Power is a wonderful thing. It gives a man authority. It gives him a sense of one-upmanship over his compatriot. It instills brewing self-confidence. It sews fatal seeds of non-existent capability. When a person is intrusted with power it creates a figment in their mind that they are greater than they would have even their own minds believe to be. In medieval times, Kings were chosen on the basis that they were divinely selected by God, and hurried down a superstitious path of entitlement and privilege. It is a delusion, power. A game of mirrors, fog and shadow.
With power comes accusations. Words like totalitarian and autocratic get thrown about. But, in the most simple and basic level, we must question whether it is safe and even beneficial to sacrifice all power and influence over to a single man. Football thinks it is so. It’s always been that way. For the vision of a driven man is a powerful thing. It becomes fixated upon to the point of maddening obsession, striving toward an unachievable end point. The goal will never be met because it can always be improved, always be made better and always enhanced to heights unknown to the initial objective.
Bill Shankly was one such man. He needed all the power and had an infamous hatred for ‘the board’. A socialist by heart and by trade, Bill Shankly did not tolerate authority, once saying “the socialism I believe in is everybody working for the same goal and everybody having a share in the rewards. That’s how I see football, that’s how I see life.” This ‘everybody‘ is what we are after here. Socialism defines itself as a multitude of people all working toward an end point, splitting tasks into individual roles. The shoemaker makes shoes, the baker bakes bread and the florist arranges flowers. It isn’t that simple in football however.
When Brendan Rodgers took charge of Liverpool in the summer of 2012, he was offered the opportunity to be appointed a director of football. This was becoming a common trend among other Premier League clubs with Franco Baldini at Tottenham and Txiki Begiristain at Manchester City. However Rodgers politely refused the offer. “I always think the manager is the technical director”, he said. “He is the man who oversees the football development of the club, and I believe you should take on that responsibility when you are manager.” This is an incredible insight into the mode of thinking of a manager. Who needs a director of football when the manager essentially already fulfills this function. It would only serve to offer as a divergence from the manager’s point of view, which at the end of the day is all that matters. Liverpool have been without a director of football since April 2012. Power fuels hunger and hunger demands more power.
There are three aspects to the example of Rodgers as an authoritative figure in the struggle for power at Liverpool. There is the aforementioned technical director of football, there is the on-field tactical organisation and there is the buying and selling of players during transfer windows. In all three aspects Rodgers has maintained all governing power. As he has already pointed out, he is the director of football. With regard to tactics Liverpool, unlike other clubs, have no defensive coach nor do they have an offensive coach. The manager organises both and all inbetween. This can be tolerated however when the manager has an almost Messianic vision of how the team should play, perhaps like Pep Guardiola at FC Barcelona and Bayern Munich. And thirdly is the transfers of players in and out of the club. This is where the light meets day in the case of Liverpool when we bring in the concept of the supposed Transfer Committee. This supposed committee consisting of Rodgers, chief-executive Ian Ayre, Dave Fallows and Michael Edwards is the most poignant possible illustration of a manager’s siege for power at a football club.
But can the role of the manager be viewed in an alternative manner to the way in which we perceive them today. Are managers not simply self-indulgent narrcicistical egomaniacs not operating to improve the standings of their clubs but rather functioning only to indulge their own personal ideologies about the game? The debate can be split using examples we have already encountered. The first school of thought engages us with Bill Shankly, a man seemingly brought into the world to see Liverpool rise. “My idea was to build Liverpool into a bastion of invincibility”, he said. “My idea was to build Liverpool up and up and up until eventually everyone would have to submit and give in.” Was this man driven by personal indulgences that catered only to see his own accomplishments be met? Or were his accomplishments and those of Liverpool Football Club fused into one? On the other hand we can see managers as egotistical and self-serving. To subject names to this label would be unfair but it cannot be denied that managers of a certain cloth are out for, as they say, “number one.”
But getting back to the point of managers as men of power we must address the issue of roles within a football club. In American football there are coaches for each and every aspect of play. Take for example the Superbowl winning New England Patriots. They have five offensive coaches (Quarterbacks, Running backs, Wide Receivers, Tight Ends and Offensive Line), five defensive coaches (Defensive Coordinator, Linebackers, Cornerbacks, Safeties and Defensive Line/Assistant), as well as a special teams coach and two assistant coaches. Taking the medical and scientific analysis portion of the backroom staff aside, compare this to football’s solitary assistant manager, assistant coach and goalkeeping coach. This is not to say that football’s (soccer) methods are wrong but they are different to that of other professional sports. What it does enlighten us to however, is that the American football roles of offensive coaches, defensive coaches and special teams coach not to mention the additional assistants, are given to one man in its footballing equivalent. The functions of 10+ professional coaches is crossed with one manager in football.
As mentioned already, the roles of a manager, undoubtedly complex and abounding in numbers as they are, can be split into the day-to-day running of the club, the on-field tactical organisation and training of the players, and the buying and selling of players during transfer windows. When we take another example in Alex Ferguson we see the vision of a manager as an accumulator of power as harboured and unflinching reality. Ferguson was great at what he did because he slowly took and maintained all power at Manchester United for an enduring period. Would Ferguson have been as successful as he was if his functions were limited? If Ferguson had an attacking coach, a defensive coach and a coach for tactical organisation would he have been able to achieve the multitude of success that he did?
But then there is the opposite end of the spectrum. Although Bill Shankly and Alex Ferguson show us that having one man in charge of a football club from top to bottom can be beneficial, we must see such examples as rare and glimpses of genius. Shankly and Ferguson were two of the greatest managers of all time and there methods, unorthodox may they be, were outrageously effective. Both built football clubs into dynamic and abiding empires. So we must ask ourselves whether an alternative system of roles would work in football? If the functions of a football manager were broken down and shared out to specialist professionals, would the rewards be greater or less than the structure of one man fulfilling all roles?
For the foreseeable future we may never know. Although more analysts and medical physiotherapists are being brought into football clubs as to improve the scientific portion of the game with regard to injuries and player wellbeing, it does not seem likely that managers would be willing to sacrifice their power and influence over to other coaches. Indeed it does not seem likely either that the very institution of football would be willing to change its current structure of management and roles of coaches. Shankly and Ferguson show us the heights that one man can reach when in charge of a football club, but are these cases common enough to allow ourselves to believe that all managers are capable of their extraordinary multitude of achievements in the game?
The importance of coaches and backroom staff often goes unrecognised and unappreciated in football. We cannot allow ourselves to believe that the rewards and titles won by clubs are down to the one man who patrols the sidelines. Look only to the example of Peter Taylor at Derby County and Nottingham Forrest to understand the importance of coaching, scouting and training. As Brian Clough himself so famously said to Taylor in the film adaptation of David Peace’s extraordinary novel the Damned United, “I can’t do it without you. I’m nothing without you.” Power fuels hunger and hunger demands more power. It is an incredible thing.