Just over a month has passed since Sam Allardyce went on a Qatari television station and bemoaned the lack of opportunities for British managers. Since then, he, David Moyes and Alan Pardew have all been appointed to Premier League positions. Roy Hodgson had taken the Crystal Palace job a month earlier. That means that of the 20 Premier League clubs, nine are now managed by British managers. (That’s including Chris Hughton, who played for Ireland, but was born in London and, coming through at Tottenham, can be considered a product of the British football system). Of the 92 league clubs, 70 have British coaches.
Given those figures, it’s easy to mock Allardyce’s claim of a “glass ceiling” for British managers. It's easy, too, to mock the claim he made years ago that he would be a more-respected figure were his surname Allardici rather than good old-fashioned British Allardyce (it’s actually a Pictish name originating in Kincardineshire on the east coast of Scotland, although he is from Dudley in the English Midlands, but that's neither here nor there). Easy, but not entirely accurate.
Allardyce plays the no-nonsense provincial Englander well. He relishes physical battles. He favors direct football. It’s easy to see him as part of a direct line stretching back to the long-ball theorists Charles Hughes and Charles Reep. But that isn’t entirely accurate, either. Allardyce, after all, is the manager who brought Jay-Jay Okocha, Youri Djorkaeff and Ivan Campo to Bolton. He is a pragmatist, a pioneer of sports science, the use of cryogenics in player recover and statistics in developing patterns of play. He is open to new ideas and progressive and just because his preferred style is founded on neither radical possession nor pressing, the two buzzwords of the age, does not mean he should be dismissed as a dinosaur. His rescue missions at Sunderland and Crystal Palace show just how successful he can be.
Yet Allardyce is right to an extent. Fans of Everton (nine league titles), Sunderland (six) and Newcastle (four) can squabble about which of them is the biggest he has managed, but the point is that none can realistically claim to have been part of the elite when Allardyce was their manager. He was never part of the conversation when Sir Alex Ferguson left Manchester United, he will never get an opportunity at Stamford Bridge despite the constant swirl at Chelsea and he will not be considered when Arsene Wenger eventually leaves Arsenal.
There are two main reasons for that: the first is that he has no record of European achievement, and the second is that his direct approach is not considered a fit for elite clubs. That’s an issue countless British managers have faced. They battle their way to promotion, maybe survive a season or two at the top level, and then find themselves written off as long-ball scrappers–even if that was the only style realistically available to them because of the players available on their budget.
That's a self-perpetuating cycle, one that can only really be broken if young British managers are prepared to test themselves abroad and if British football culture is prepared to treat any achievements abroad seriously, a problem Hodgson once faced and that now seems to afflict Graham Potter, who has worked miracles on a tiny budget with Ostersund in Sweden.
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But it’s not the case that no British manager has been given an opportunity at one of the top six clubs. In the past decade, Manchester United employed Alex Ferguson and Moyes; Manchester City had Mark Hughes; Tottenham turned to Harry Redknapp and Tim Sherwood; Liverpool hired Hodgson, Kenny Dalglish and Brendan Rodgers. Their records have been mixed, but chances have been offered.
And there is also another glass ceiling, arguably a more damaging one for young British managers: the merry-go-round of old British managers. Everton, West Ham and Sunderland have all been managed by both Moyes and Allardyce; West Brom has been managed by Pardew, Tony Pulis and Hodgson, all three of whom have also managed Crystal Palace–which has also been managed by Allardyce. Newcastle has been managed by Allardyce and Pardew. Stoke has been managed by Pulis and Mark Hughes. Fulham has been managed by Hughes and Hodgson. Hughes and Moyes are the youngest of that crop at 54.
When crisis comes, the fear of relegation and the crippling loss of Premier League broadcast revenues means that clubs dare not take a risk. They don’t do what Everton, say, did in March 2002, when Walter Smith was sacked and it turned to the promising young manager of second-flight Preston, David Moyes. They turn instead to one of the gnarled old survival experts.
More often than not, survival is achieved, suggesting the clubs are not wrong to have faith in experience (Moyes’s dismal stint at Sunderland is a notable exception), but the pattern of what happens next is familiar. Once the euphoria of staying up recedes, fans and directors wonder why they’ve saddled themselves with a familiar coach whose sides tend to play unexpressive football. Dissatisfaction sets in, the manager is ousted and the cycle begins again.
So Allardyce is right, but only partly right. There is not just one glass ceiling, but many. The elite are reluctant to take a risk on managers without European experience, and those on the next level down are reluctant to take a risk on managers without Premier League experience. Conservatism reigns, and the result is the same old names on a seemingly endless circuit, never getting the top jobs, but preventing younger managers from getting those one level down.