With the last week’s extraordinary events both on and off the pitch, many would be hard pushed to look beyond the financial muscle, attraction and phenomenon of the Barclays Premier League for entertainment, controversy and eye-catching football. But if they were to have a cursory glance at the top half of the Npower Football League One table, then they’d find a phenomenon of a different kind and an encouraging one at that: the emergence of a group of ambitious, albeit inexperienced, English managers. As it stands, half of the top ten clubs in the league are managed by English managers and what links Chris Powell at Charlton Athletic, Keith Hill at Rochdale, Lee Clark at Huddersfield Town, Lee Bradbury at Bournemouth and Karl Robinson at Milton Keynes Dons are five factors: a shared nationality, enthusiasm, a playing career of some description, youth and, most notably, all are in their first managerial stints.
For years now, the media and press in this country have been bemoaning a distinct lack of talented English managers let alone players, most notably in the Barclays Premier League. While many only seem to care about what is happening in what is perceived to be the best league in the world, the lack of recognition for bright young English managers in the lower leagues is quite frankly disrespectful. The reality is that young talent, be it managerial or personnel, is there. You only need to take one look at the recent January Transfer Window and, in particular, the frenzy surrounding the highly rated Southampton winger, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, as an example of top-flight clubs fighting it out amongst each other to secure the best and brightest talent in England. Thankfully, for the Npower Football League One club’s sake, Chamberlain remains a Saint, at least for now. But whilst young English talent is a matter for another week, young English managers have, in recent years, been causing somewhat of a stir. Burnley’s new manager, Eddie Howe and Paul Ince, now of Notts County, are just one example of this.
Forced into an early retirement by a persistent knee injury, Howe, an ex-defender at Bouremouth, at the age of 31, having spent a few years coaching Bournemouth’s reserve team including a brief spell as caretaker manager, was hired as the club’s youngest ever permanent manager. Since then he hasn’t looked back. Within the space of a year he remarkably guided the Cherries to promotion, to Npower Football League One, this despite the club having a transfer embargo placed on it, and was recently named the Clarets new manager. Howe does he do it? For Ince the story was somewhat different. Having enjoyed a successful spell at Milton Keynes Dons, guiding them to the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy and achieving promotion back to Npower Football League One in the space of year, the lure of the Barclays Premier League was one which he could simply not turn down. His brief spell at Blackburn Rovers, just 17 games at that, was a huge disappointment but a learning curve in itself.
Significantly, Ince became the first black British manager in England’s top flight division and his experience did not put him off management. Indeed he returned back to his old stomping ground within the space of eight months. While Ince may have eclipsed Howe at this moment in time by taking up the mantle in the Barclays Premier League, it is a step which the former is certainly very much capable of taking.
Nonetheless, both cases highlight two important factors: firstly, the lower league is a more than apt environment for managers to learn their trade and secondly, top-flight clubs are, albeit in all honesty only a minority, willing to take a gamble on lower league managers with years or, crucially, although very rarely, months of managerial experience. I say top-flight clubs but most recently the ex-Sheffield United manager Gary Speed even surpassed that by somewhat surprisingly being named Wales’s new national manager, last September. While Speed’s case in particular certainly raised some eyebrows, it points to a wider question of just how important ‘managerial experience’ is when it comes to appointing a manager. Certainly what links the likes of Speed, Ince and the five English managers in question in Npower Football League One is playing experience of some sort. This can be attributed more so to Speed, Ince, Powell and Clark who themselves have represented their countries at international level, be it at under-21 level in Clark’s case. Thus, although the requirements demanded are of a different kind and the transition from player to manager is a big one, it seems that as a general rule, some sort of playing experience is an important asset to have.
