In one week last month, the British newspapers reported on names in the running to be the new Chelsea coach. Pep Guardiola, it was reported in some quarters, will be offered a contract worth £40 million ($63M) after tax, while The Times reported that Laurent Blanc was the front-runner. Jose Mourinho is still a target, claimed the Daily Mail, while The Mirror had Marcelo Bielsa snubbing an approach, via intermediaries, from Roman Abramovich.
Four coaches, all at the top of their profession: but each with totally different philosophies and visions about how the game should be played, how their players should be treated, and, presumably, how they would approach their role if they worked at Stamford Bridge.
That quartet, all of whom figure prominently in bookmakers¹ lists for the next Chelsea coach, reminded me of the shortlist that two other clubs had when they were looking for a coach last summer. On the Inter Milan list were: Gianpiero Gasperini, Fabio Capello, and Bielsa (well, he's flavor of the month right now); Aston Villa also had a list and on it were: Steve McClaren, Alex McLeish, Rafa Benitez and Roberto Martinez. In both cases, each coach seems almost seems a direct opposite of the others.
I'm reminded of these discrepancies almost every time a new job comes up.
Last Friday, for example, it was reported that the English FA would soon be speaking to two candidates about taking charge at Euro 2012: Roy Hodgson and Harry Redknapp. Both have their strengths, certainly, but are very different in outlook and approach.
The dilemma facing Manchester City's board this summer, if United keep their Premier League lead and win the title, might center on whether to keep Roberto Mancini in charge; who, if anyone, would do a better job, while keeping in line with the club's quest for global reach -- and acceptance?
This last point is important: as Graham Hunter pointed out in his wonderful book, Barca: The Making of The Greatest Team in the World, Jose Mourinho was interviewed for the coach's position before Pep Guardiola was appointed, but insisted that part of his role was to act as a provocateur. It was not the image that Barcelona wanted to portray, and so they looked elsewhere.
So: what goes into the thinking behind appointing a coach, and do these clubs know something that we don't? I asked two chief executives, one from the Premier League and one from the Championship, for some guidelines on how they go about appointing a new coach.
It seems obvious, as it goes on at the top-level of most businesses, but many clubs seem to have no idea who they want as their next coach while its current one is still there. This happened to Wolves last month: after sacking Mick McCarthy, owner Steve Morgan failed to agree terms with Alan Curbishley or Steve Bruce and, two weeks later, appointed McCarthy's assistant Terry Connor. Wolves fans are furious that there was no Plan B and, with one draw and five losses from Connor's first six games, the club's status in the Premier League looks under greater threat than if McCarthy had stayed.
"If I'm doing my job properly, the club will always have three targets for every position on the pitch, as you never know what might happen, and exactly the same should be true for the coach," said the Championship chief executive. "If he has an entourage, you might also expect to lose them as well, so continuity can be difficult. Our task is to insulate the club from any major changes as much as possible, that's why I prefer my coach to be one man, who works within the infrastructure that already exists."
The decision can often depend on the nature of the search: if a job is available because one coach has overachieved (and upgraded to a bigger job), then the criteria involved might focus on the outgoing coach's strengths. This clearly helped Swansea City, whose recent managers (Martinez-Paulo Sousa-Brendan Rodgers) have adhered to the same approach.
"If the players were used to a training-ground coach, who was out there every day, then we would look for something similar," said the Premier League chief executive. He also placed a premium on candidates already having Premier League experience, suggesting that his club could not afford to have a bad six months while a new man bedded in. So it's true: short-term thinking is not just a media construct.
Advice from the right people
One sports director at a big French club was stunned to learn that an adviser close to the chief executive of a Premier League club used to read the papers to see if there were any names linked to the managerial vacancy that he had missed. Aston Villa used headhunters before the appointment of Gerard Houllier as coach, and this method is being used more and more (declaration of interest: Soccernomics, a consultancy for whom I work, also operate in this field).
Advice from an expert, preferably an independent one (harder than you might think to find in football), is increasingly welcomed, while recommendations, from other CEOs, ex-coaches or players (and agents, though not as often as they would like), are also sought. The ideal shortlist, says the Championship chief executive, would come from the following combination:
" Anyone who stands out who you think fits the club's vision for the future, even if they have made no application for the job, as well as those from independent recommendations, and of course those who applied directly. That list should ideally have candidates with overlapping skill-sets, and that can only come with doing the right due diligence."
Again, it depends what kind of coach your team needs: just like players, there are some out there who are good "impact coaches" able to provide a short-term improvement in results but whose methods only work in short bursts; others who are better with long-term projects.
Does reputation matter?
The higher up the soccer pyramid you go, the harder it is to not base an appointment on a coach's reputation. If you are a big club, the expectation is to pick a big name, and if that fails, then the coach, rather than the man who picked him, can be blamed. That's why Arsenal's decision to appoint Arsene Wenger, who had won the French title with Monaco but at the time was in the relative backwater at Japanese club Nagoya Grampus Eight, was brave and brilliant.
Wenger himself has hinted that Arsenal might go back to Nagoya and look at its current coach Dragan Stojkovic, a playmaker under Wenger in the 1990s, as his possible successor. "I'd love Piksi [Stojkovic, nicknamed after a cartoon character] to be my successor," Wenger was quoted as telling Croatian paper Vecernje Novosti last year. "His football philosophy is almost identical to mine. Our ideas are the same and we both strive for perfect football."
"It's easier to make a sensible decision and not take a risk with an appointment, because doing anything outside the norm would increase the pressure on you," said the Championship chief executive, who in the past gave one coach his first job after recognizing his training-ground work as another team's assistant coach was the true reason behind its success. (He was right and it proved a good appointment.)
The example of Paul Sturrock is a good one when it comes to reputations. His Premier League coaching career lasted 13 games at Southampton in 2004: he won five of them (what Wolves wouldn't give for that record now) but fell out with chairman Rupert Lowe and has never coached in the top-flight since -- despite winning promotions with Sheffield Wednesday and Swindon, and taking Plymouth to its highest position for 20 years. That fallout with Lowe seemed to have damaged his status at the top level. His current club Southend, in the League Two playoff places, are the latest beneficiaries.
Sturrock explained his story to the Financial Times: he is not the only coach to consistently improve teams who gets ignored.
"You have to consider the circumstances in which a coach has operated," said the Championship chief executive, "as that is much more significant than reputation." He once came close to appointing a coach whose side was bottom of the table because the interview went well; his team's current position played little part in the process. Whether the fans would have seen it that way is a different matter.
What actually happens at job interviews?
This was the question that actually clammed up the chief executives. Just as no one talks about what really goes on in the dressing-room, the coach's job interview contents are not for divulging. One asked for an example of a match that best showed his work (this is a difficult one to answer: if the game turned on a substitution, then was the original lineup wrong or was it a premeditated switch?), another for three things they would change if they came to that club.
The most important part of the interview, it seems, is for each party to find out if they have or can see themselves developing a rapport with each other. Cut through the bluster, look behind the promises -- of cash to spend (from the club), new formations to implement (from the coach) -- and is there chemistry? It can be that simple: that's why Wigan owner Dave Whelan refuses to sack Roberto Martinez: he likes him. These are two men whose fates are inextricably linked, and neither can afford the other to fail.
Ben Lyttleton has written about French football for various publications. He edited an oral history of the European Cup, Match of My Life: European Cup Finals, which was published in 2006.