Being a soccer manager is one of the most challenging jobs in sports; the manager is always the one to take the blame, and the players take the glory.
When a team is underachieving, it’s the manager who has to be held accountable. Their well-paid, pampered players, can down tools safe in the knowledge that sacking them just isn’t an option.
So you’d think being a player is much more preferable to being a manager, which is right up until a player has to retire due to age or injury. If they’re lucky, a player gets a long career and plays until their mid to late 30s, but after that, it’s coaching or management, or they’re out of the game.
A player-manager in soccer gets to do both jobs at once, picking the team, training alongside their teammates, playing and coaching during matches, and having the best of both worlds.
The fabled player/manager is rare these days, but today we’re going to look in depth at what a player/manager actually does.
Initially, it sounds like the perfect job; you can pick yourself when you want, substitute yourself on when your team is winning, and stay off the field when they aren’t. You get the responsibility and the glory; it sounds too good to be true. And sadly, it is, and here’s why.
Why Become A Player Manager?
No player ever wakes up in the morning for training and hopes to be made the player/manager of their team. It’s usually the same scenario that brings about the change; a manager is under pressure and looks like the axe is about to fall. The aging player, with a bit left in the tank, and a career of experience, is on the underperforming team.
The player has often taken coaching badges for when their career inevitably tails off, in the hope a team will take them on as a coach to pass on their vast experience. Suddenly, a bad loss in the league, at home in front of your own fans.
The club chairman is in the crowd, listening to the boos. They didn’t sign up for this; the chairman got into soccer to win the Champions League, to be adored by fans, and a knee-jerk reaction follows. The morning papers inform fans of the inevitable; the manager has gone.
But with no time to find a replacement, the aging player with zero management experience is given the role, albeit temporarily. Suddenly, the decision and the blame lie with the new player/manager.
Problems Arising From Taking On Both Roles
At this point, the problems arise, as the new player/manager has to juggle both roles. Their training takes a back seat to the running of the club as they try to decide how to turn things around.
Luckily, they know their teammates like and respect them; after all, they’ve been on the same team for years.
That like and respect soon vanish when a player reads the teamsheet, and they aren’t playing; suddenly, their former teammate isn’t as friendly, and distances form as the player/manager tries to pick a team based on what they believe will give them the best chance of success.
It’s lonely at the top and even lonelier when the player/manager is also picking themselves for the team every week.
The players begin to resent it; the fans worry the new gaffer can’t make the right decisions while on the pitch rather than in the dugout. And the chairman is secretly looking for a replacement, a real manager.
The player-manager can’t do anything right; if they play themselves, they’re being unfair. If they don’t, what if the team loses due to the loss of an experienced player?
Picking a player who was a friend when both were players is seen as favoritism. Leaving them out breaks bonds quicker than a punch to the face.
Does Having A Player-Manager Work?
A player/manager should always be an interim solution to a problem. A manager simply has too many decisions to make, all of which can upset, alienate, or please players. A manager can’t have friends in the team, and a player who has sat in the dugout with the same players they are now leaving out, can’t make the tough decisions.
In the short term, a player/manager can lift a team as the players try to help out their former colleagues. The dressing room is initially happier because the former manager has gone, and there’s often a new manager bounce.
In fact, the new manager bounce is surprisingly common; the number of teams who usually couldn’t agree on the day of the week for one manager suddenly look like world-beaters in their first few games for the new person in charge.
As the season progresses, if a player/manager does well, there’s a chance they could be offered the role full-time. The manager starts to think of themselves as destined for management and often stop picking themselves for games to see the whole picture from the sidelines better.
If things don’t go well, the chairman often finds a new manager quickly as they can’t afford the team to keep sliding down the table. You’ll rarely find a player//manager that maintains both roles for more than a season. In fact, it’s rare to see one combine the two for more than a few games.
The last player/manager in the English Premier League was back in 1999 when Gianluca Vialli was suddenly made the manager of Chelsea when Dutch manager Ruud Gullit, himself a former player, was sacked. Ironically, Gullit had himself been the player/manager of Chelsea, further cementing the idea that the roles simply can’t be combined.
Examples Of Player/Managers
The finances involved in soccer mean that clubs are much more reluctant to use a player-manager. In the past, especially in the English leagues, it wasn’t unheard of for a player to take over as player-manager for a while before taking the leap into full-time management.
Ryan Giggs – Manchester United
Initially used as a player-coach at Manchester United, Giggs was thrown in at the deep end when manager David Moyes was unceremoniously sacked.
Giggs only lasted four games in charge before a new manager was quickly found. Manchester United was deemed far too complex a club to run as both a player and a manager.
Ruud Gullit – Chelsea FC
Dutch legend Ruud Gullit took over the reins as player-manager at Chelsea in 1996 after manager Glenn Hoddle jumped ship to take over the England national team.
Despite being a superb player, and later an excellent manager, combining the two was challenging, and Gullit was sacked.
Gianluca Vialli – Chelsea FC
If the Chelsea board had learned their lesson about using a player-manager, they didn’t show it; and Ruud Gullit was replaced by teammate Gianluca Vialli.
Vialli would again try to combine both roles and, like his predecessor, last less than three seasons in charge.
Kenny Dalglish – Liverpool FC
King Kenny, as he is still known at Anfield, was one of the most successful player-managers in history. Too good a player to hang up his boots, Dalglish led Liverpool to three league titles, two
FA Cups, and a League Cup as player-manager. We won’t see a player-manager do as well as this again, soccer has become too big, and the risk of failure is too costly for clubs to take a chance.