Nevertheless, what is refreshing to see, far more so in the Npower Football Leagues than in the Barclays Premier League, is that people with no previous managerial experience are being given a chance to prove their worth. I deliberately say people because even non-footballers have over the years broken into the managerial set-up. Look no further than Dr. Les Parry and Nigel Adkins – Tranmere Rovers and Scunthorpe United’s managers/physiotherapists respectively Of course one can argue that the stakes in the lower-leagues are no way near as high as they are in the Barclays Premier League and so chairmen are allowed some leeway when it comes to appointing a manager, which is itself a perfectly valid argument. Yet, the very fact that there are currently, according to the latest list published by the League Managers Association, 60 English managers out of work, underlines that chairmen do not necessarily need to take a perceived gamble on young, inexperienced managers. Out of the five inexperienced managers in question in Npower Football League One, Karl Robinson of Milton Keynes Dons is the most interesting case. His playing career was spent in the very lowest echelons of English football with the likes of Marine, Oswestry Town and Kidsgrove Athletic but he had coached at both Blackburn Rovers and Liverpool and had been assistant manager to Paul Ince during his second spell in charge of the club. Nevertheless the decision to appoint Robinson at the age of just 29 was seen as a bold step taken by Chairman Pete Winkelman. What Robinson does not possess in lower-league football experience, he more than makes up for with both his ambition and coaching credentials. Milton Keynes Dons currently find themselves just outside the play-off places, albeit only on goal difference, alongside Paul Dickov’s Oldham Athletic and Chris Powell’s Charlton Athletic in what is proving to be another exciting promotion chase in Npower Football League One. Regardless of where Milton Keynes Dons finish, for their sake hopefully in some form of promotion spot, Pete Winkelman should be applauded as a chairman who believes and, more importantly, trusts in youth – a philosophy which should be replicated at higher league levels.
Of the five managers in Npower League One, the one huge advantage they have is youth. The mean age of messers Powell (41), Hill (41), Clark (38), Bradbury (35) and Robinson (30), is 37 – mere kids in managerial years. And like kids, over time they will mature, learning through their experiences, accumulating knowledge and coming to love Hannah Montana – say what? Mind you Miley Cyrus… Anyway, such an upbringing has certainly worked to Speed, Ince and Howe’s advantage. However, the big fear for chairmen of clubs who possess these young bright managerial talents is that a higher placed club will eventually come to snatch them away from under their noses. A pattern unfortunately reciprocated with that of young lower league English talent. In some cases, like that of Paul Ince, the opportunity to work in the Barclays Premier League was one which even Pete Winkelman at Milton Keynes Dons could not begrudge him. Yet, like young English players, one should question whether a step up, particularly so early in ones career, is an absolute necessity. Surely a few seasons in the lower leagues, moulding your own team together, achieving stability and experimenting so as to find out about your own strengths and weaknesses as a manager would provide a better learning curve than being thrust into the spotlight at a ‘bigger’ club where results are effectively everything. Some quarters would perceive this as being overtly negative and a wonderful opportunity, but in some cases reputations which may have been built up over many years on the pitch, have consequently crumbled within the space of a matter of months off it – ain’t that right Keano?
It is my belief that too often in this country, especially in the Barclays Premier League, there is an all too familiar tendency for chairmen to look abroad to both fill managerial vacancies and invest in foreign talent. Yet, given the ever increasing importance of either staying or challenging for European places in the Barclays Premier League, primarily driven by monetary factors, it appears that the prospect of a young English manager given the chance to manage in the top-flight is slowly diminishing. In most cases a safe pair of hands with plenty of experience is the correct formula and it would take a brave chairman to go against this trend. Yet, ever since England’s dismal showing in last year’s World Cup, the Football Association’s focus has very much been on investing in England’s future in both managerial and personnel circles. Of course English football as a whole needs a serious looking at but the FA could do no worse than investing serious time in nurturing the young, upcoming English managers in the lower leagues. Call me jingoistic, but if English football really has its sights set on challenging for major honours then the time to start planning for the future must begin now. The former Manchester City manager, Stuart Pearce, is already an important part of the England set up, managing at under-21 level and acting as a coach for Fabio Capello’s England team whilst the former Middlesbrough manager, Gareth Southgate, was recently appointed alongside Sir Trevor Brooking as the FA’s head of elite development. Change is happening in the highest echelons of English football and now that change must continue to be instigated down into the Barclays Premier League and beyond.
There is no doubt that a wealth of managerial potential exists within the Npower Football Leagues. If this potential is channelled in the right direction, then we could, premature I know, be witnessing the birth of a future England manager. It is abundantly clear that there are people out there who are desperate to give something back to a game which, in itself, helped to mould their own careers. What the game needs are chairmen like Pete Winkelman who are willing to give these people an opportunity, to share their ambition and trust their judgement. If such an approach is taken then the English game will only be better for it. So come on, lets give youth a chance.