When Andre Villas-Boas began his first job in management at Academica Coimbra in 2009 at the age of 31, his reputation was based purely on his work in the back-room staff of Jose Mourinho and a high-profile stint as a TV pundit during the World Cup finals three years earlier.
Not that it was unusual in Portugal at the time. Mourinho had quit his assistant’s job at Barcelona in 2000 and returned to the country to be given Benfica as his first manager’s job. He left over a change in the club’s president but, even so, it would be the equivalent of an English coach being handed Liverpool as his first job.
Of course, the greatest rookie manager of modern times is Pep Guardiola, who was given the Barcelona job after just one year in charge of the club’s B team. His story is the most remarkable of the lot and the greatest example of what a bold appointment can do for a club.
It is all worth Daniel Levy bearing in mind when he reflects on some of the nonsense that has been spouted in the last two days about the lack of managerial experience that so many suppose is holding back Tim Sherwood when it comes to getting the Tottenham Hotspur job on a permanent basis.
Of course, there are no guarantees that should he be handed the reins Sherwood will make a success of it. Just as there were none when relegation-threatened Coimbra put Villas-Boas in charge (23 games later he was appointed by Porto). Or when Guardiola took over from Frank Rijkaard in 2008. But it is ridiculous to claim there is some fundamental obstacle in Sherwood’s way. There is none.
Spurs’ performance under Sherwood in their 3-2 win away at Southampton on Sunday was excellent. So too the small details, like the trust Sherwood placed in Nabil Bentaleb, the promising French 19-year-old midfielder who looked very composed when he came on. Only a man who had spent five years working with the development teams as the technical co-ordinator would have known Bentaleb was ready.
Even so, the results in the two games Sherwood has overseen since being thrown in last Monday should be largely irrelevant when judging his readiness. Sherwood is more than capable of doing the job. But this is England, where supporters often demand another big-name manager off the big-name carousel and owners and chairmen show little more imagination.
The idea that all managers should prove themselves in the lower divisions is a good one, but it does not hold true that it is crucial to make a successful coach. Take, for instance, the careers of the 16 managers who will contest the Champions League knockout stages in the spring: nine of them began in management with top-flight clubs.
Of those nine, Roberto Mancini (first club, Fiorentina), Laurent Blanc (Bordeaux), Sami Hyypia (Bayer Leverkusen), Diego Simeone (Racing, in Argentina) and Guardiola had august playing careers. It has always been the case that the famous ex-player, who plays his hand well, gets at least one crack at a big job.
Others, such as Manuel Pellegrini (Universidad de Chile) and Jens Keller (Stuttgart) had decent, but lower-profile playing careers that led to them starting at top-flight clubs in their home countries. Although part of the championship-winning Strasbourg squad of 1979, Arsène Wenger was mainly an amateur footballer in France, yet he landed his first job in 1984 at top-flight Nancy. Mourinho had no playing career to speak of.
Of those three groups, Sherwood fits into the second, as the captain of the 1995 Premier League-winning Blackburn team and having had an international career that encompassed more call-ups than it did caps. That aside, placed on the curve of modern management, he is a long way from being a wild card.
He has been immersed in developing the club’s players, notably an Under-21s side who won their groups in both the first two stages of the Premier League competition last year, eventually finishing runners-up to Manchester United. More important than that, Spurs are producing players again from their academy. Whether they have been given a chance in the first team has been beyond Sherwood’s control.
Tottenham’s two most successful managers, Bill Nicholson and Keith Burkinshaw, were promoted to the job from the coaching staff. There was a time, of course, when that model of success, epitomised at Liverpool, was the dream for every club, but it seems so out of fashion among owners and chairmen these days you have to wonder whether some of them even know the history.
English football can be a desert for the careers of British coaches, especially the younger generation. They get few chances, if at all. When they do have slumps in their careers they tend to have to be forced to drop down the leagues and start again. By contrast, the ability of the likes of Wenger (relegated at Nancy) or Rafa Benitez (sacked twice in his younger days) was recognised and they were continually trusted with good jobs.
In the Premier League, there have been some opportunities for rookie British managers. Gareth Southgate was promoted to manager in 2006 at Middlesbrough, then still in the top flight, and lasted three years. Alan Shearer fought a brief, doomed battle against relegation at Newcastle United in 2009 and was then jettisoned. Steve Clarke had little more than a season at West Bromwich Albion.
But these opportunities have not been nothing like the kind of openings that are available at some European clubs for the right man.
Sherwood will know that, given modern trends, chances such as the one at a club as big as Spurs come along perhaps once in the lifetime. Even for an ex-pro who has won a Premier League title, been capped by England and worked on developing talent. That is not a bad CV. Come March, Sherwood will begin his Uefa Pro Licence, the final part of the modern manager’s apprenticeship.
Yet, should this chance pass him by then Franco Baldini will no doubt be looking across Europe for Villas-Boas’s successor. It is telling that on the bookmakers’ odds for the next Spurs manager you generally have to go past 20 names – including Murat Yakin, Carlos Queiroz and Marcelo Bielsa – before you come to the first Championship manager, Paul Ince, being offered at around 50-1.
It barely raises a murmur these days that clubs consider it unthinkable to appoint a manager from a lower division, as Arsenal once did with George Graham, Everton with David Moyes or Wigan with Roberto Martinez.
At least Sherwood has had the confidence to make it clear to Levy and, by extension, the billionaire Joe Lewis who ultimately controls the club, that he is not about to be pushed around. He will do the job on his terms, or not at all.
There are many leagues in the world where a manager’s first job is at a famous club. It speaks much more of the engrained prejudice against the British coach among many leading clubs that Sherwood is dismissed in some quarters, than it does of his ability or relevant experience, to do the job.
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