I have been intending to write this piece for some time and the recent passing of the late Australian football coach, Frank Arok has prompted me to pen my thoughts on football coaches and managers worldwide. Deservedly, Arok has been touted as one of Australia’s better coaches but for someone to call Arok an “icon”, a term today used to describe a person or thing worthy of veneration, exemplifies the unjustified acclaim afforded football coaches in the modern age.
Over the last twenty years, particularly in the English Premier League, we have seen elite level football managers and coaches elevated far beyond their true worth, with those such as Pep Guardiola, Jose Mourinho and Jurgen Klopp commanding outrageous salaries and twenty four hour seven day a week media attention. Do these football managers really deserve the status and celebrity sent their way? A coach or a manager cannot transform an average footballer into a good footballer. Sir Alex Ferguson did not make David Beckham, Paul Scholes or Ryan Giggs the players they were. Despite Manchester United winning thirteen Premier League titles under his management, if my late mother had been given the squads and financial resources at Ferguson’s disposal, I’m sure that mum could have sent Ferguson’s Manchester United teams on to the pitch and achieved similar results.
A football coach is not a teacher but a supervisor and can never bestow upon a player the ability to play football. Who taught Bjorn Borg the tennis skills to win five successive Wimbledon championships? Who showed Muhammad Ali how to “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee” and can anyone name Sir Donald Bradman’s batting coach? In fact, Bjorn Borg’s mentor, Lennard Bergelin warned against coaches trying to change Borg’s rough looking jerky strokes. Of course, the innate natural ability of these famous sportsmen was born and not coached.
The predominant value of a coach is their capacity to get the best out of his or her players and to maintain harmony within the playing squad. In a professional club, the coach will have input into the recruitment of players and he or she will then pick the best eleven and devise tactics based on the players at the coach’s disposal. Aside from these aspects of the coaching CV, can someone explain to me how Jurgen Klopp can justify his £10m (AUD 17.6m) annual salary and the God like status granted him by the adoring football media? The little known American, Emmert Wolf once wrote that “a man is only as good as his tools” and likewise the man, Jurgen Klopp is only as good as the collective ability of his Liverpool “tools”
I’m sure that coaches spend hours working out their systems whether it be 4-2-3-1, 4-1-4-1, studying videos of their opposition or just holding press conferences. They probably agonise as to whether they should play with a “False 9”, “inverted wingers”, “two number 10’s” or whatever new vocabulary and positions are topical. In saying this, it would be appropriate to recall former Liverpool manager Bill Shankly’s opinion that “football is a simple game made difficult by those who should know better”. Fellow respected Scottish born manager Sir Matt Busby’s pre game instruction to his Manchester United teams would often be limited to “go out and enjoy yourselves”. Busby knew he had the players capable of playing the style of football he wanted, knew their limitations and no further instruction was necessary. The players from those Liverpool and Manchester United teams had enormous respect, if not affection for their mentors, traits that the modern day manager would find more difficult to extract from their pampered, extremely wealthy footballers.
The “Magical Magyars”, the wonderful Hungarian team of the 1950’s owed their success primarily to exceptional footballers in Puskas, Hidegkuti & Bozsic. Their coach Gusztav Sebes, was tactically astute in his use of Hidegkuti as a withdrawn centre forward but the players were instrumental in that country’s achievements. In 1958 & 1962 Brazil’s World Cup victories were built on the wonderful performances of Pele and Garrincha rather than any outstanding coaching. In 1966, England manager Sir Alf Ramsey was praised for his “wingless wonders” playing a 4-3-3 system without wing forwards. That England triumphed however, was primarily due to a superb goalkeeper in Gordon Banks, the defensive qualities and leadership of Bobby Moore and the goalscoring prowess of Geoff Hurst and Bobby Charlton. In fact, it would be difficult to nominate any manager who had a major influence on a World Cup win since the inception of the competition in 1930.
Blanket TV and other media football coverage has magnified the persona of the game’s players and coaches /managers with the numerous “expert” pundits micro analysing matches and seeking to make the game into the science that it is not. Unfortunately, the focus on coaches and their tactics and systems, has filtered down through all levels of football. Believe it or not, we now have grassroots’ coaches asking Under 10 kids to play as a “6” or for another to play “in the hole” as a “10”. Children don’t need tactics, confusing terminology nor their coach barking instructions to them consistently throughout the game. They need to get out and play as often as they can, without interference from parents and coaches. By all means let the parents and coaches encourage and support the children but that’s as far as it should go. On the football field, like elsewhere, necessity can be the mother of invention. If the child has a ball at their feet as much as possible, their intuition and football ability will ultimately come out on top, irrespective of any coaching input.
In the early 1950’s with television growing in popularity, the famous English cricket batsman Denis Compton wrote that watching ten minutes of quality players from any number of sports, was more beneficial for the budding player than ten hours of reading a coaching manual or 10 days of physical coaching. I agree wholeheartedly with Compton’s opinion. Watching football as a boy, either on television, at Old Trafford or just a local park, was my football education. I played as much as I could – in the schoolyard, the beach and even in the vacant guard’s compartment on the train going to school, all the time trying to emulate the skills of those better than myself.
I played football from the age of five and emigrated from England to Australia at the age of thirteen. It was not until I was selected in the Manly Warringah Under 14 representative team, that I received any form of coaching. Three years later I was scoring goals for the Manchester United “B” team. I don’t believe that the lack of coaching impaired my football development.
In 1958, Tom Finney, one of England’s finest footballers lamented that “British football produced more great players in the days when coaching on a national scale was non-existent”. There is no shortage of people wanting to make a dollar out of the game. This has seen football academies grow in massive numbers throughout the world. The academies feed off gullible parents desperate for their children to become the next Lionel Messi or in Australia, a Harry Kewell or a Sam Kerr. Sadly, the parents have to foot the bill, not just pecuniary but in time, ferrying their children to their many coaching sessions. If the fundamentals are there, a good coach can improve a player’s sense of positional play and blend a group of eleven units into a machine but no amount of coaching will transform a player with two left feet into professional footballer.
As long as football retains its’ popularity and the TV pundits and the media scrutinize every word and action of professional coaches and managers, the myth of the coach’s importance and their influence on the game will live on. If Jose Mourinho ultimately fails at Tottenham Hotspur, there will be another club that will be prepared to pay his extravagant salary, suffer his bouts of sullen behaviour and maybe even pick up the tab for his living in a luxury hotel for two and a half years. If Liverpool are prepared to pay Jurgen Klopp £10m annually, being the market rate for his managerial pedigree, I’m fine with that but if Liverpool win the English Premier League this year, you will not convince me that Jurgen Norbert Klopp was the fundamental reason for the club’s success.
David Jack ©2021