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The Lost Art Of The Player Manager

Thursday 3rd August 2017
Bryan Robson was one of the most recent player-managers when he took the reins at Middlesbrough. Will we ever see another player-manager?
Bryan Robson was one of the most recent player-managers when he took the reins at Middlesbrough. Will we ever see another player-manager?

From the somewhat fatherly figure of Herbert Chapman at Northampton Town over a century ago, to the rather more imposing presence of Graeme Souness at Rangers in the mid-1980s, Player Managers were once something of a staple in British football.

Combining the roles of gaffer and gopher, both on and off the pitch, the job was seen as a marriage made in heaven; a hands-on role that would have any wannabe David Brents rolling their sleeves up in anticipation at getting stuck-in.

Surprisingly, though, with the exception of a few cases in the lower reaches of the game, the player boss is now something of a rarity in football; rather like muddy pitches, indirect free-kicks in the box and floodlight pylons.

In the post war years, those in the twilight of their careers were often more than happy to take on the extra duties of managing the side while still maintaining a presence on the field as tired limbs deteriorated but the mind remained as sharp as ever.

Bobby Charlton, for example, left Manchester United to become the player-coach at Preston North End in 1973, though probably wished he hadn’t after something of a miserable spell at Deepdale.

Some even took the job description a little too literally. After the glory days of Leeds, Johnny Giles not only became West Brom’s player manager, but the Republic of Ireland’s also in the ultimate example of representing both club and country; while Terry Neil did the same for Hull City and Northern Ireland.

But without doubt the dawning of the 1980s brought with it something of a golden era for tracksuit managers, with two titans of the game dragging this Jack of all trades role imperiously into the mainstream in the most spectacular fashion.

In his first year as Liverpool player manager, Kenny Dalglish won the League and FA Cup double in 1986, while up in Scotland, Graeme Souness brought about something of a Rangers revolution when he arrived at Ibrox from Sampdoria the same year.

It’s fair to say that both were quite dependent on a strong backroom staff with Bob Paisley being brought back to be Dalglish’s number two at Anfield while Souness often relied heavily on his right-hand-man, Walter Smith, as he carried out his on-field duties.

As clubs saw the potential on offer to them there seemed no end of big names willing to take-up the role. Trevor Francis became player-boss at Sheffield Wednesday, Glenn Hoddle at Swindon, Gordon Strachan at Coventry while Peter Reid juggled both positions at Manchester City.

Not wishing to be outdone, Chelsea followed suit, employing no fewer than three Player Managers in six years throughout the ‘90s with Glenn Hoddle, Ruud Gullit and Gianluca Vialli all embracing the dual role. And who could forget Bryan Robson donning both kit and suit as he rocked-up at ambitious Middlesbrough in 1994?

The birth of the Premier League brought with it many changes, though, not least to the role of the manager, which would undergo something of a huge transformation at all levels; but this didn’t signal an immediate end to the role. Dennis Wise, Andy Hessenthaler and Mark Hately still plied their multiple trades at Millwall, Gillingham and Hull respectively; but the top-flight player-manager had all but become extinct.

While never a long-term prospect at the best of times - even in the unpredictable industry of football management - the Player Manager now feels like a truly outdated concept and very much a part of an era that the sport has forgotten.

As the English game continues to mirror that on the continent, where hours of intensive studying and compulsory coaching qualifications are a must, the role is no longer the simple option for those coming to the end of their playing days and wishing to extend their career.

Taking more than 500 hours of theory and practical study to complete the UEFA A, B and Pro Licence badges there’s simply no time for budding bosses to learn on-the-job anymore as they face the tricky decision of deciding when to call it a day and move on to the next chapter.

Of course there have been exceptions to this rule, like Edgar Davids’ somewhat unsuccessful stint at League Two Barnet, where he managed to get sent off three times in just eight games and refused to travel to long-distance away games. Perhaps more a case of a player who simply couldn’t let go of the matchday buzz than one looking to further his career in the game?

These days, though, what would have been a top-flight Player Manager has become more of a touchline tactician, content to prolong their playing days through those who they are employed to coach from the sideline.

And as a result, the likes of Pep, Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp, Mauricio Pochettino and Antonio Conte - who choose to keep their playing days fresh in the memory while making every challenge, kicking every ball and heading every cross from the relative safety of the technical area - have ensured that, if nothing else, the modern day Player Manager lives on in spirit rather than reality.

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