By J Hutcherson – WASHINGTON, DC (Feb 10, 2012) US Soccer Players — With Fabio Capello opting not to continue as England manager this week, the interplay between the coach and the administration is once again the topic du jour in world soccer. Whether it’s for club or country, the job role of the head coach has historically been a source of friction. For England’s National Team setup, the issue is simple. The administration chose to act, stripping a player of his captaincy without the consent of the coach. In turn, the coach chose to act.
Now England is approaching EURO 2012 with an interim manager and conducting a job search for Capello’s eventual successor. That’s not the optimal situation months before games count, but those running the Football Association had to consider the possibility when they made the decision to exercise their authority.
In real terms, that’s what coach – management issues are about, the exercise of authority. Again, this has no separation between club and country and is rooted in the idea of the coach holding ultimate authority over playing decisions. In English club soccer, it used to be more than just playing decisions. Historically, the role of the manager included pretty much whatever the manager in question wanted to do.
That’s in stark contrast to another of the world’s oldest professional team sports, Major League Baseball where the job of the field manager evolved into just that. General managers and staff handle the player personnel decisions, while the field manager works with what the front office gives him. Though the era of the English manager barely answering to the board is no longer common with clubs trying to maximize multinational appeal and the associated revenue streams, it’s still closer to that than what’s normal in baseball. The North American pro sports corollary would be a National Football League coach, especially those coaches also holding the GM title.
At least in England, the National Team job was different. A coach taking that position up until the 1960’s knew they would be dealing with a selection committee. Like with baseball, the Football Association had a panel that picked the players, with the coach operating with whomever that panel selected. That changed during Alf Ramsey’s run as England manager, with his successor Don Revie turning the job into something that at least resembled the role of the club coach in the 1970’s. Revie wanted to use some of the things he’d done with Leeds United, and he was given the leeway.
England’s National Team job modernized alongside the role of the club coach, and the contemporary version is something that isn’t seen as a significant obstacle. Any manager of a successful club knows all about the club vs country issues, albeit from the other side. The squad management issues are similar, especially for club coaches that don’t have the luxury of financial backing to buy and pick whoever they want. National Team soccer is about limits, in practical terms closer to the cost control model of Major League Soccer than the world all-star lineups coaches with elite club teams are able to field.
Maneuvering is critical to both jobs. Even with a seemingly unlimited transfer budget players might not necessarily choose to sign and they might not workout once they get there. Again, the club manager’s role becomes one of negotiations at multiple levels: getting the funds, spending them, and showing that the choices work. The National Team manager doesn’t need the funds, but he or she does need the support of the governing body, the cooperation of the clubs that hold the player contracts, and the ability to put together a squad that works.
With either job, should any of those steps become difficult the role of the manager, not to mention the administrators, can quickly become problematic. It’s why so few of the great English club manager stories end well. One could argue that’s what makes the stories great in the first place. Brian Clough’s weeks in charge of Leeds in the Fall of 1974 has become its own industry*.
That’s what makes statements like those made by Football Association chairman David Bernstein in the aftermath of Capello’s resignation so tricky. It’s easy enough to stress the power of the administrators in making what they believe to be crucial decisions, but now they have to find someone capable of managing in the environment they’ve created.
In contemporary soccer, especially the brand played at the highest level in England, the real trick is figuring out the balance between coach and administrator. The coach plays a very public role with a specific history. Impede on that station too much, and the coach might just decide to make a very public point.
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* There’s a movie version of David Peace’s book The Damned Utd, along with detailed accounts of what Leeds United was like in that era such as Rob Bagchi and Paul Robinson’s The Unforgiven, Clough’s own autobiographies, and Jonathan Wilson’s new biography of Clough, Brian Clough: Nobody Ever Says Thank You.