Football managers, as at no point in the game’s history, are now celebrities that transcend the sport, such as Sir Alex Ferguson, José Mourinho and ‘Pep’ Guardiola. There were managers in English football before this who were famous – think of Sir Matt Busby, Bill Shankly, Brian Clough – but not at the level of global fame of today’s managers. Today, football managers have cult-like status. We think these great names, these great characters, make the difference between success and failure. In the past, when clubs were fairly equal in financial resources, they may have done. But now it’s largely a myth. Most football managers make no difference at all.
The simple fact is that in modern football it’s all about the money. The richer the club, the more it has to spend on buying the best players and paying the top wages to attract these players. Statistically, the more a club spends on wages, the more successful it will be. The correlation between wages and league position in the Premier League and the Championship is as high as 87 per cent in one study, 92 per cent in another, leading to a conclusion that it’s around 90 per cent. It’s as simple as that. That leaves the manager’s role as able to explain only up to a 10 per cent difference – better or worse – to this. Of course, there will be variations from season to season, there is no guarantee each season that wages will dictate league position. Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United and Pep Guardiola at Manchester City have had relatively bad seasons. This is down to luck, good or bad, with the likes of injuries and refereeing decisions. But over a few seasons, the higher the wages, the greater the success will be, as long as the manager is basically competent.
While the ability to pay higher wages will always have been a factor, it was much less so in the past, which means the manager previously had more impact. There was a maximum wage for footballers in England until 1961, and though some clubs got around this with ‘extra’ payments to players, broadly this meant there was a level playing field among the top 30 or so clubs in England. Managers then could make a real difference. Even after the maximum wage was abolished, the top 20 or so clubs could still compete fairly equally for the top players from the 1960s to the 1980s, which meant the manager still made a significant difference. This is the era of the likes of Bill Shankly at Liverpool, Don Revie at Leeds and Brian Clough at Derby County and Nottingham Forest. But since the English Premier League began in 1992, the gulf between the top six clubs and the others in terms of their financial resources has grown exponentially, and so even the best manager at a poorer club struggles to succeed. Ranieri at Leicester City was a one-season exception.
So where does this leave the cult of the manager? Yes, some are better than others. But the best managers, who also tend to be at the best clubs as these can pay the highest manager’s wages too, can only add a few percentage points in the modern game. Sir Alex Ferguson would not have succeeded at Manchester United if it did not have the money to pay such high wages to players. Let’s remember, he was nearly sacked after his first few seasons with the club. His success there is in large part down to his ability to attract the best players by being able to pay top wages, something that was challenged towards the end of his time at United, by Chelsea and then Manchester City.
So it’s largely about the money. Most managers, assuming basic competence, do not now make much, if any, difference. A few, like Sir Alex Ferguson, do add something special, but there are very few of his calibre, to make a real difference.
For my full argument that most football managers make no difference at all, please see my new book, What You Think You Know About Football is Wrong: The Global Game’s Greatest Myths and Untruths, Bloomsbury Publishing, London, UK.