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The changing face of football management

A new era of football coaches is rising.

Football management is a merciless vocation. Some succeed, and many do not, good managers can be stylish in their approach, whilst others have alternative means of getting points on the table. Football is no-doubt a results driven business and there is minimal room for error, but despite the manager merry-go-round spinning faster than ever before, the prerequisites for managing a professional team are quickly changing.

At the time of writing, it may seem ironic that this writer lauds the changing face of football management on the same day that Scottish football’s coaching experiment was relieved of his duties, however there is an argument that rapid progress is being made elsewhere. This morning, Heart of Midlothian sacked 31-year old Ian Cathro from the manager’s job, four days before the start of the league season. Cathro leaves the club with a 27% win rate and a shocking league cup exit proved to be the final straw in a tedious tenure which lasted just eight months.

Despite this, Cathro arrived as one of Europe’s brightest young coaches, taking an unorthodox route in to professional football via youth development programmes at Dundee United. Cathro’s travels took him through Liberia with Rio Ave and Valencia, then back to the UK with Newcastle, to work under Champions League winner Rafa Benitez. Cathro is clearly highly rated, so much so that he is set to re-join his former manager Nuno Esprito Santo in Wolverhampton only hours after his Hearts contract was terminated. It was an experiment for the club which was far from fruitful, but it is important to note that Cathro’s demise included factors other than the sole reason he had never played professional football. Hearts should be praised for their progressive approach.

Cathro was eaten up from the day he arrived in Edinburgh, written-off by former pro’s and the media alike. Even before a ball was kicked there were claims that he did not have the respect of the dressing room and was harshly labelled a ‘laptop manager.’ This might have been said out of envy of such a high profile gig at only 31, or it might have been more personal than that, who knows. These individuals can bask in their ‘I told you so’ type glory in light of today’s news, however Cathro’s failure should not be accountable for the future of the so-called ‘laptop’ managers.

We only need to look across the continent to witness the changing face of football management. German football began its overhaul not with the senior teams but with the grooming of a meticulous youth system, and born through that was not just a conveyer belt of talented players, but coaches too. The country bought into a cohesive blueprint of coaching education that would benefit every level of the game. The German FA’s head of coaching education Frank Wormuth says that the country sets the benchmark for coaching standards around Europe and identifies why we are seeing a change in approach. “It is compulsory for all clubs in the top three divisions to have academy centres, which is giving young coaches more chances than ever before.”

A third of Bundesliga coaches will begin next season in their thirties, if we compare that to the Premier League then only Bournemouth’s Eddie Howe would qualify for the same group, and yet he would still rank the oldest at 39 years of age. Whilst the Premier League still continue its search for its first title winning Englishman, Germany are breeding some of the most exciting coaches on the continent. The poster boy for this era can only go to Julian Nagelsmann, who took Hoffenheim from the relegation zone to the Champions League in only 18 months. Now, that’s an achievement in itself for most managers, but Nagelsmann has done this at 29 years of age with next to no professional football career. He must have a pretty good laptop.

Nagelsmann consistent knee injuries ended his hopes of a professional career, after spells in the academies of 1860 Munich and Augsburg. He chose a different route in to football after initially pursuing a business degree at university which subsequently brought interest in sports science, and pulled the youngster back to the world of football – this time on the coaching path. Over the last decade, Nagelsmann has worked his way up from U17 coach to Champions League boss and his journey represents the promise of a new era of football management. Gone are the days where top managers had to be top players. It shouldn’t have taken us this long to reach that assumption.

This is not a new phase nor is it a fancy trend. There have been successful managers who have taken this route for decades, and we, as British football fans, need to learn to embrace it. Nagelsmann’s story has brought this generation of coaches to prominence but it has been long in the making. Nagelsmann's footballing education was aided by another young promising coach Thomas Tuchel, who up until recently was impressive in his exploits at Borussia Dortmund. One of the world’s top managers, Jose Mourinho was never a top player and would tell you so himself, but he needed the stamp of approval of a European trophy before he bought over the British media. Now, I say that loosely as Jose’s achievements at Porto were nothing short of incredible, but his journey is one we should look to replicate rather than stand back in admiration for.

Under Jose’s tutelage came Andres Villas-Boas, who scarcely kicked a ball in the professional ranks. There were questions over whether he could handle the heat having never been part of the dressing-room, and despite his cloudy departures from both Chelsea and their rivals Tottenham, AVB has helped kick the perception of the ‘inexperienced’ and scientific type coach by winning countless titles across Europe. From a similar background came Monaco’s title winning coach Leonardo Jardim who took his steps in to youth coaching after studying a university degree. His young and exciting side caught the hearts and minds of many on their run to the Champions League semi-finals last season. The unorthodox route in to football management is not as uncommon as we think and we should look to set these standards across the UK.

For every failed manager from this academic or ‘new-era’ background, you also have a flopped ex-pro. Take Gary Neville: arguably the best pundit in British broadcasting, he certainly talks a good game but came up short in his role at Valencia. Although that may be harsh to Neville, given the circumstances at the floundering Spanish club, it is also harsh to write off these young managers who are rarely given the chance to prove their capabilities. Many clubs are continuing to opt for the ‘old-school’ coaches, who will win at all costs, and although this may be necessary for some of these clubs where survival is vital, it has become a brutal reciprocal process where progression is minimal. British clubs continue to think in the short term and that is where we are falling behind the likes of Germany, France and Portugal.

We need to take care with our young players, why don’t we take the same approach for our young coaches too. Cathro’s departure underlines the lack of progress Scottish coaches are making. Statistics show that half of the current top flight managers in Scotland went straight in to a managers’ role after retiring, which is more than any in the Bundesliga, PL, La Liga and the three other top European divisions. Thrown in the deep end. An overwhelming majority of the managers across the top European leagues were nurtured as coaches first before leaping in to management, and there seems to be no such patience within the British game.

There is a recognition that the prerequisites of football management are changing, and that a new generation of coaches are rising out of it. Norwich City have recently appointed former amateur footballer and Borussia Dortmund Reserves manager Daniel Farke as their new boss, his route in to management shouldn’t surprise us any longer, but it might take until Norwich top the league for it to be widely recognised. As the great European champion Arrigo Sacchi once quipped “I never realised that in order to become a jockey you have to have been a horse first.”

What do you think a laptop manager would be called in 1987?

Posted by Lewis McKenzie, 01/08/2017

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