The Myth of the Modern Manager

In an era where players enjoy more rights but are under more scrutiny than ever before, how has this affected the role of the manager? Musa Okwonga takes a look at the changing dynamic in which the modern manager operates.

It’s difficult not to feel for millennials, who many in the media continually blame for the mess the previous generation has made. There is barely a week when we do not see them censured for not saving enough, or for being insufficiently considerate about the climate: even as their elders revelled in decades of cheap housing and cheap fossil fuels. The peak of this genre arrived when a multi-millionaire property developer went on Australian television and revealed that, if young people these days wanted to own homes, then they should not waste their money on avocado toast.

Football, unfortunately, has not escaped this trend. It is commonly argued that, in order to connect with the millennial footballer, the modern manager must employ gentler methods than his predecessors: the implication being that the players of yesteryear were far more mentally robust than their current incarnations. A frequently-presented example of the old guard is Jose Mourinho, whose methods of man-management - specifically, his often dismissive treatment of creative players - are increasingly seen as a thing of the past.

Yet this analysis does a disservice to coaches of the previous generation, who needed just as much guile and even affability to coax the best from those under their command. Bob Paisley, who led Liverpool to three European Cups and six league championships in just nine years, doubtless had a tough streak but he concealed it beneath a famously affable demeanour. Paisley likened elite footballers to thoroughbred racehorses, sensitive to the slightest changes in atmosphere around them. Sir Bobby Robson, a contemporary of a similar disposition, achieved remarkable feats with Ipswich Town before going on to lead England into the late stages of two World Cups. 

 Bobby Robson, here with Newcastle in Barcelona in 2002, two years from the end of a distinguished 36-year coaching career.

Bobby Robson, here with Newcastle in Barcelona in 2002, two years from the end of a distinguished 36-year coaching career.

Why does this conversation matter? Because, although there is no doubt that football has long had no shortage of fearsome managers, it is reductive to claim that the coaches of yesterday were little more than a gallery of firebrands. Throughout sport, the very best minds have long known that elite performance is not the natural result of the emotionally brutal treatment of athletes. In the 1960s Vince Lombardi led his Green Bay Packers team to no less than five championships in seven years, whilst known for his acceptance of gay players and fellow professionals.  

Moreover, watching the endlessly intense nature of modern managers such as Mourinho, Antonio Conte, Diego Simeone, Pep Guardiola and Thomas Tuchel, it is difficult to argue that they represent a younger, softer breed.  What has undeniably changed is the dynamic in which the modern manager operates. What is often negatively referred to as “player power” in football is simply the vastly improved nature of workers’ rights. It was only a generation ago, until the case of Eastham vs Newcastle United in 1963, that falling out with a manager could mean that you didn’t play football again. It was as recently as 1993, until the Bosman ruling in that year, that footballers could not move to another club without a fee, even if they were out of contract.  

It is reductive to claim that the coaches of yesterday were little more than a gallery of firebrands

With players able to strike a far better bargain for their services, it is no surprise that managers have had to rein in the more authoritarian elements of their natures. There is also an argument that their players, all things considered, are remarkably resilient. Thanks to social media, they are performing in an age of constant scrutiny, where few indiscretions go unnoticed; at the same time, the physical demands of the game have soared. If anything, it is possible that the modern footballer has to be more mentally robust than ever before; and it is questionable whether many commentators take account of the scale of these changes.

That doesn’t make the scenario we have now any better or worse than previous generations; it merely makes it different. Yet what makes managers truly great remains the same, and that is their ability to adjust from season to season. As many of them know, the same formula that brought you a title-winning campaign one season can see you plummet to mid-table the next. Reinvention is key, perhaps more than ever: which is perhaps why the most coveted managers of our generation are not noted primarily for the contents of their trophy cabinet, but for their agility in the face of fresh challenges. And, all in all, maybe that’s exactly how it should be.

Musa Okwonga is a poet, author, journalist, broadcaster, musician, social commentator, football writer and consultant in the fields of creativity and communications. Musa also co-presents the Rabona podcast.