The demise of Scottish managers and brighter times ahead

The demise of Scottish managers and brighter times ahead

FIFTY OF SO YEARS AGO, the Galapagos Giant Tortoise was a species on the brink of extinction. Human expansion, destruction of indigenous land to make way for agriculture and an amount of poaching that would make even the staunchest Tory supporter blush, had reduced the entire population of the majestic reptiles to just 15. Now, after extensive rehabilitation works, the population has risen to well over 1,000 and will hopefully be removed from the endangered species list in the near future.

This remarkable recovery story will give hope to another species, much closer to home, that looks to be in terminal decline. This species was once highly successful, filling its ecological niche superbly. So superbly, in fact, that they left their place of origin and headed to pastures new, colonising the lands to the south.

I am, of course, talking about the most volatile of beasts: the Scottish football manager. 

Some nations have acquired a reputation in football that has become unshakable. For instance, if you are a well-to-do businessman in ownership of a top football club, and you need a talismanic forward, you would head to Argentina. If you required a stoic, intelligent defender then Italy would be the port to call upon. And if you need a modern, adept goalkeeper then you had better charter a flight to Germany.

As strange as it sounds there was a time when, if you were in desperate need of a manager that would galvanise a squad and get them to fight well above their station, then a trip to the rain-soaked lands of Scotland was needed.

This reputation for achieving excellence was born in the late 1960s and early 70s, where Scottish managers, who had been performing wonders for an age in the British Isles, began to flex their muscles on the continental stage.

First up was Jock Stein’s Celtic side who, in 1967, defeated a heavily fancied Internazionale side, with a team comprised entirely of players raised within a 20-mile radius of Celtic Park. The frenetic winger Bobby Lennox coming from the near-by village of Saltcoats was seen as an exotic presence. Celtic’s talisman Jimmy Johnstone, a man voted as the club’s greatest ever player, emphasised the surprise of the Scottish win, saying: “I thought we’d get a right gubbin’.” The 2-1 win broke the stranglehold Latin countries had enjoyed since the tournament’s creation way back in 1955.

Read  |  Jock Stein: the ordinary man who was anything but

A year later an arguably more Herculean effort was displayed. Just over a decade after the harrowing events of the Munich Air Disaster, Manchester United were triumphant in the European Cup, beating a wonderful, Eusébio-inspired Benfica side 4-1 after extra-time.

Manager Matt Busby’s journey leading a club that could very easily have collapsed under a tectonic strain of depression, to become the very best the continent had to offer, is nothing short of miraculous. When you add the fact that the Bellshill-born manager was personally read the last rites twice, it gives the whole tale the feel of something rejected by Hollywood producers for being too fanciful.

Scottish success was not limited to Ol’ Big Ears. The junior competitions of the UEFA Cup and the now defunct Cup Winners’ Cup also saw Scotsmen guide sides to victory. First was Bill Shankly’s UEFA Cup triumph with Liverpool in 1972, beating Borussia Mönchengladbach 3-2 over the two-legged final. The European trophy was the perfect way to crystalize Shankly’s work in morphing Liverpool from a side who had been wedded to mediocrity to a true juggernaut of the game.   

The golden period for Scottish managers came to a close with Willie Waddell leading Rangers to a Cup Winners’ Cup triumph, beating Dynamo Moscow 3-2 in 1972. What makes Waddell’s triumph so impressive is the timing of his continental success. In 1972, bitter rivals Celtic were in the midst of winning a record nine titles in a row, so for Waddell to lead the Blues to such a prestigious position while being dramatically outgunned in domestic football, shows the depth of Scottish football, and by extension, their coaches in this time period. 

Not to be outdone by their City rivals, Rangers too enjoyed European success with a side comprised entirely of homegrown players.

All of this brings us to the godfather of Scottish managers – a man who has earned a reputation that often eclipsed the sport he dominated, to the point he is now charged with delivering speeches before the students and faculty of Harvard University, in the minutiae of managing men. I am, of course, talking about Sir Alex Ferguson.

His time at Manchester United is well documented. Thirteen Premier League titles, five FA Cups, four League Cups, two Champions League titles and a Cup Winners’ Cup win well and truly allowed the purple-nosed Scotsman to feel as though he completed his self-imposed remit of “knocking Liverpool off their fucking perch”. 

What is less well known is his tenure at Aberdeen, where his body of work, failing to span the same length of time as his Old Trafford days, is no less impressive. On paper his record reads three league titles, four Scottish Cups, a League Cup and a Cup Winners’ Cup, and while it stands out as a momentous achievement, there are almost no words that are too superfluous to describe his time in the north-east of Scotland.

