There was an eye-opening appointment this week: Andre Villas-Boas, appointed with fanfare then fired without ceremony by both Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur in the last three years, replaced Luciano Spalletti as coach of Zenit St Petersburg.
Spalletti had won two league titles and one cup. Villas-Boas presumably now has to better this, but you had to wonder how much thought had gone into the choice. He won the Portuguese League and Uefa Cup with Porto in 2011, but has struggled outside his native country and never managed in Russia.
There is a link. Zenit striker Hulk played for him at Porto, but knowing the centre-forward hardly equips him for the highly political world of Russian football.
Football appointments are often curious. A sketchy aggregate win over Olympiakos has not silenced the critics of David Moyes’ appointment at Manchester United, a decision made entirely at the behest of his predecessor Sir Alex Ferguson. Moyes did extremely well on a limited budget for Everton, and may yet be a success at Old Trafford, but would a headhunter have come up with his name? He has no track record of success in Europe, has never competed for the title nor spent more than £15m on a player, all of which would have been prerequisites on a job advertisement. Yet Ferguson chose him without even asking Moyes how he might manage the club.
The real world is not like this. A relative works in financial services. The process he underwent to get his current job featured several interview stages, psychometric tests and a day of role-playing exercises.
A friend works in industry. For a middle-tier management post paying £50,000 a year, the company will engage recruitment experts to identify candidates, then put them through a two-stage interview process.
Then there is football. It is a small industry. People know each other, so headhunters are not required, and a manager’s track record is readily available. Even so, the manager is the most important appointment a club will make. In most he not only sets the culture and influences performances more than any other individual, he is also responsible for spending the bulk of a budget that is measured in millions.
One would imagine there would be a thorough selection procedure, the sort that would prevent mistakes like Paolo Di Canio’s appointment at Sunderland. However, at most the process is, considering its importance, haphazard.
In his book The Gaffer, Neil Warnock wrote: “Occasionally you will see an advertisement, but it is only there for show and attracts the nutters and jokers who want to tell their mates in the pub they’ve applied to be manager of their team. Then you get the chairmen who like to think they and their club are important and tell the press they’ve had dozens of applications including ‘some surprising names’. The reality is football jobs are usually filled by word of mouth.”
As a result, at too many clubs the appointment is based on the personal. Ex-players are popular, not least because they appease fans. Foreigners are fashionable, though whether Pepe Mel, for example, is a better manager than Steve Clarke remains to be seen. Household names keep getting jobs partly because they are experienced with a track record, but also because most chairmen know they will not be criticised for plumping for someone like Martin O’Neill even though he last tasted success at Celtic in 2005.
Then there is the “flavour of the month”. This can work. When Chelsea decided to replace Claudio Ranieri they initially looked at seasoned European managers, men like Fabio Capello. Then the focus shifted to the two up-and-coming young coaches who were contesting the Champions League final: Didier Deschamps and Jose Mourinho. The latter’s Porto won and, with the aid of a PowerPoint presentation on Roman Abramovich’s boat, Mourinho got the job. That was a success, but Tottenham’s choice of Juande Ramos, fresh from winning the Uefa Cup, was not.
The shrewd would-be manager makes himself visible in the media and networks – Warnock got his first job by doorstepping the Gainsborough Trinity chairman and talked himself into Sheffield United by ringing the owner. Others have an agent pitching their claims – Mark Hughes’ arrival at QPR is understood to have owed much to the prompting of Kia Joorabchian.
Wigan Athletic’s owner, Dave Whelan, has appointed 11 managers. His approach is informed, but hardly meets contemporary HR standards. “I keep an eye on who is doing well in each division, who is managing them, who is up-and-coming,” he told The Independent. “Even when I have a good manager I do this because in football you know the time will always come when you either have to replace a manager or he will want to leave for a bigger club.
“When we have a vacancy I see if any of those managers I have been watching apply. If they do I interview them. That’s what happened with [current manager] Uwe [Rösler]. I interviewed him, decided I didn’t need to interview anyone else and we agreed a deal in half an hour.”
Unlike some chairmen, Whelan does not canvass the opinion of other people in the game. He also believes psychometric tests are “bullshit”. “I like to look them in the eye, see if they are honest, hard-working, with confidence in themselves.”
Whelan, who followed the same recruitment methods in his successful business career, admits his approach has not always worked but, generally, his track record is a good one. He, however, had his own time as a player to inform him. When AFC Wimbledon started they were largely devoid of such experience. The fledgling club thus asked people who had it to assist them. Dave Bassett was the expert when they appointed current manager Neal Ardley. Part of the approach was to present a variety of scenarios to the candidates and ask them how they would deal with them.
Even this approach has its limitations. Steve Lomas is said to have interviewed brilliantly at Millwall and Whelan said: “Owen Coyle interviewed fantastically well”. In both cases results did not match the vision and they were fired within months.
One factor that militates against a detailed recruitment process is the need, in most cases, for a quick appointment. Every week that passes could mean another three points lost. But the constant stream of sackings, with all the expense and upheaval entailed, for the individuals and the clubs, suggests a more formal approach is worth trying.
As well as seeking to raise standards by pushing the need for managers to be qualified, the leagues, and League Managers Association, should consider benchmarks for recruiting them.
1. Grass roots need watering
Some Budget spending figures: health £140bn, welfare £222bn, public order £32bn. Government puts just £10m a year into building grassroots football facilities, the provision of which has been proved to improve public health, reduce crime and create jobs. The sums don’t add up, Mr Chancellor.
2. Cellino case is clear-cut
The lawyers have to ensure there can be no challenge, but surely the Football League will disbar Massimo Cellino from taking over at Leeds, despite his plan to appeal. If being found guilty of tax evasion – not his first defeat in the courts – does not rule him out, the League’s owners and directors’ test may as well be binned.
3. Touts must be stubbed out
Touting is supposed to be illegal, yet they were out in force at Craven Cottage last Saturday, and Stamford Bridge on Tuesday, while police stood idly by. Admittedly it doesn’t help when clubs effectively condone the practice by encouraging fans to use agencies like StubHub, but there is a public order issue.
4. Luke’s dream comes true
A heart-warming tale from the Conference, where Luke Chadwick described his debut for Cambridge United, the club he has supported since boyhood, as “better” than playing for Manchester United against Bayern Munich. Chadwick not only took a pay cut to join the U’s, he even instigated the move.
5. Solid Foundation
The Football Foundation does very effective work, not least by trimming its administration costs in a way other sports (and public) bodies should copy. So congratulations on their nomination for “in-house PR team of the year” at a major industry award.