The limited horizons of British football managers

The consensus is that Gary Neville will be successful at Valencia.  It’s hard to dispute that in theory, because Neville’s blend of experience and footballing acumen cast him as an obvious managerial prospect a long time ago.  Yes, talking and analysing in a Sky studio is far easier than altering the trajectory of a basket-case Spanish club in an elite league, but the principles are sound enough.  His mind makes him an asset and his medal collection will - initially - afford him a certain hold over his new players.

There are still reservations, though.

Neville has always been cast as someone who forged his career out of unimpressive components.  The anecdotes from his youth career support that and there are dozens of stories - from coaches and players alike - which characterise his desire and demonstrate just how hard he had to work to reach the level he did.  So maybe that will become a problem?  Just as very gifted players sometimes struggle to coach those who lack the same level of ability, an ex-professional who ground and fought his way to the top of the game might find it difficult to reach those who don’t share his desire.  It’s a troubling ideological gap which may, at some point, have to be overcome.

But, caveats aside, this is a good moment for English management.  Neville may have his job at La Mestalla because of his business relationship with Peter Lim and because his brother is already in residence, but - in the same situation - many of his contemporaries would still have turned it down.  Management is reputation and a coach is only as valuable as his last job performance, so those looking to make the step into coaching are understandably wary of putting themselves in a position to fail.

If, for example, Gary Neville was to be unsuccessful between now and the end of the season, his future job prospects would suffer and his CV would be blemished.  Irrespective of that, he has put himself in a high-pressure situation in a league of which he has no experience and with a group of players with whom he has few common references points.  It’s a very appealing offer and Valencia is a storied club in a beautiful part of the world, but don’t ignore the risk: it would still be a surprise if Neville succeeds and his stock will fall if he doesn’t.

And irrespective of the circumstances surrounding his appointment, this is an example for other British coaches to follow.  While the fashion has started to shift, there are still far too many who approach overseas employment with a “why should I?” mentality.  They are quick to comment on the influx of foreign coaches into the Premier League and even quicker to cast themselves as victims of football’s free-market, yet remarkably unwilling to take advantage of football’s borderless community.

That may be a perspective built on stereotypes and on the various cliches associated with Harry Redknapp et al, but it’s still relevant.  At the time of writing, the Premier League’s top-six clubs are all managed by foreign coaches, all of whom have learnt a new language, and all of whom have been willing to adjust to a new country and a new sporting and social culture.  The wages English football clubs are able to offer makes that adjustment entirely more tolerable - of course - but that they are willing to do it at all is reflective of an adventurous spirit which doesn’t yet exist in this country.

Until very recently, David Moyes was managing Real Sociedad - and Chris Coleman also worked in San Sebastian during the last decade.  Bobby Robson and John Toshack were both willing, successful globe trotters.  Graeme Souness had varying success at Torino, Benfica and Galatasaray.  And then…who else?  Owen Coyle and Carl Robinson are currently working in MLS, Steve McClaren had two wildly different spells at Twente and one disastrous year at Wolfsburg, and there are British coaches to be found in the game’s backwaters, but they still represent the exception rather than the rule.

This seems to run all the way through our culture, as a nation rather than just a sporting territory.  British people like to holiday to places where they can speak English and where they are not required to make any sort of adjustment.  They get off the plane, they find an Irish pub, and they look for a restaurant which will serve them their Sunday lunch in the sun.

That insularity is apparent in football, too.  Very few of our players are willing to venture outside the country and any who do seem to return at the first opportunity. Playing - or managing - outside of this country seems to be a last-resort, a move which is made when clubs tire of antics (Pennant, Collymore, Morrison) or when a reputation needs to be rehabilitated (McClaren, O’Leary, Moyes).

Gary Neville isn’t a trailblazer and nor would many of his peers be offered a Valencia-sized opportunity at this stage of their careers, but he is helping to set a valuable example.  While the industry standard for the unemployed is to complain of narrowing opportunity and fashionable foreign appointment, Neville has recognised that the managerial world extends beyond the Premier and Football Leagues.  He may succeed or he may fail, but he will learn from the experience regardless and will expand his CV in the process.  His brother is following the same path.  Phil Neville also presumably benefitted from Peter Lim’s patronage, but it still would have been more comfortable for him to take a coaching role in England - or to sit at home, phone-in a ghost-written column, and complain about a lack of opportunity.

It’s a big football world and yet, to his own detriment, the British manager archetype remains stubbornly parochial.