl (and inspiration to the 1950s Magyar team) was Jimmy Hogan. Hogan was briefly manager of Fulham in the 1930s: he was sacked whilst in hospital. El Bombin tells the story:

He took over at Fulham in August 1934, but the players disliked his ‘unconventional’ training methods (he actually used a ball) and tactics, and there were many complaints about his style from the more established players. After 31 games, Hogan was sacked whilst recovering from an operation in hospital – the board stating that “seasoned professionals did not need coaching.”

He had a little more success at Aston Villa, where he took over in 1936 until the outbreak of the World War II in 1939 – they were promoted from Division Two and managed to get to the semi-final of the FA Cup. During the 1950s, Hogan returned to coach the Villa youth team, and it is said that in 1953 he took a group of apprentices on a day out to Wembley to watch “something memorable” – a little-respected Hungarian side that dedicated their victory to a man largely unknown in his homeland.

You see, English players respond to an English manager – someone with passion who can inspire them.. leaders on the pitch, someone to give them a kick up the backside.. etc. Of course. Of course they do – I’m sure that’s all that’s lacking.

UPDATE: A couple of questions to mull over:

  1. IS it inevitable, and desirable, that the role of the England national team be to achieve success in tournaments? Was there something to the attitude that being picked for the national team was an accolade, a kind of footballing blue plaque or Oscar, that we’ve since lost?
  2. If we accept that the purpose of the England national team is to succeed in tournaments, is it inevitable that the current model – in which a “manager” is appointed who henceforth carries that entire responsibility on his shoulders – really the most efficient way to go? Isn’t that all a bit Morse and Lewis? A bit Poirot, a bit Holmes, handling their huge and complex cases entirely on their own?

It’s rather anti-Butterfield to say it, but surely one of the valuable things about trying to find out what the thought-world of pre-War football was is to highlight that the way things are done now is not necessarily the logical or best way, nor inevitable – it shows that we can, if we want, take a different direction.

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2 responses to “Football Management: A Rough 100 years

  1. On the whole subject of management there was a useless comment piece in the Guardian today about Walter Smith at Rangers being brillinat because he understood the “Ranger’s spirit” as opposed to Paul Le Guen-

    This is a good piece.

  2. Yes – the idea that a football club has something “unique” about its ethos, held at the same time as the idea that every club has spirit.

    Thankyou for the kind comment.