The rising cost of the manager

Words By Seb Stafford-Bloor Illustrations by Philippe Fenner
November 24, 2017

In 2002, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers sacked head-coach Tony Dungy. Despite possessing one of the quickest, most inhibiting defences in the NFL, they had suffered disappointing playoff exits in 1997, 1999, 2000 and 2001. Dungy was – and remains – a highly respected figure within the sport, but his laidback attitude and inability to bring the offensive side of his team to some sort of parity ultimately cost him his job.

It would be reductive to claim that Tampa hired Jon Gruden by design. They didn’t, instead cycling through a range of candidates who all turned the position down. Gruden was, though, an outstanding candidate. Young and aggressive, and as head-coach of the resurgent Oakland Raiders had established a reputation for the kind of abrasiveness which challenges players and extracts the most from them.

One problem, though: Oakland wouldn’t release from his contract.

Tampa’s solution was to pay a King’s Ransom, offering their first and second-round draft picks in 2002, their first pick in 2003, and their second pick in 2004 as part of a trade. And $8m in cash. The NFL is a competition without a European football-style transfer market and so sacrficing so many draft selections constituted an enormous risk; either Gruden was successful or the team would be at an enormous disadvantage in future years.

And he was – partly. Within a year, Tampa had been to and won the Superbowl, coincidentally defeating the Raiders in San Diego, and their glut of defensive talent (John Lynch, Derek Brooks, Warren Sapp etc) were rewarded with a Lombardi Trophy. It would be a neater story if the next five years were all as successful as Gruden’s first, but he would never again win another playoff game – and that remains true to this day, with the Buccaneers currently suffering through what looks likely to be their tenth straight season without so much as a playoff appearance.

Nevertheless, the example still illustrates the worth of a coach – or of the value in recognising the worth of a oach. The NFL has subsequently prohibited trade dealing in coaching hires, but few would contest that – back in 2002 – the Buccaneers got the better of what looked like a lopsided trade.

Back in England, the last few weeks have seen Everton making ever more aggressive approaches for Marco Silva. Watford have so far resisted the offers, estimated to have being growing towards the £10m mark, and the Portuguese seems likely to stay at Vicarage Road.

Still, it represents something which has been strange in its absence. Premier League clubs have always held a great appetite for spending heavily on new players, but have typically been more financially reticent during managerial recruitment. Compensation fees are regularly paid, but the more aggressive “transfer” style approach is relatively rare; the notion of paying a £10m fee for a manager is still viewed with suspicion.

Clubs searching for new managers seem happier to take what they’ve given rather than what they really want.

Earlier this season, Crystal Palace replaced the hapless Frank De Boer with the out-of-work Roy Hodgson and, presumably some time next week, West Bromwich Albion look set – laughably – to install Alan Pardew as Tony Pulis’s successor. This weekend, David Moyes will also take charge of his second West Ham game, after replacing Slaven Bilic.

It’s strange because it’s operating procedure which contradicts an inescapable truism: out-of-work managers tend to be unemployed for a reason. In this instance, Hodgson because of the Iceland debacle, his age, and a diminishing appetite for the game, Pardew because of his myriad failures at Selhurst Park and Moyes because, after the Manchester United mess and last season’s last-place with Sunderland, he’s seen as damaged goods. There are exceptions to that rule, of course, Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp amongst them, but only the most decorated and desirable managers take sabbaticals from the game and such instances are rare.

In May 2014, Tottenham appointed Mauricio Pochettino as manager. With a year left to run on his Southampton contract, the only prohibitive detail was a £2m compensation clause; a technicality compelled Pochettino to pay that out of his own pocket, but we can presume that he almost certainly didn’t.

And what a deal Spurs got. Not just a manager capable of altering the trajectory of performance, but also someone who has bent the entire structure of the club to his will. Pochettino is Tottenham and Tottenham are Pochettino. All for £2m – which, in today’s market, wouldn’t be enough to buy a semi-decent Championship player. Daniel Levy would probably be lying if he foresaw the full extent of the subsequent success, but in Pochettino he likely identified a manager who would multiply his club’s existing strengths.

The moral of that tale, clearly, is that the value of the right appointment far outweighs the financial convenience of the easiest one.

Everton are on to something. They likely won’t convince Watford to part with Marco Silva, but their willingness to hand over such a fee for a manager might just be the beginning of a new trend. It’s not a surprise, either. While many of Ronald Koeman’s failings were apparent on the pitch, we’re led to believe that the context for his sacking was created by disharmony away from it. Koeman was aloof and distanced, by all accounts treating Everton as a stepping-stone towards his own future, and did not enjoy the healthiest relationships with the existing staff. Straddling both categories was the obvious disconnect between he and Steve Walsh, the technical director, which manifested in last summer’s rotten transfer window.

Chastened by the experience, Everton are evidently now searching for the right piece. A highly capable coach, of course, but also someone of the right ideologic shape who can be dropped into the existing mechanism with minimal adjustments. The component which completes the circuit, so to speak.

And that’s really the way it should be. As football clubs in this country have modernised, they’ve grown more complex. Gone is the old Clough/Longson model of the past, in its place an elaborate superstructure full of technical directors and staff, data departments and conditioning experts. Ensuring that all of those departments function properly is a difficult balance to find, but ensuring they don’t is relatively easy – just make a slapdash appointment from any one of the out-of-work managers who reflexively email a CV whenever a vacancy appears.

The consequence of that change is the soaring value of managers and a dramatic increase in the value of coaching appointments. Maybe, because of their lesser images and less profitable marketing capacity, head-coaches will never quite enjoy parity with players, but clubs will quickly begin to see the merits of dedicating greater sums to dragging head-coaches out from under their contracts.

There will be a retaliation of course – prohibitive clauses, most likely – but this is a process which is well overdue in England. Managing a football club in 2017 is no longer a profession for motivators, training drill organisers or market dealers. Instead, the requirement is for an entire belief system, encassed within a personality which conforms to the organisation’s five and sometimes ten-year aims.

Of course that scarcity should command greater value and – of course – the notion of clubs pinning their futures onto whomever they can dig out of the managerial lost-and-found is almost absurdly archaic.

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