English sports fans are still wondering how Steve McClaren came to be appointed England’s football manager, or Andy Robinson England’s rugby manager. However, it’s unfair to single out these two. Almost all coaches are recruited using moronic and illegal methods.
Football, in particular, “is a sad business”, says Bjørn Johansson, who runs a headhunting firm in Zürich and, like his colleagues, is never consulted by clubs seeking managers. The profusion of fantasy football leagues indicates the widely held suspicion that any fool could do the job. Sadly, things won’t change.
This is how coaches are hired in football (and in most other team sports):
The new manager is hired in a mad rush. On a panel at the International Football Arena conference in Zürich this month, Johansson explained that in “normal” business “an average search process takes four to five months”. In football, a club usually finds a coach within a couple of days of sacking his predecessor. “Hesitation is regarded as weak leadership,” explained another panellist, Ilja Kaenzig, then general manager of the German club Hannover 96. At the FT’s sports business summit in London, Brian Barwick, the Football Association’s chief executive, noted that McClaren’s recruitment “took from beginning to end nine weeks”, yet the media accused the FA of being “sluggish”. If only it had been more so.
A rare slow hire became perhaps the most inspired choice of the last decade: Arsenal’s appointment of Arsène Wenger in 1996. Wenger, working in Japan, was not free immediately. Arsenal waited for him, operating under caretaker managers for weeks.
The new manager is interviewed only very cursorily. In “normal” business, a wannabe chief executive writes a business plan, gives a presentation and undergoes several interviews. In football, a club calls a man’s mobile and offers him the job.
The new manager is always a man. The entire industry discriminates illegally against women. He is also almost always white, of conservative appearance, aged between 35 and 60, and a former professional footballer.
There is no evidence that having been a good player is an advantage. Arrigo Sacchi, coach of the great Milan from 1987 to 1991, who had never played himself, said: “You don’t have to have been a horse to be a jockey.” Playing and coaching are indeed different skill-sets. Chris Brady, dean of Bournemouth University’s business school, carried out a study that showed “no correlation” between having been a great player and doing well as manager in the English Premiership. Match for match, the most successful coach in football history is probably Chelsea’s Jose Mourinho, who barely kicked a ball for money. Asked why failed players often became good coaches, Mourinho replied: “More time to study.”
In British football, the new manager traditionally didn’t need professional qualifications. Only in 2003 did Uefa, the European football authority, insist that new Premiership managers must have passed the “Pro Licence” course. In England’s lower divisions this remains unnecessary. Yet Sue Bridgewater, associate professor at Warwick Business School, showed that managers with the Pro Licence won significantly more matches than managers without it. She also showed that experienced managers outperformed novices. That qualifications and experience are useful is understood in every industry except English football, where a manager is expected to work the magic he acquired as a superhero footballer.
The new manager is often unqualified even if he has qualifications. Brady teaches finance and accounting on the Pro Licence course. His entire module takes half a day. No wonder some English managers mismanage money. Clubs are ceasing to entrust their finances to managers, giving them instead to more qualified executives like Kaenzig, who guarantee stability by staying longer than the club manager’s average two-year tenure. That at least is the theory: the week after the Zürich conference, Hannover released Kaenzig.
The new manager is appointed either because he is free (often because he was recently sacked) or because he has achieved good results over his career or, failing that, in the weeks before the appointment. McClaren became England manager only because his team, Middlesbrough, reached the Uefa Cup final just before the FA decided to pick someone. By the time Middlesbrough were tonked 4-0 by Seville in the final, McClaren already had the job.
The coach’s period under review is thus often so short as to be a random walk. Recall, for instance, the main candidates to manage England in 1996: Bryan Robson, Frank Clark, Gerry Francis and the eventual choice Glenn Hoddle. Today none of them works as a manager, none had his last job in the Premiership, and none will probably work that high again. They were in the frame in 1996 because they had had good results recently and were English – another illegal consideration in hiring.
Managers are also fired or not fired based on a few recent results, or even on just one. This month McClaren eased the pressure on his job thanks to England’s draw with a mediocre Holland, while Robinson, who had lost seven matches running, currently remains in post thanks to a narrow win over a mediocre South Africa.
The new manager is generally chosen not for his alleged managerial skills, but because his name, appearance and skills at PR are expected to impress the club’s fans, players and the media. That is why no club hires a woman – stupid fans and players would object – and why it was so brave of Milan to appoint the unknown Sacchi, and Arsenal the unknown Wenger. Tony Adams, Arsenal’s then captain, doubted the professorial Frenchman at first sight. A manager must above all look like a manager.
Yet football clubs will stick to their dumb hiring practices. In Zürich, Kaenzig shrugged and explained that that’s just the way the game works.