Do Football Managers need to do an ‘Apprenticeship’?

Former Liverpool boss Gerard Houllier says English footballers are pushed into top management jobs too quickly. He has told the BBC Inside Sport programme that he believes Bryan Robson, Stuart Pearce and Gareth Southgate all took on senior positions far too soon.

“In France, you cannot become a manager when you step out of your career as a player,” he said.

“Would a manager of a big company put somebody without experience into a key position in his company? No, he would not, but they do in football.”

The former Liverpool manager, now technical director at the French football federation’s prized academy at Clairefontaine, said being a player and being a manager were two very different roles.

“As a player, you think of yourself and your career,” he said. “The manager has the vision of the club and has got to think of a strategy.”

Houllier said that before taking on a top job, former players should learn their trade.

“Whether it is Bryan, Stuart or Gareth, I’m sure that they would have liked to go up the different steps and to have two or three years as an assistant manager.”

Houllier himself began his managerial career in his mid-20s as player-boss of French side Le Touquet.

He later moved to Arras as youth coach and then became head coach at Noeux-les-Mines before accepting his first major managerial position with Lens, guiding them to promotion and a place in the Uefa Cup.

He went on to enjoy success at Paris St-Germain and was in charge of the French national team when it failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup finals in the United States.

He bounced back by steering Liverpool to six trophies, two League Cups, FA Cup, Uefa Cup, Uefa Super Cup and Charity Shield, during his five-year reign at Anfield.

He left the Reds in 2004 and went on to win two French league championships with Lyon.

Is Houiller Right?

Before we look at the men mentioned by Houllier let’s look at arguably the most successful managers in Europe at this time.

Arsene WengerArsene Wenger: The 58 year old French manager is Arsenal’s longest serving and most successful manager in terms of number of games and number of trophies.

He is the only non-British manager to have won the League and FA Cup double, which he has achieved in 1998 and 2002, and in 2003-04 he managed Arsenal to an unbeaten season.

Wenger had an undistinguished career as a player and on giving up the game at RC Strasburg in 1981 he became the club’s youth manager. He took his first senior managers job at Nancy in 1984 but had no success and took the club to relegation. In 1987 he moved to AS Monaco where he had league and Cup triumphs.

In 1994 he moved to Japan where he enjoyed a successful eighteen months with Grampus Eight before joining Arsenal in 1996.

Sir Alex FergusonSir Alex Ferguson: The 66 year old Scot had a decent playing career in Scotland scoring 167 goals in 327 appearances. He retired from the game in 1974 at the age of 32. In June 1974 he took over as manager of East Stirlingshire, but stayed there only a few months before moving to St. Mirren, a lower but bigger club.

At St. Mirren, he took the club from the lower half of the second division to become first division champions.

In 1978 he moved to Aberdeen where he won three league titles, four cups and the European Cup Winners Cup.

Sir Alex moved to Manchester United in November 1986, where he has won more trophies than any other manager in English history.

Rafa BenitezRafael Benitez: The 47 year old Spaniard had an injury hit playing career having to retire at the age of 26 having never played in La Liga. He joined Real Madrid as part of the youth coaching system and stayed there from 1986 until 1995 managing Youth teams, the Under 19s and the Real Madrid B team.

His first two jobs in senior management were with Real Valladolid and Osasuna, but they lasted only 23 and 9 games respectively before he was sacked both times having won a total of 3 games.

In 1997 he joined CF Extremadura who he took to promotion to La Liga, but relegation the following season. He then joined CD Tenerife who he also led to promotion to the top division.

In 2001 he joined Valencia with whom he won two league titles and a UEFA Cup, and then in 2004 he went to England to manage Liverpool. So far with them he has won a Champions League, an FA Cup and a Carling Cup.

Frank RijkaardFrank Rijkaard: The 45 year old Dutch legend had a wonderful playing career most notably with Ajax and AC Milan. He gained 73 International caps with Holland.

