Football Management is Easy…NOT!

The concept of Football Management doesn’t sound that tough especially for those who have mastered various football management games. Find good players, pick and buy ‘em, and win games. In theory, it is the very essence of simplicity. So why then, is there such a difference between the Alex Fergusons and the Gian Piero Gasperinis of this world? What separates the successful from the sacked? What does a football manager need in order to become a success and likewise, what might lead to a manager’s failure?

By looking at some high profile managers, both past and present, we can get an understanding of both. From those that I have actually looked at closely, in recent times, we have managers like Alex Ferguson, Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola, while from times past, the name of Brian Clough springs to mind. What are the key factors that make these men the great managers they are? There possibly are many factors that play their roles, but let me highlight two I find the most striking.

Three of a kind

The support of the Chairman/Owner/Board

It is not the most difficult thing to comprehend that only if the manager is supported from the top can he hope to succeed. The owners have to believe in the direction the manager takes the club on the field. They need to provide support when match results fail to meet expectations, try as much and avoid public criticism of him, arrange for availability of proper transfer funds and above all, steer clear of picking the team. A prime example of this kind of support is the early career of Alex Ferguson at Manchester United. In December 1989, after a run of bad results and some heavy defeats, most of the English media and the Man Utd fans were calling for Ferguson to be sacked. The Board of Directors instead offered their full support. How different would the history of English and European football have been in the last 20 years if the Directors of Man Utd had not done so? Would Man Utd be, as they are now, one of the world’s biggest clubs in the world and have a record of 19 English League titles? I can say with almost complete certainty that they would not.

In marked contrast to Ferguson at Man Utd, there is the situation that Gian Piero Gasperini found himself in, at Inter. It was no secret that he was not Massimo Moratti’s first choice. Indeed, it would appear that he was as low as fifth on Inter’s wish list for a new coach when he was appointed in June 2011. This was public knowledge so it was hardly likely to make him feel secure at the beginning of his tenure. Inter’s results did not go Gasperini’s way to say the least. The situation was not helped either, by Moratti publicly calling on the manager to change his tactics following a defeat. Gasperini had also clearly planned on not having Wesley Sneijder in his squad, as the Dutchman was Old Trafford bound for most of the summer. Now Gasperini is one of those managers who prefer a three-man defense. He has always played 3-4-3 and when he came to Inter, it was not expected he would change that. Gasperini’s controversial formation had no real place for a player like Sneijder, yet when the proposed transfer fell through, the pressure came on Gasperini to start the midfielder in his team. Once again, this pressure came from the owner of the Club undermining the manager.

This was a ridiculous situation and nobody was particularly surprised when Gasperini was sacked in September 2011 after failing to win any of the 5 games in charge. Certainly it’s a poor record but can any manager be judged over 5 games? I think not. It would seem that Gasperini’s position was always precarious but it was Moratti’s actions that contributed directly to the coach’s failure. The final word on this situation should perhaps be left to the late Brian Clough and might have given Moratti pause for thought: “If a chairman sacks the manager he initially appointed, he should go as well.”  Indeed.

Man-Management Skills

Once more this may seem obvious, but I think it’s more than just being able to handle difficult players or rotate your team. The great managers inspire their players to be loyal to them and to obey them without question. This can be done in different ways. I would say that Alex Ferguson and Brian Clough did this through highly autocratic styles of management. Their teams were not democracies, rather they were dictatorships. In contrast, Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola appear to operate a much more egalitarian style of management. Both methods can be made to work very successfully but a good manager must have his player’s total commitment, regardless of how he gets it.

I do not think Ferguson is, or has ever been, “friends” with any of his players. He does not negotiate with them or placate them – he is ruthless and his word is law at Old Trafford. He will without hesitation get rid of great players like Roy Keane and Jaap Stam as soon as they step out of line. This lets every other player know that they are expendable and that if you want to play for Man Utd, you do as Ferguson orders. I believe this is why United are famed for their last minute goals and willpower to win – the players are literally afraid to face Ferguson after a defeat or a poor performance. Ask David Beckham, you never know when a flying boot might hit you….

Brian Clough was also a manager who achieved huge success by ruling his players with an iron fist. In a famous quote, he once responded to a question about what happened if one of his players disagreed with a decision he had made: “We talk about it for twenty minutes and then we decide I was right.” Clearly, Clough tolerated no opposition from his players. He required their unconditional loyalty and obedience and in return guaranteed them trophies. As his success showed, it was an arrangement which, more often than not, worked very well.

Clough and Ferguson’s methods are certainly one way of getting what you want from your team. Both ruled their players absolutely but, rather than inhibiting their teams, it inspired them to success.  However, there are also other approaches to man management that appear to link the most successful managers of the last three seasons in Europe.

Mourinho and Guardiola seem to inspire their teams to great success in a much less confrontational way, acting almost like equals rather than autocrats. Mourinho was well known to be friendly with many of the Chelsea players like Drogba, Lampard and Terry. He got the best out of them by being one of them. This is rumoured to be the reason that Phil Scolari subsequently failed at Stamford Bridge. He tried to impose his more dictatorial style of management on the team and the players didn’t buy into it.

At Barcelona, Guardiola has built one of the greatest football teams the world has ever known by having some of the best players in the world, who are also the hardest working team in the world. The Barcelona players will literally run themselves into the ground during a game as they are completely committed to Guardiola and his vision of how football should be played. As Guardiola is a young manager, he can, I believe, connect with his players on a personal level. There is a two-way loyalty at work between the manager and his players (as there is with Mourinho at Madrid and formerly Inter and Chelsea) and this has been a key factor to success.

The absence of player commitment to a manager’s vision for the club is fatal. It can be argued that this resulted in the failures of managers like the aforementioned Scolari and Gasperini at Chelsea and Inter respectively and Roy Hodgson at Liverpool. It was also famously to blame for Brian Clough’s ill-fated spell as manager of Leeds United.


For a manager to succeed, they must have support from above and below, from Chairman and players. Without both of these, consistent success is impossible. Without the backing of the owners, a manager can never feel secure at a club and will never be able to bring whatever vision he may have to the club. Without commitment from the players, that vision will never be realised on the pitch. No amount of tactical genius will help make up for the players not giving 100%. There are certainly many other factors that go into separating great managers from those who have failed but, in my opinion, these are the two most important.

In conclusion then: Real life Football management – not as easy as it looks.


Eoghan McMonaglecan be reached at