Following Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision to retire, Dr Stuart Jolly, a lecturer in coaching and sport science at Nottingham Trent University, asks what it really takes to be an elite football manager
In order to succeed as a Premier League manager, you need a range of skills beyond what might be considered ‘on the field’ coaching skills. Every football club in the league is a unique social context, where the prior successes, the expectations of fans and owners, the financial resources, and the range of players, all present a distinct managerial challenge.
Achieving success, sustaining success, maintaining a mid-table position or avoiding relegation, can each require a different managerial blend of management, leadership and coaching. Each club, each target, each league, each playing level, and each era, has its nuances, which place different demands on the skills of the manager.
There are many examples of where a manager has flourished in one club, but then failed when transplanted into a different club environment, due to a mismatch between their approach, and the specific requirements of that context. Success comes when there is a fit of a manager’s skills and the demands of the role at the time.
Sir Alex Ferguson has demonstrated remarkable adaptability to cope with changes not just in his squads, but in the face of increased pressures associated with the professionalisation of football, increased commercialisation and the globalisation of Manchester United’s fan support base.
His successor will face an almost immediate pressure to maintain success and will have little time to establish themselves in the role. Only an established figure will be granted any leeway at all and a politically astute manager would be well advised to reduce the level of expectation, through both emphasising the phenomenal success of their predecessor and identifying the immediate future as a time for building back towards such a level of success.
Everton manager David Moyes has been appointed as Ferguson’s successor. His length of tenure at Everton makes him an established coach and successful in one context, but it remains to be seen whether his skills match what will be required to manage expectations, to establish himself in the context of Manchester United and ultimately to deliver the expected legacy of sustained high-level success.