At the end of his playing career he was appointed assistant coach to the Dutch national team under Guus Hiddink. In 1998 he was appointed as national team manager. This was a move that shocked world football, due to his inexperience as a manager.

He took Holland to the semi-finals of EURO 2000, but resigned after losing to Italy on penalties. He became manager at Sparta Rotterdam, but in his first season they got relegated out of the top division for the first time in their history. He was fired, but less than a year later he was appointed as manager of Barcelona in Spain.

Since taking over in 2003, he has won the Champions League, La Liga twice and the Spanish Super Cup twice.

Bernd SchusterBernd Schuster: The 48 year old German enjoyed a successful playing career most notably with Barcelona, Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid and Bayer Leverkusen. He only got 21 caps for West Germany, but retired from International football at the age of 24 due to arguments with players and management.

His playing career ended in 1997 and he successfully coached two small German second division clubs. In 2001 he moved to Xerez CD in Spain where he enjoyed relative success with the Spanish second division team.

With no firm offers from the bigger teams in Spain he took the job of manager at Ukranian club Shakhtar Donetsk. He was fired from that job, although the team won the Ukranian cup just after he left.

Schuster returned to Spain where he had an unsuccessful time with Levante, before joining Getafe and masterminding their best season ever. In 2007, Schuster was appointed manager of Real Madrid.

Carlo AncelottiCarlo Ancelotti: The 48 year old Italian won the European Cup (Champions League) twice as a player and had a successful career with Parma, AS Roma and AC Milan. He won 26 caps for Italy.

His first managerial job was with Serie B club AC Reggiana with whom he won promotion in his only season. He moved on to Parma and won the UEFA Cup.

In 1999 he took over at Juventus where he twice finished runner up in the league and then in 2001 moved to his present home at AC Milan.

At Milan, Ancelotti has won the Champions League twice, the Italian cup and Serie A.

Roberto ManciniRoberto Mancini: The 43 year old Italian had a good playing career most notably with Sampdoria and Lazio. He won 36 caps for Italy.

On retiring from the game in 2001 he took the coaching role at Fiorentina winning the Italian Cup. He then went to Lazio where he again triumphed in the Cup.

In 2004 Mancini took over at Inter where he has so far won two Italian cups and two League titles.

3 Young English Managers

Stuart PearceStuart Pearce: Stuart Pearce had a fine playing career most notably with Nottingham Forest. He won 78 England caps.

Whilst still a player, Pearce was appointed caretaker manager of a struggling Forest in December 1996, but was unable to steer them away from relegation.

When he finished his playing career at Manchester City, he worked as a coach under Kevin Keegan. After less than three years he took over as caretaker manager was then given the job as a permanent appointment. He was sacked after two relatively unsuccessful seasons, but was appointed manager of the England under 21 side, and now has a coaching role with the full national side under Fabio Capello.

Bryan RobsonBryan Robson: Robbo was arguably one of England’s greatest ever players. His best years were spent at Manchester United and he gained 90 International caps.

On leaving Manchester United in 1994 he took on the role of player/manager at Middlebsough. He took the club to the Premier League in his first season, but a mid-table year in the top division was followed by relegation the following season.

He did take Middlesbrough back to the top flight, but he left the club my mutual consent in 2001.

Robbo had two years out of the game before taking over at Bradford City. After just 6 wins in 27 games, and relegation, his contract was not renewed.

In 2004 he joined West Brom, and managed to keep them in the Premier League with a last day victory. It was to last only one season as relegation followed the next year.

In 2007 he took over at promotion chasing Sheffield United but a run of only 14 wins in 38 games saw him leave the club.

Gareth SouthgateGareth Southgate: Southgate was a fine player in his career with Crystal Palace, Aston Villa and Middlesbrough. He made 57 appearances for England but will always be remembered for missing that penalty in 1996.

Immediately at the end of his playing career he was appointed manager of Middlesbrough. This caused controversy as he did not have the required coaching badges. Middlesbrough were somehow able to successfully argue that as an international player, he didn’t need them.

