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May 13, 2009

Managers need to learn history lessons

When former Liverpool boss, and one of Europe's most highly respected coaches, Gerard Houllier was asked if players were taking on managerial roles too soon, he retorted: "Would a manager of a big company put somebody without experience into a key position in his company? No, he would not, but they do in football."

Football has shown itself to be willing to take risks on inexperience but, as the fledgling careers of Marco Van Basten and Jurgen Klinsmann came to end over the past few weeks, has also shown a naivety when it comes to management decisions.

Neither manager was ready to take over their respective national teams when they ended their playing careers, but the powers-that-be decided to install a figurehead instead of a coach that would guarantee long-term stability. Klinsmann showed some early promise by leading Germany to the semi-finals in the 2006 World Cup, but his fragility was shown up in his ill-fated stint at Bayern Munich. His training methods garnered criticism, but the root of the problem stemmed from the fact that he had jumped from the pitch to the dugout far too quickly.

Van Basten, too, was scathing in his assessment of his own performance as boss of Ajax. "I came to the conclusion that my qualities are not enough to do better with this squad next season," he said upon resigning. Having spent far too little time as an Ajax youth coach, he cut his teeth with the Dutch national team and, despite more early promise and a flourish at Euro 2008, never totally convinced that he had the tools at his disposal to become a successful manager.

Great players do not automatically become great managers and, as a way of aiding a player's transition into coaching, the idea of them serving "apprenticeship" is appealing. Young players are forced to prove themselves during trials, reserve team games and training sessions, so why not a manager?

Dipping into history, a vast majority of the best managers in the game began their coaching careers slowly. "Total Football" creator Rinus Michels spent five years honing his skills before taking the reins at Ajax and later Holland, Ernst Happel took three years to graduate to management after his playing career and won honours with four different clubs before considering international management in 1978; while Bill Shankly spent a decade managing the likes of Carlisle United and Workington before building his dynasty with Liverpool.

The case is strengthened when you look at the most successful bosses in Europe nowadays. Arsene Wenger began his career in France, before his time in Japan took him to the Arsenal job. Sir Alex Ferguson started off with smaller clubs in Scotland, making his name with Aberdeen and moving onto greatness with Manchester United; while Jose Mourinho learnt his trade as a translator and assistant under Bobby Robson before ever thinking of taking on a full-time managerial role.

Even those who had a successful playing career themselves appear have benefited from taking it slow. Carlo Ancelotti started his managerial life in Serie B with Reggiana. Bernd Schuster made his name in the German second division.

More recently, one of Europe's youngest bosses, Frenchman Laurent Blanc made it clear in 2004 that he would be keen to take over the France national team position from Jacques Santini, but had no qualifications and was rejected in favour of Raymond Domenech. While the FFF might regret their decision now - given his recent success with Bordeaux - it was a decision that worked in the favour of "Lolo".

Avoiding the national spotlight, Blanc was able to spend four years learning his trade. Picking up a degree in management and all the UEFA badges required by a modern manager, the former defender gave himself time to adjust to the transition between playing and coaching and it was to Bordeaux's benefit when they hired him in 2007.

Likewise, Pep Guardiola served a year's apprenticeship with the Barcelona B side, before the board realised that he had something special and announced him as the successor to Frank Rijkaard last year. Having played for the Catalan club for 11 years, Guardiola would have found the transition to managing at the Nou Camp easier and may not have got the job without this connection, but his experience of the lower divisions can certainly be pinpointed as a vital learning curve.

While the benefits of learning your trade seem apparent, Rijkaard and Italian Roberto Mancini fall into an interesting category. Rijkaard went straight into international management for the Netherlands and, despite not being taken seriously given his lack of experience, led Holland to the semi-finals of Euro 2000 - resigning shortly afterwards. He won two La Liga titles and the European Cup in his next job with Barcelona, but now finds himself looking for work after failing to convince with his style of man-management.

Mancini, too, finds himself currently unemployed after being sacked by Inter Milan. He may have won a host of Coppa Italia titles and Scudetto during his time in Serie A but did not look like he could ever build a dynasty at the San Siro and, after jumping straight into management with Fiorentina in 2001, has yet to fully prove himself as one of Europe's elite.

These two appear evidence that even success cannot mask a deficiency of management ability at the very top. Both found management to be far more taxing than playing and the experience gained from working your way up the ladder cannot be understated.

Of course there will always be an exception to the argument. As in his playing career, Diego Maradona was not one to follow the tradition route into management. El Pibe de Oro (The Golden Boy) was probably the only choice for the fans of Argentina once Alfio Basile left in 2008, despite his lack of experience, but he did not take the job blind.

Surrounding himself with an established team, including Carlos Bilardo his former coach, and highly-respected assistant Pedro Troglio, Maradona brought in a host of names to help him behind the scenes. With the ability to rule as a figurehead, Maradona has succeeded in winning three of his four games in charge thus far (the defeat an embarrassing but understandable 6-1 loss to Bolivia at high altitude), but it is a route that should not be followed by lesser mortals and may yet to prove harmful to the Argentine's god-like status.

Van Basten, Klinsmann and any of the next generation of stars considering a career in management should heed the warning of history. Success and long-term stability comes from building your career slowly, learning your trade and gaining experience of the job before being thrust into the spotlight. Otherwise, you're likely to become just another statistic.

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