Issue Picking a football manager out of the crowd

As told by Michael Wood

There is no footage of Andre Villas-Boas playing football.

The new Chelsea boss did not light up the International stage for Portugal, nor did he play for his favoured club FC Porto. He did not achieve minor success in the shadows of the bigger clubs. Andre Villas-Boas, 33 and the youngest Premier League manager since Paul Jewell, did not play football at all.

That is probably not correct. As one reads the story of the rise of Villas-Boas one doubts that he has never booted a ball in earnest but unlike Arsene Wenger, Sven Goran Eriksson and perhaps Jewell who had minor careers Villas-Boas has no clubs on his CV. He is – for all intents – a football manager who has never played football.

He has some good company too. Carlos Alberto Parreria won the World Cup with Brazil in ’94 but never played the game while Arrigo Sacchi, in the other dug out when Parreria’s side claimed the lump of gold, also never played having come into football via a career selling shoes but on the whole even – if like Monsieur Wenger – the most one amounted to was a few lower league games the vast majority of football managers have played football.

But need they have? Is having played football a requirement for a manager not only at the top level, but at any level?

Villas-Boas has a few Portuguese leagues and a Europa Cup to suggest his name to Stamford Bridge and while his appointment will raise eyebrows he is proven. One wonder what the reaction should a League Two club plump to give their big chair to a man who has never got his boots muddy.

There is precedent. Cambridge United once appointed – in a caretaker role – their marketing manager as gaffer but it seems that either my memory or a gentle airbrushing of history has forgotten his name since the early 1990s. Current Tranmere Rovers manager Les Parry made the increasingly popular move from Magic Sponge man to Manager having never played the game.

The track record is hardly inspiring though and in the annual Bradford City March Manager recruitment no name of non-footballers seem to emerge prompting the question would we accept a Bantams Boss who has never played not just for us, but for anyone?

The key, perhaps, is in the skills each person believes the football manager must have. None of them are exclusive to former players but most of them are best tested within the arena of playing the game. The ability to know a player who will do “the business” for you as a gaffer is helped – perhaps – by twenty years lining up next to ten other case studies while the domain knowledge which comes from 500 games of being the subject to different tactics must help when one starts to form them. While these things come best from a life in football as a player the story of Villas-Boas suggests that immersion in football can come in other forms than just pulling on the shirt.

Chief amongst the issues for the manager who has never played would seem to be commanding the respect of the players and it is oft said that when a manager has “done it all” the players will look up to him. Glenn Hoddle – who became frustrated when his players could not pass as he could – provides the counterpoint but like his colleague with dirty boots the never a footballer manager draws his respect from winning things. The one thing which unites Villas-Boas the never played, Arsene Wenger the might as well not have bothered playing, the decent enough like Sir Alex Ferguson, and Kenny Dalglish the highly decorated player is that they are employed on the basis of what they have won now, not what they did kicking a ball.

Dalglish though was given Liverpool aged 36, Ferguson got to Aberdeen in his early 40s, Wenger took longer still. It seems the better the playing career, the easier the foot in the door. The never playing manager puts his CV on a pile with former internationals, club legends and experienced gaffers. There is little to suggest his name.

Perhaps Villas-Boas, Sacchi, Parreria and in his own way Les Parry show that the manager who can get past that rigour might have something extra to offer. Perhaps if you can outshine names which inspire awe in football boardrooms then you have that extra something which makes a – if one pardons the phrase -a special one.

However Villas-Boas begs an obvious question. If having played football is not needed to be a football manager could any of us be potentially successful? Could the person shouting from the stand behind Peter Jackson be a better choice for Peter Jackson’s job than the manager himself? Could you pull a better football manager out of the crowd?