Jim White

Career coaches changing the game

Jim White

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Brendan Rodgers: A leading member of the career coach group

Martin O'Neill's return at Sunderland has raised the number of managers of Premier League clubs who have won European Cup medals as players to three. O'Neill won his with Nottingham Forest, Kenny Dalglish picked up his with Liverpool. The third I will leave you to work out. But it's not Roberto Mancini.

Three out of 20: just 15 per cent. It is not a huge representation. Indeed, not only do most of our top bosses not have the most significant of all club prizes in their trophy cabinet, half of them did not even play the game at the level they now coach.

Take the League's flavour of the week. Swansea's Brendan Rogers never got close to turning out in the top flight. He gave up trying to become a professional at 20, when he realised he probably wouldn't make it. Instead, he concentrated on coaching, reasoning — quite correctly as it turned out - that was his best chance of a career in the game.

Rodgers says that working under Jose Mourinho — another career coach — during his time at Chelsea was his equivalent of attending Harvard. That was where he learned the trade, studying the Special One. Not out on the pitch winning trophies.

With his talk of seven lines of play, of fluidity of movement, of patterns of possession, you can tell Rodgers is a manager who believes in the primacy of organisation. In the cult of the coach that he espouses, anyone can be made a better player, any group of individuals can be forged into a better team.

Ultimately the belief is that skill is secondary to tactical nous. Right now, with Leon Britton, Danny Graham and Scott Sinclair suddenly being promoted in the press as potential England internationals, few could deny that Rodgers has a point.

Intriguingly when asked recently whether managers who didn't play the game are at a disadvantage, Stuart Pearce, a man of uncompromising ability on the field, pointed out that, compared with Andre Villas-Boas, he lagged way behind in coaching experience. The Chelsea manager may be younger than Pearce, but he has a decade longer track record in coaching good players.

It was an unusually conciliatory opinion from the ex-playing wing of coaching. Because it is in the figure of Villas-Boas that the fissure between the two approaches to management is being played out. The old-school perception of Villas-Boas is that he is too clever by half. His brain seemingly so huge it cannot be contained within his skull, he merely confuses players with his agitated talk about high lines and defending the gain line.

The rumour is that a dressing room full of egos wonders where the medals are to back up the tactical splurge. Respect, it is being said, has not been earned. For some of the great players in his charge, the Portuguese's over-sized brain produces nothing more than empty bluster. He is being painted, in short, as a fraud.

And yet the recent experience of Paul Scholes, a man whose career can do nothing but evoke instant respect, tells us much about the elite player and coaching. Scholes revealed that, in his attempts to pass on his enormous knowledge of the game to the youngsters at Manchester United, he found it hard to communicate precisely what he meant. With a ball at his feet, he just knew instinctively what to do. It came to him as naturally as breathing. Or putting in a thigh-high challenge.

Telling his charges what precisely was required was an altogether tougher exercise. Which is part of the reason he is back playing: out on the park, rather than in the dug out, is the place he feels most comfortable.

What happened to Scholes, and before him Kevin Keegan among others, though, does not necessarily mean that once-elite players will inevitably find it ever harder to compete with the career coach. Sure, football management at the top these days requires degree-level knowledge in everything from psychology through dietary science to physiology. Plus it needs a born communicator's skill to convey tactics and plans quickly and intelligibly.

But that does not in any way prevent the elite player from getting to the top. Plenty have the intellectual capacity to grasp the new requirements. In fact, a look at the best young managers coming through the game suggests the field is now equally split between those who played and those who studied.

It is not ludicrous to suggest that in five years time, the top four managers in the Premier League will be Rodgers and Mourinho from the career coach wing and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Paul Lambert from the elite playing side. And what do Solskjaer and Lambert have in common, apart from a fierce intellect and superb communications skills?

They both won the Champions League as players, Solskjaer with United in 1999, Lambert with Borussia Dortmund two years earlier. Which gives the answer to the question posed at the top.

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