Foreign Coaches have been essential to English football’s evolution

Words By Seb Stafford-Bloor
January 10, 2017

Paul Merson drew everybody’s ire over the weekend and, quite rightly, has been taken to task for his meandering rant on Sky Sports about Hull City’s appointment of Marco Silva. Merson was eviscerated by Football365 on Sunday, by John Nicholson on the same website a day later and, with typical eloquence, Alan Tyers in The Telegraph on Monday morning.

“Why does it always have to be one of them forruns“, he broadly said.

The flaws in his perspective are self-evident. The Great Young British Manager isn’t quite a myth, there are capable coaches working lower down the pyramid, but the perception that they are being obstructed by a foreign bogeyman is entirely false – and everyone knows that. It isn’t, for instance, original to point out that Sam Allardyce has just been installed as Crystal Palace’s manager or that Tony Pulis is now on his third Premier League job. Neither is it particularly revelatory to cite Alan Pardew’s career as an example of what the right passport can do for longevity. Should the apocalypse arrive tomorrow, Steve Bruce, Mick McCarthy and Owen Coyle would all still be holding enviable jobs in the charred wasteland.

Of course they would: the enemy of the young British coach is and has always been the old British coach.

But we know this. What remains relatively unopposed, however, is the notion that foreign coaches are a fashionable luxury and that their employment comes at a cost to the British game. While it would disingenuous to pretend that, in a few isolated cases, chairmen haven’t been seduced by exotic CVs, it would be equally reductive to claim that the contemporary shape and texture of English football hasn’t been largely defined and bettered by imported ideas.

In 2016, The New York Times’ Rory Smith published Mister, a richly detailed account of early English influences on global football. With an evangelical spirit, British coaches were dispatched to different parts of the world, imparting their wisdom, ideas and, in some cases, creating the foundations for the professional game in those respective territories. History has muddied some of those waters, but in Spain and Italy in particular there remain clubs with a strong modern attachment to those British roots.

The reverse isn’t true now. There is no argument that having been the teacher, English football has suddenly become the student; there has been an inversion, but it’s relatively mild. Nevertheless, even within the last twenty years the sport in this country has incontestably benefitted from outside influence. Some changes, like the advent of exploitative ticket-pricing and television’s bastardisation of the fixture list, have been less welcome, but others have been in the greater interest. The drinking culture has largely gone, replaced by fitness and conditioning initiatives publicised by Arsene Wenger’s early success at Arsenal. Similarly, most clubs’ recruitment now almost universally follows a more European model; twenty years ago, being a director of football seemed little more than an honoury position, whereas in the modern day it’s almost a prerequisite of any semi-scientific approach.

Every weekend, the influence of an imported coach can be seen on Match Of The Day. Liverpool and Tottenham both trade off high-pressing systems sponsored by their German and Argentinian managers, Jose Mourinho was largely responsible for popularising the now-ubiquitous 4-3-3 system during his first spell at Chelsea, and Antonio Conte, despite only arriving seven months ago, has made playing three centre-backs a voguing trend. None of those managers technically “brought” those ideas to this country, but they have each played a part in deepening the native culture and, ultimately, making English football more diverse.

It’s a strange thing to oppose – stranger still given the British public’s celebration of the Premier League’s world-leader status. On the one hand, it rather enjoys its tenuous ownership of a competition watched in every continent. On the other, small pockets of resentment bubble whenever an outsider is allowed through the door.

You can’t have it both ways.

Foreign coaches are exciting. Not all of them will be successful, many of them haven’t been, but with each one comes the promise of something new and a bundle of fresh ideas which have been formed by different educations. On the basis that success in sport is almost always determined by innovation, it stands to reason that the domestic game can only be enhanced by further exposure.

The great irony here, is that the Premier League’s popularity has depended on its ability to modernise. Supporters quite rightly resent some of the consequences of that, but this standing army of glottal stoppers – with their “England is for English” rhetoric – owe their livelihoods to a competition which has been greatly enhanced by the very people they oppose. Are we really to believe that if Dave Bassett, Brian Little and Ron Atkinson had survived the asteroid, the competition would be richer as a result? If Wenger and Mourinho had been turned away, having failed to show their Premier League experience at the door, would the game in this country be more advanced? No sustainable argument suggests so.

It’s confused thinking – possibly even the nadir of the “say what we see without paying proper attention” movement which has been allowed to blabber on television for far too long. Perhaps it’s also worth considering that, rightly or wrongly, these talking heads have become representative-by-proxy of every British coach in the country. Smart domestic voices are rarely given a platform and so the pejorative associations are allowed to fester. That may not the sole reason behind this issue, nor even one of its main animating factors, but it remains an unwelcome inconvenience and should certainly be considered before the next bout of self-piteous posturing.

As ever, a complex issue has been reduced to a simple solution and a common, phantom enemy. As ever – again – much of this hand-wringing could be calmed by a better understanding of the past and weightier dose of self-awareness. In British football, as in British life, maybe the real message is that not every problem encountered is someone else’s fault.

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