Thursday, 22 August 2013

‘An education’, or a footballing education?

               A few weeks ago, academy-graduate Matthew Pennington signed a professional contract with Everton. The official announcement on the club’s website pointed out that, remarkably for someone at a dedicated football academy, Pennington had also been awarded ten A* grades at GCSE. But when asked about his academic achievements, he insisted that football had always come before his grades. ‘Hopefully,’ he said, ‘I won’t need them at all and I can make a career in the game’. Obviously he does not believe that education can contribute to his career in football, something that might well be true as long as we are talking about time spent as a player. Being able to mathematically determine what proportion of Brendan Roger’s face is made up of nose will obviously not help Pennington become a 20-goal-a-year-striker (especially as he is a defender).

                But what about when his playing career is over? Let’s say Pennington wants to make the transition from player to manager as seamlessly as Alan Shearer - will an education not come in handy there? On the surface there are few areas of a manager’s job that do not look like they would benefit from the skills gleaned from an education. We as a society value education not for the specific knowledge that it imparts, but for the broader proficiencies that come with it: it helps us to express ourselves effectively, think critically and logically and to understand the complexities of the world around us. All of this has obvious relevance to the career of a manager. They are at the helm of extremely rich and popular businesses. Many play a central role in directing the investment of capital on new players, and every manager is the most important point of media contact between the club and the outside world. If you look outside of the football industry, anyone else who occupies a similar position of importance in finance or public relations is expected to be highly educated and trained in their area of expertise
                I know what you are thinking. But what about Harry Redknapp? For those of you that don’t know, dirty ‘arry is currently the manager of the recently-relegated Queen’s Park Rangers. He has had a long and patchily-successful managerial career, presiding over the ruination of Portsmouth as a footballing institution at his worst and taking Tottenham Hotspur to the Champion’s League and setting himself up as bookies’ favourite for the England job as his best. This career is no more or less illustrious than the vast majority of working managers, suggesting that Harry is, at the very least, competent. But then, in 2012, Harry stunned the world with his in-court arguments against charges of tax fraud. His defense, in a nutshell, was utter incompetence. In his own words he ‘writes like a two year old’ and ‘can’t spell’. Neither can he work a computer or send a text. As a result he ‘doesn’t keep anything’ and at work ‘couldn’t even fill a team sheet in’. He also told the court that he was a terrible investor of money, losing 250,000 pounds of his own money when ‘persuaded… at very short notice… to buy [shares in] Oxford United’.  So, this man was entrusted with  control of a club worth roughly 300 million pounds when he openly admits he is a terrible businessman, unable to communicate through standard long distance methods and not capable of even basic tasks like filling out a bit of paper with his player’s names on it. I don’t need to expand on how absurd that is or how a man like that would not be allowed anywhere near a PR or finance job in the real world.
                Or do I? When I say ‘Harry stunned the world’, I’m lying. It caused nothing like the stir it ought to have, and, though Harry was out of work at the time, he was quickly hired as a manager at a new club. I know. Mad. So why does no one care that Harry has these obvious deficiencies? Why was no one surprised?