Read  |  Sir Matt Busby and the art of making anything possible

As you are probably well aware, Scottish football has almost universally been dominated by the duopoly of Celtic and Rangers. Attempting to break the hegemony of the Old Firm’s stranglehold on Scottish success is the football equivalent of King Knut trying to hold back the ocean’s tide armed only with his self-belief. Unlike the storied monarch, however, Sir Alex was ultimately able to achieve the impossible.

A special mention must also go to his junior partner in the attempt to break the Glasgow hierarchy, Dundee United’s manager Jim McLean. The abrasive, aggressive boss was a crucial crutch for Ferguson and someone with whom he regularly conspired with sharing ideas, tactics and thoughts on up-and-coming players.

Aside from being a cajoling figure for Ferguson, McLean was a successful coach in his own right winning two League Cups and an elusive league title for the provincial club. What keeps him from entering the greater footballing communities’ consciousness is his failure to land a continental title, something he came within inches of in 1986/87 where a singular goal in the two-legged final was enough to spell defeat for the Arabs against Swedish counterparts Göteborg. 

Mind games, Fergie time, the hairdryer treatment, winning with kids, squeaky-bum-time and that night in Barcelona; Ferguson’s ultimate legacy is up for debate. For me, however, he will be remembered for the inspirational effect he had on his fellow managers, especially those from the lands beyond Hadrian’s Wall. Throughout his time in England, Ferguson was seen as a mineable source of information, a deity ready to distribute wisdom to his many disciples. A source of inspiration that his contemporary, Arsène Wenger, never really was.

Ferguson’s success opened the door for managers from a similar background, ensuring that for the first time in decades, Scottish managers were seen in a glaringly positive light. The high-watermark for this phenomenon came in the 2011 Premier League season where as many as seven managers hailed from north of the border; Paul Lambert (Norwich City), Alex McLeish (Aston Villa), David Moyes (Everton), Kenny Dalglish (Liverpool), Steve Kean (Blackburn Rovers) Owen Coyle (Bolton Wanderers), as well as Ferguson himself.

Following Moyes’ and Sunderland’s relegation, next season, barring an unexpected hiring, will see a Premier League season without a Scotsman in a dugout for the first time since the league’s inception in 1992. It is a poor state of affairs for a nation that once produced managers of quality and distinction with an alarming rate.

Why then has there been a turning of the production faucet? For the answer we must return to the Pacific Ocean and look at the home of the Galapagos Giant Tortoise and consider the reasons for the island’s fame. The island is, of course, renowned for the work carried out by Charles Darwin and his Theory of Evolution, the basic premise being survival of the fittest – those who adapt to changing environments best will thrive.

Scottish managers have failed to adapt to a footballing landscape that morphs far quicker, and to a greater degree, than anything we can see in the natural world. In the late 1960s and early 70s heydeys of Scottish gaffers, tactics and methods of play were far more centralised. Prizes often went to those who could galvanise players the most, those who could inflate players with so much confidence that they virtually rose from the field and played at a level so elevated that it should have been alien to them.    

Read  |  How Sir Alex Ferguson became the greatest winner in Britain

It could be that today we simply over analyse things, looking for some method in the madness of a game of football, but I am more inclined to believe that the sport has progressed and that to be successful a tactical dexterity is essential. Again, Ferguson, is the ideal example.

Able to shout, scream, encourage and intimidate with the best, he never allowed himself to become too myopic in his methods. Like an ageing doctor at the cutting edge of medicine, Ferguson was forever learning, forever looking at ways to improve himself as well as his side. It’s thanks to this relentless drive that Manchester United abandoned the 4-4-2, flat midfield before any other British side competing in Europe. It’s the reason why he was able to congeal the talents of Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez into a devastatingly effective, fighting force. It’s the reason why Manchester United are the global, fan devouring entity they are today. 

Too many Scottish managers have shown themselves to have a rudimentary grasp of the flowing nature of modern football when compared to their foreign counterparts. The other glaring change in the sport comes in the form of the players themselves. Back in the days of Stein and Shankly, the players were no different from you or me, comparable in wages and standards of living. Today, the six-inch white line that divides fan and player has never been more of a yawning chasm. Top level players are not mere mortals, they are fleeting gods shuttled from gated communities to training grounds to exclusive functions with exposure to their adoring fans at a premium.

It is hard to admonish the players too much, they often grow up surrounded by yes men, by parents who see them as a source of income, traded by clubs who see only their on-field applications and not the fearful child within the replica shirt. Throw in a weekly wage, starting as early as 15 or 16, that would make your average fan go weak at the knees and you have a recipe for detachment from society.    

