Last week I posted the first half of my thoughts on the coaching and management, focussing on the coaching side of things. This second instalment looks into the world of management and in particular the appointment process for managers in the Football League.
Before embarking on the research that shaped what you’ll read below my thought process revolved around a couple of questions. How risky was it for Fulham to appoint a rookie manager in Kit Symons and how is the perception of his performance skewed by our collective affection for him as a former Fulham player?
To answer those questions properly would probably require some multi-faceted research worthy of its own thesis, but as a start, I thought it would be good to look at Symons relative to his peers at the other 71 Football League clubs.
That meant splitting the question into two parts when looking at each of the 72 managers across the Championship, League One and League Two;
· Did they play for the club they currently manage?; and
· Did they play for the club at which they were given their first managerial job?
Starting in the Championship, only 12.5% of current managers are also former players of their current club. 12.5% is 3 managers, and of these three managers, Kit Symons is the only rookie in his first job.
Nottingham Forest’s Dougie Freedman is in his third job, whilst Birmingham City’s Gary Rowett is in his second.
Freedman was also given his first job at a former club (Crystal Palace) and is now on his third club in the division despite not having really excelled at any point along the way.
Rowett was also given his managerial start at a former club, Burton Albion. However, down in League Two, he was able to develop under a less intense microscope. In two seasons at Burton, Rowett showed real talent getting to the play-offs twice, losing in a semi-final and then a final. His stock was obviously rising having been offered the Blackpool job only a short time before he took over at Birmingham. The lure of a former player to a former club proving too strong for either side in that instance.
With the Championship having just 3 out of 24 managers having played for their current club, how does this compare to the lower divisions? Well, combined, 14 (or 29%) out of the 48 League One and Two managers are former players of their current team, with 11 of those currently in their first job. That is a staggeringly higher number than in the Championship and could reflect any number of factors ranging from a willingness to give young (and cheap) managers a start, less intense pressure meaning the risk associated with appointing a rookie is slightly lower and an inability to attract successful experienced managers.
For a club in Fulham’s position to have appointed a rookie manager in the Championship appears something of an unnecessary risk given the fact that the division appears laden with experienced bosses. However, this then leads to a question I will have to leave unanswered. How many of those managers who took their first job at a former club got their chance first as a caretaker before being promoted after a series of good results? With caretaker managers often being on the receiving end of the boost in performance after clubs change manager, how many of these appointments ended up being misjudged, with the first few results under a caretaker not being indicative of their actual managerial ability?
To what extent do players need former clubs to give them their first opportunity? How many good managers have fallen through the cracks through a lack of opportunity and how manager managers who shouldn’t be managers are given an undeserved chance?
Across the entire Football League, a whopping 63% of managers got their first job at club they played for. That’s 45 out of the current 72 managers.
Split between the leagues, the Championship has the lowest percentage, with 58%, followed by League Two at 63% and League One at 67%.
The conclusion is that the cream rises to the top. The extrapolation of both sets of stats together suggests that the more successful managers are those who did not start at a former club…although with the trend coming down to just a few managers, that might be something of a tenuous conclusion.
A more sensible conclusion is that managers, whether or not they started at a former club, benefit from having experience lower down the Football League pyramid. Championship clubs evidently prefer experienced candidates, although that isn’t always the case.
While, at the moment Kit Symons at Fulham is the only club home-grown first time manager in the Championship, there are five others in their first professional managerial job; Paul Clement (Derby), Chris Ramsey (QPR), Lee Carsley (Brentford), Aitor Karanka (Middlesbrough) and Karl Robinson (MK Dons).
Of those, only Karanka and Clement were hired from outside the organisation and Carsley is a temporary appointment. Karanka and Clement both came to the division having been Real Madrid assistant manager, Karanka to Jose Mourinho and Clement to Carlo Ancelotti, so although both are rookie’s neither are exactlt inexperienced.
That leaves Robinson, Ramsey and Symons. Robinson has been MK Dons manager since 2010, and was previously assistant manager to Paul Ince and a coach at Liverpool and Blackburn. His was not a sentimental hire, rather a young coach being given an opportunity in testing circumstances. However, he still got his opportunity thanks to a club giving a chance to someone they were familiar with and is an example of how in-house appointments can succeed. However, MK Dons have been patient with Robinson and Milton Keynes isn’t exactly a pressure cooker environment for a manager.
So to answer my initial questions, was it a risk to appoint Symons? Yes, of course it was, appointing any rookie manager is a risk. Whether or not you believe he’s had the benefit of home-grown goodwill is a lot harder to answer and depends upon who you talk to – one man’s former hero is another man’s current public enemy. So while sentimentality definitely played a part in his appointment, as the data shows, that’s not unusual. How he’s treated as his managerial career progresses may well dictate whether or not sentimentality proves to be a good thing or a bad thing.
As a footnote, whilst we’re not currently in the market for a new manager, when we are it might be worth noting that Cambridge’s Richard Money and Swindon’s Mark Cooper are the only other Football League managers who have played for Fulham, while in Italy, our former striker Vincenzo Montella is currently without a club having left Fiorentina.
For now though, Symons is in his own way defying convention and regardless of anything else, it is human nature for us all to want him to do well.