Harry wonders who he can persuade to write his team sheet
                The answer lies in a widespread belief in the footballing world that the only preparation you need to be a manger is ‘a footballing education’. The idea is that you can pick up all the skills needed to manage through playing football and watching your manager at work. If, as a player, you never learned to read and write, well these are obviously not skills a manager needs! In fact, this is such a strongly-held view that it is actually very difficult to get a job as a manager if you haven’t played football at a high level. The only problem is that it’s obviously not true. A squad needs to have absolute faith in the manager’s decisions and to obey his commands unthinkingly. Thus it is vital that a manager keeps his players completely separate from the decision-making process and even discourages independent thought on managerial matters - if players were party to things like transfer policy it could obviously have a serious effect on their performance. So, if this is true, how is it possible for a player to learn anything meaningful from their manager? Analogy  exposes the absurdity of the idea – would you employ a builder as an architect because he claimed to have worked with Brunel? In fact, a footballing career is, in many ways, a bad starting point for a managerial career, especially in regards to money, because the culture that surrounds footballers is fundamentally detrimental to their ability to deal with their finances (as Timothy Kennet discusses in a forthcoming article on bankruptcy). 
                So, if this is as obviously false as I claim, why do so many chairmen swallow it and appoint people who are obviously not qualified for the roles they fulfil? A slightly uncharitable explanation is that most chairmen are too stupid to know any better. Stupid is unfair; not stupid, but, like the managers they appoint, fundamentally unsuited the role they fulfil. Remember, anyone can buy a football club – the only ‘qualification’ they need is a hatful of money. Normally, the assumption is that this money is indicative of a high level of business acumen in some area of life that can be transferred across to the successful running of a club. This again is clearly not correct, no one appoints a toothpaste magnate to the head of their Hollywood studio; different industries require a completely different set of skills - none more than football.  Case in point is Mr Fernandes, proud owner of budget airline AirAsia, who funded an insane spending spree at his newly-promoted club QPR to try and keep them in the premiership. He sanctioned the spending of nearly 70 million pounds on transfers in 2011/12 and 2012/13 season, mainly on older players with no resale value and high wages. They were promptly relegated at the end of last year with a shamefully low points score and are in a messy financial situation in the significantly less-profitable Championship. He is also the man who hired Harry Redknapp.
                Fernandes, to his credit, recently came out and admitted that in some ways he had ‘could have done it better’. However, he then went on to claim that the reason for the relegation of his team was that he had not spent enough time directly involved in the running of his business compared to the time he spends at his aviation company - ‘If I spent… every day at Loftus Road [the QPR ground], I dare say it would have been a bit different’. Unfortunately, I worry it wouldn’t have made a lick of difference; as long as Mr Fernandes equates the football business with the aviation business he is going to make no progress whatsoever. He needs to recognise that it is an industry in its own right and approach it as such. How can a self-admitted amateur be expected to hire the best person to do an extremely technical job?
                Further evidence that chairmen are not able to exercise the appropriate judgement in the area of managerial appointments comes when we look at the early career of Redknapp’s successor at Tottenham, André Villas-Boas. In 2010 the young manager submitted an application for the vacant managerial post at Burnley which was described by chief executive Paul Fletcher as ‘Amazing. Even by today’s standards there was some complicated stuff in it, with some things that I didn’t understand.’ But Burnely turned him down. The club was relegated at the end of the season whilst AVB went on to have an undefeated treble winning year at Porto, his next team. And why was he turned down? Fletcher explained it this way: ‘Tommy Docherty used to say he never said anything to his players his milkman wouldn’t understand. I don’t think any milkman would fathom the meaning of a lot of André’s presentation.’ Perhaps thirty years ago, when Docherty was in his prime, football was a very different place, a place in which all a manager had to do was to explain simple tactics in babytalk to his players. However, in today’s footballing world that is simply not an acceptable selection criterion for a role as complicated, multifaceted and demanding as managing a football club. The idea that someone as woefully as unqualified as Redknapp managed to sneak into a managerial position no longer seems all that surprising.

Harry and André embrace
                But you know what? I’m not even convinced that Harry Redknapp is that unqualified. The truth is that I absolutely don’t buy the defence of incompetence that he gave in court - there is just no way a man like that could survive in a footballing institution. Recently, Everton gave the world a peek at the ferociously complex and comprehensive scouting network that served their now ex-manager David Moyes[1]. Sure, Moyes is commonly considered to be ahead of the curve when it comes to the thoroughness of his managerial style, but I would be amazed if other clubs didn’t have similar systems in place. When you remember that this is just one small part of what a manager does you realise how vast their responsibilities are. Even Harry must be hard working, capable of processing vast amounts of information and able to communicate effectively. So why present himself as an ignoramus? Obviously not wanting to be convicted of tax fraud was part of it, but I believe that this incident is actually part of a wider trend. The sad fact is that presenting yourself as an idiot is actually no bad thing in football – it may even be a positive attribute (in the footballing culture of the United Kingdom at least).
                Let me explain. One of the reasons football is so fantastically popular is that most of the people involved present themselves as no different from the average man. If he looks no cleverer or more talented than you as a supporter there is nothing to stop you disagreeing with him and even coming up with your own (apparently) equally informed solutions to his problems. This is why football is such an easy thing to talk about and spawns so many discussions in the pub. Only in football do we have supporter organisations of such vast size and with such strongly held views, and only in football do chairman with no qualifications feel in a position to make important decisions. Unlike entertainment industries in which you are supposed to sit back and admire superior talent, football encourages the supporter to imagine himself as a part of it. By cultivating a false atmosphere of accessibility, football has become as close to interactive as any fixed consumer activity ever has. No wonder, therefore, that managers who refuse to join in with this semblance are criticised for being cold and inexcusably arrogant. But realistically, these men do an extremely complicated job; those that do it well have every right to refuse to pretend to be no better than the average supporter. So I don’t for a second accept Harry’s self-presentation.
                But what does this all mean in relation to education and managers, should they be well educated? Well yes and no. They absolutely do need the skills mentioned earlier that are granted by education, no doubt about it, but they don’t necessarily need to obtain them in that way. It is notable that most uneducated managers devoted large amounts of free time in their playing days to developing these talents though other avenues: looking for extra responsibility within the team, investing their own money and participating in the club’s PR programmes. The only difference between these men who have worked hard to educate themselves and their more formally educated co-workers are that they may find it easier to portray themselves as the average man they are not. But I don’t for a second think there is anyone as fundamentally incompetent as Harry pretends to be working in as a manager in the Premiership. Chairmen, on the other hand, are definitely idiots.



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