Scottish managers, who have often been characterised by an instinctive ability to administer the correct dosage of carrot and stick, manipulating player emotions and tugging at heart-strings in a delicate manner matched only by a harpist in the Philharmonic Orchestra, are seemingly unable to relate to the new breed of player. An aggressive, red-faced Scottish bloke bellowing at you the inescapable benefits of “running your bollocks off” is hardly going to yield results from a young man who has spent his life cocooned, lonely and fearful that their teammates will outshine them to the point that they are ousted from the team, their dreams left shattered of the turf.

Jock Stein’s famous quote, “Cups are not won by individuals, but by men in a team who put their club before personal prestige”, has never looked less relevant. Top players are individuals, they are one-man globe-spanning enterprises, armed with social media followers that could link arms and form a ring around the globe. The Ballon d’Or, for more and more players it seems, is now judged by many as the equivalent of any league title. 

This has degenerated to the point that it has influenced player’s contracts. If Antony Martial wins the Ballon d’Or, it looks as though Manchester United will be forced to pay former club Monaco an additional £10 million. Similar clauses are rumoured to have been included in a whole host of top players, including Paul Pogba.

Read  |  Bill Shankly: it’s not how you arrive, it’s how you leave

You only have to look at Real Madrid to see the effects of the rise of individualism. Zinedine Zidane’s men could be the first to retain the European Cup since the reimaging of the tournament to the Champions League, but can anyone take a step back and say that they are a well-oiled, cohesive team unit? The best team that the continent can muster? No, of course not, they are a collection of some of the game’s brightest talents who have been thrown together and through their individual genius have seen win follow win. 

The players of today are not like those of the past, they are not looking for a bullish general capable of leading by example. A man willing and able to throw himself over the trench wall before his men. Instead, they seek an intelligent hand to guide them, a coach smart enough to analyse their individual game and highlight areas of improvement.

The tricky part, especially in Scotland, is marrying the thoughtful side to an aura of masculinity, an issue that leads us onto the final barrier for Scottish coaches to clear, one constructed by society itself. In this country, we are wedded to the belief that for someone to successfully lead a football club he must be a ‘real football man’. Even if the players see this as an outdated notion, the press still see it as an essential.

The sneers and jeers met by Pat Nevin when he was audacious enough to read a book on the Chelsea team bus, shunning the usual card games, in the early 90s have never really left us. There is an anti-intellectualism that is rampant in the sport, a disdain for folk willing to disintegrate the rulebook and attempt something new.

The most obvious example comes in the shape of Hearts’ 34-year-old head coach, Ian Cathro. Cathro, who was head of Dundee United’s training academy at the age of 22, has spent his entire career challenging himself, hacking and slashing a new path away from those well-trodden. He has been assistant to the well-respected Nuno at both Rio Ave in Portugal and at the Spanish giants Valencia. To add a further layer of gloss to an impressive CV, he has also acted as assistant to both Steve McClaren and Rafa Benítez.

His decision to plunge into management should have been greeted with a degree of excitement, a wave of enthusiasm, curious at a new way of doing things. It’s surely not a big ask for a country that has allowed disappointment to become the all-encapsulating norm.  But no, we were treated to opinion piece after opinion piece, dripping with scorn, aghast at his lack of a playing career.

Loudest of critics was the recently crowned Scottish Press Awards Sportswriter of the Year, Keith Jackson. No sooner had Cathro put his signature to his managerial contract, and Jackson had proclaimed him a “hipster appointment”. More recently he has stated that “football cannot be learnt in a classroom”. Jackson will no doubt feel vindicated after seeing Cathro win just 25 percent of his first 24 games, but I cannot help but think that Cathro would have a much better time of things had his vilification not been so instant, or so intense. 

Aside from seeing a man I hold a great deal of admiration and respect for treated so shoddily, Cathro’s condemnation will also slam the door shut on other folk who may hold the fresh ideas needed to elevate Scottish football. Cathro can take solace in the words of legendary Italian coach, Arrigo Sacchi, who also had no real playing career to speak of when he said: “I never realised that to become a jockey you needed to be a horse first.”

So there you have it in a nutshell. In order for Scottish managers to once again claim a reputation of pristine coaching ability they need to have a greater tactical acumen, learn the mindsets of the new generation of players and destroy the restrictive, archaic mindsets of those in the tabloid press who are all too wary of new ideas 

By Ben Delaney    @DelaneyBen11

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