Mihir Bose: Can British managers ever hope to manage a big club?

Talk of West Ham turning to Rafa Benitez in place of Sam Allardyce raises the question: what about British managers? If even a club like West Ham thinks foreign what hope is there for Britons who dream of managing the likes of Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal or Manchester City? And that this is a question being asked in a season where British managers have made quite a mark shows the problem for the native born.

I doubt if since the rise of the cult of the foreign manager in this country we have had so much spotlight on British managers. Think Eddie Howe at Bournemouth, who has done the seemingly impossible by taking the club into the Premiership. Or Alex Neil, the Scot, who could do the same with Norwich. Garry Monk, at Swansea, has done so well that he can express regret for missing out on Europe and this after playing fluent, attractive, football. And then there is Alan Pardew, who took over Crystal Palace when it looked doomed and saved them with more than something to spare.

Pardew will never be loved by Newcastle fans, although he did a good job there, but not only is he in the mould of the classic English manager, a David Pleat or Harry Redknapp, having learnt the trade by managing at various lower division clubs but, as he has shown at Crystal Palace, he can fashion attractive teams even when he has had to fight a relegation battle.

However, even Pardew admits, “There are glass ceilings for British managers.” Pardew sees this as a problem created by the British press which, he says, “can be hard on British managers. If you are self-confident you get classed as being arrogant and stand offish, but actually you have got to have a certain ego to be a manager.” The analogy he gives is of that famous Ready Brek advertisement which shows a young kid going out in the cold morning with a glow round him because he has had that cereal. Such is his aura that an older man cycling past is overwhelmed and falls of his bike.

For Pardew, “You need to have that kind of assurance that you are good at what you do. But when we have it the British people class it as arrogance, whereas in America you would be classed as a leader of men. That’s the way we are with people who are successful in this country so we have to battle against that a little bit.”

All this, of course, has not been helped by what may be called the shadow cast by David Moyes’ short and less than successful regime at Manchester United. As Pardew admits, “It was unfortunate that the David Moyes thing didn’t work out, that hasn’t helped us [British managers] really. His performance is being reviewed a little bit. He’s being given the benefit of the doubt for his time there, the picture is becoming a little bit clearer that he didn’t do that bad a job, perhaps he needed a bit more time. Louis van Gaal carries that job of very well, because he’s got unbelievable self-confidence and an arrogance about him. You need that, maybe David needed a bit more of that. Ironically, we are constantly encouraged not to be arrogant. It’s not just the British media, it’s society. We want to bring people down when they do really well.”

The Moyes failure at Manchester United was ironic for other reasons as well. For his predecessor, Alex Ferguson, had himself broken through a glass ceiling, this one concerning Scottish managers. Before his appointment there was a belief common in English football that a Scottish manager with no experience of playing in England could not manage south of the border. The example given was that of the great Jock Stein at Leeds, who lasted just 44 days before leaving to manage Scotland. Bill Shankly and Matt Busby had done brilliantly but then they had played for English clubs, Busby for Manchester City, whereas Ferguson had no experience of English football before he came to United. This lack of experience was much debated by the United board before he was appointed. Ironically, Ferguson’s success did not create a demand for Scottish managers but that is because his era was marked by the emergence of the Premier League and the Bosman ruling which has so revolutionised the English game that the doubts expressed by the United board before they appointed Ferguson in 1986 now seem to belong to the Victorian age.

And that revolution has created problems which younger British managers are very aware of. So consider Karl Robinson of MK Dons, one of our best young managers, and a man who, incidentally, hero worships Sam Allardyce. When I asked him if his generation of English managers felt they were getting a raw deal his answer was: “Yeah, well, when you look at the Dutch system or the Spanish system, they employ Spanish coaches and Dutch coaches. In Holland every year Ajax, PSV or Feyenoord win the league. And they let Dutch managers manage those teams. So every year we have a Dutch manager winning their major league. And then they go on to the continent and they have an unbelievable reputation. Same in Spain. They employ managers of that ilk, other than your Real Madrid or your Barcelona.”

But even as Robinson said this he went on to say that once he had finished at MK Dons he would not want to manage another English club, even one in the higher Leagues but, “I’d like to work abroad, go to the continent. I want to learn my trade somewhere else at some stage in my career. Because I want to learn that other side of the game.”

And that in many ways sums up the problem for British managers. As this season has shown at a certain level they can do very well. But at the highest level English clubs are like Real or Barcelona, they look for the best talent and that is always from abroad. And at the same time the revolution wrought by managers like Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho means young British managers, like Robinson, feel they need to leave home to learn their trade before they even try and aspire to manage a reasonable sized club at home, let alone a truly big one. And for all the success of Howe and Monk this season that settled managerial pattern is not going to change.

Mihir Bose was the first sports editor of the BBC. He has worked for various media outlets and launched the Inside Sport column for the Daily Telegraph. Now a freelance journalist he has written 29 books. His recent books include The Spirit of the Game, How Sport Made the Modern World and The Game Changer: How the Premier League came to dominate the World. Follow Mihir on twitter @mihirbose