In his first season as manager Middlesbrough finished a creditable 12th, and after a poor start, 12th is where they currently sit again.

There other many other examples of former players making a reasonable success as managers in their first job. In English football two current examples are Mark Hughes and Roy Keane.

‘Sparky’ Hughes was made the manager of the Welsh national team in 1999 whilst he was still playing at the top level. He became the most successful Welsh manager for a generation, almost taking them to the 2004 World Cup.

On leaving Wales, Hughes took over at Blackburn where he has taken them into Europe, taken them to three successive FA Cup semi-finals, and established them as a top half Premier League team.

Roy Keane was given the Sunderland job with the side struggling at the wrong end of the Championship. In his first season, he led them to promotion against all the odds, and in his second season now, he looks like managing to keep his side in the top league.


It is hard to disagree with the sentiments expressed by Houllier, as it would clearly make sense for managers to ‘learn their trade’ or ‘serve an apprenticeship’ if you like, like people do in most other professions.

Looking at the successful managers listed above, we can see that Ferguson, Ancelotti and Schuster all managed at lower league clubs. Benitez served a long time as a youth coach and Wenger managed in Japan.

However, Mancini started at Fiorentina and Rijkaard went straight to his national team. Neither of those roles could be termed ‘apprenticeships’.

Of the English managers mentioned by Houllier I would say that Robson is the only one who backs up his argument. He went straight into management and has basically failed. Having said that, his first job was in a ‘lower league’ and his learning curve was made quicker due to the fact that he achieved promotion in his first year.

Stuart Pearce spent a year as a caretaker manager and nearly three years as a coach. I think that qualifies as ‘learning his trade’.

Gareth Southgate was given no apprenticeship, but has achieved pretty well in his first two seasons, so I don’t feel his case really supports Houllier.

Although Houllier may be right about France, we can look at the Germany and Holland national sides, a couple of countries who know about producing decent teams, and see that they are prepared to take a gamble with former players with little or no experience.

Jurgen Klinsmann came from nowhere to manage the Germany side to third place in the 2006 World Cup. His team were not fancied, and he produced remarkable results.

On leaving the post, despite that being his only experience, he has been linked with all manner of top club jobs, most notably and controversially, Liverpool. It has now been announced that Bayern Munich are going to make him their manager from July this year.

Marco Van Basten was a truly great player for Holland, but his only managerial experience before being handed the national side reigns was as an assistant coach for one season for the Ajax B team. I hardly think this qualifies as ‘learning the trade’ under Houllier’s definition.

He has had mixed fortunes, but has impressed enough to be given the top job at Ajax.

I think the facts show that some people are naturally successful managers and others are not. It may be that serving an ‘apprenticeship’ first will develop an average manager into a good one, but the fact that two of the most successful club managers in world football, Rijkaard and Mancini, didn’t tends to fly in the face of the argument.

One To Watch

If an apprenticeship is important, then look out for this man.

Paul IncePaul Ince: Paul Ince had a great career with West Ham, Manchester United, Liverpool and Inter. He played 53 times for England.

Despite being tipped for a high profile managerial job when his playing days ended, Ince signed on as a coach at League Two Swindon Town. He left after only a few months to take over as manager of League Two Macclesfield. He continued to do his coaching badges at Swindon.

When Ince took over at Macclesfield they were rock bottom of the football league, seven points behind their closest rivals. He turned the club around and on the last day of the season they avoided relegation to the Conference.

In June 2007 despite again being linked with top jobs, Ince took the managers job at League Two Milton Keynes Dons. He has taken them to Wembley in the Johnsons Paint Trophy, and they are sitting two points clear at the top of the table.

If playing experience and a managerial apprenticeship are required to produce a top manager, then Paul Ince will have a big future in the game.

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  1. Ahmed Bilal 27 February, 2008
  2. Andrei 27 February, 2008
  3. mintox 27 February, 2008
  4. BD Condell 28 February, 2008
  5. Tom Sharp 28 February, 2008