The greatest pub cliché of all

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Apparently, great players don’t make great managers. Diego Maradona’s anguish as Argentina disintegrate seems compelling proof of the pub cliché. The Guardian’s Paul Hayward has called the Argentine the “best advert serious football coaching will ever have. Managers who couldn’t summon 5% of his brilliance understand the game better than he ever will because he only comprehends his own small part of it, where the splendour is to be found.”

But watching Maradona on the touchline, you have to wonder if his unsuitability as a coach is entirely due to his greatness as a player. You could equally argue that his travails merely prove that notoriously addictive personalities don’t make good managers. Or that men who use industrial quantities of black hair dye and wear tracksuits that are three sizes to big for them don’t make good managers. Maradona is too sui generis to be clinching evidence of any cliché.

Suffering for greatness
Of course, proponents of the great players don’t make great managers theory can cite many other examples. Tony Adams, John Barnes, Bobby Charlton, Ruud Gullit, Glen Hoddle, Paul Ince, Kevin Keegan, Billy NcNeil, Lothar Matthaus, Bobby Moore, David Platt, Bryan Robson, Bernd Schuster, Graeme Souness, Hristo Stoichkov, Marco van Basten and Billy Wright have all been used as evidence even if, in some cases, they stretch most people’s definition of the word ‘great’.

Hayward believes great players don’t understand football as deeply as a coach like Jose Mourinho, who made up for his lack of playing time by studying the game academically. Chris Waddle believes great players suffer because fans, directors and the media expect more of them, believing their teams will magically start to play football in the style they associate with the player.

Waddle’s other explanation is that “Lesser players who can go into management can relate to less talented players better. Top players can get frustrated because what they did naturally, not many players can do.” Yet you hear some players say that being coached by someone who has been there, won that is truly inspiring.

As football changes, maybe these greats will find it easier to communicate with multinational dressing rooms than a rival brandishing a coaching badge.

Bob Paisley, a decent half-back at Liverpool, always reckoned his experience of being dropped for the 1950 FA Cup final, helped when he had to break the bad news to his players. When he said he knew how they felt, they knew he meant it.

The magnificent seven
The idea that great players don’t make great managers sounds clear enough. But how great is great?

Of the top ten in the International Federation of Football Historians and Statisticians player of the century poll, seven became managers: Maradona, Johan Cruyff, Franz Beckenbauer, Alfredo di Stefano, Ferenc Puskas, Michel Platini and Bobby Charlton.

Of these seven, two were outstanding successes (Cruyff and Beckenbauer), two were pretty successful (Puskas led Panathinaikos to the 1971 European Cup final while di Stefano won the Argentine title with Boca and River and la Liga and the Cup-Winners’ Cup with Valencia).

One was an outright failure (Charlton, who led Preston to relegation and quit after directors sold players behind his back) and one will probably become an outright failure (Maradona). Platini’s mixed reign as French coach – a record 19-match unbeaten run followed by a dismal first round exit at Euro 92 – was enough to convince him that managing teams wasn’t for him.

So the flat statement that great players don’t make great coaches looks much less solid. And there are other great players who made it as managers.

Like Frank Rijkaard, unfashionable, but still the coach who delivered Barcelona’s second European Cup.

Like two-time World Cup winner Didi, who steered Peru to the quarter-finals in 1970, that country’s best ever performance, and won back to back titles with Fenerbahce in the mid-1970s. Or like his countryman Mario Zagallo, an exquisite winger who coached Brazil to victory at Mexico 70 (knocking out Didi’s Peru on the way) and pioneered the use of attacking full-backs.

Like Carlo Ancelotti, who won the European Cup as a player in 1989 and 1990 and as a coach in 2003 and 2007. Ancelotti was not in the same class as Milan’s Dutch masters but won 26 caps for the Azzurri and dribbled around two Real Madrid defenders to seal the Rossoneri’s 5-0 demolition in the European Cup semi-final in 1989.

Like Ernst Happel, one of the finest defenders Austria has ever produced, who won 51 caps and scored a hat-trick against the great Real Madrid in 1956 before coaching Feyenoord and Hamburg to European Cup glory.

Like Kenny Dalglish, who inherited a great team at Liverpool (but had the sense not to tinker and the aura to inspire his former teammates) and then built Blackburn into title-winners with Jack Walker’s money.

And Fabio Capello could play a bit: 32 caps for Italy and four scudetti with Juventus and Milan. As could Giovanni Trapattoni, who marked Cruyff out of the 1969 European Cup final, and one of only two coaches (the other being Udo Lattek) to win all three major European club competitions.

Accept no substitutes
When great players move into the dugout, the scope for them to show their greatness narrows. As a player, a genius like Hoddle could prove his greatness through sheer artistry even if he didn’t win that much silverware.

As a coach, the accolade of greatness is only bestowed on those who win a title or cup or transcend their team’s previous performance in an extraordinary way. The disparity between these two definitions of greatness can prove fatal.

Great players are often appointed for the wrong reasons – to placate irate fans, quieten the media, because the directors are star struck or are daft enough to believe that a returning messiah can turn back time  – and they learn, at brutal speed, that greatness is no shield against volatile opinion, player unrest or boardroom shenanigans (like Bobby Charlton at Preston).

Maybe the grain of truth in the cliché is that great players don’t always stick at being coaches, as the Mourinhos and Wengers do. If the theory that many coaches are driven by resentment over their failed playing careers holds true, does the reverse apply? Do legends like Bobby Charlton realise that coaching is absolutely no substitute for playing and, having made their name once anyway, find it easier to walk away?

So some great players do make great managers. It’s just that when these geniuses royally screw it up, as Maradona is doing, they show us how far they can fall and make us all secretly feel a little better about ourselves. 

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