Will Managers Keep Getting Younger...?

Oldham's new manager Lee Johnson is the youngest in the Football League at just 31. Daniel Storey wonders if we will see even younger coaches take up the reins...

Last Updated: 26/03/13 at 16:27 Post Comment

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When Lee Johnson was appointed manager of League One Oldham last week, he became the youngest manager in the Football League, aged just 31, forcing into second place MK Dons' Karl Robinson, who was just 29 when appointed in May 2010.

Johnson's appointment continued something of a renaissance for the younger manager. Bournemouth boss Eddie Howe is 35, Leam Richardson at Accrington is 33 and Mark Roberts is in caretaker charge at Stevenage at 29 years of age. Of the 92 league clubs, 21 managers are aged 40 or below. Only eight are older than 60.

Whilst young managers themselves are nothing new (Brian Clough was just 30 when appointed at Hartlepool, Bobby Robson began his career in the dugout at 35, Alex Ferguson and Bill Shankly 36), the recent spate of relatively raw recruits raised a question in my football-ravaged mind - how young can we go? We know that footballers can play at the highest level as young as 16, so is there any reason why a manager cannot start at 25, or even 20? It's time to test out that famous football cliché 'If you're good enough, you're old enough'.

There is nothing to prevent youngsters gaining the relevant qualifications. Although UEFA's Pro Licence is an arduous task taking up to two years to complete, this is only required to manage within the top flight, and there are no such restrictions on Football League clubs. If an individual began their qualifications at 17, they could be fully qualified with a UEFA B licence by the age of 20. That's considered comfortably sufficient for Championship football.

Clearly, however, there are practical issues to overcome. A football club, the harbour of testosterone and bravado, is no place for the shrinking violet, and a young manager would have to overcome a great deal of cynicism and suspicion, particularly within the playing staff. You only need to look at Andre Villas-Boas' short tenure at Stamford Bridge to see that managing players of a greater age (and more pertinently greater notoriety) than yourself takes a great deal of mental fortitude. As soon as a sign of weakness is shown, players will pick up on it immediately. In an arena in which confidence is a necessary ingredient for success, cracks cannot be allowed to appear.

In addition, there is the media pressure introduced when a young manager is appointed. Like fans and players alike, the media is a fickle beast. When things are going well a young age is viewed as a positive, seen by the headline-writers in terms such as 'starlet', 'fresh-faced', or the dreaded 'potential'. As soon as results begin to go awry, a young manager will have his age used as the stick with which to beat him. 'Starlet' becomes 'inexperienced', 'fresh-faced' becomes 'out of his depth' and 'potential' soon transforms into 'naivety'.

There are ways around such problems, however. The first is to be firm with players, and to have a steady belief in your own abilities. Footballers may be egocentric, but they are generally simple beasts. A young coach must remember that whilst the player is the expert on the field, the manager is the ringleader, the comparable expert in every other area. Moreover, the issues faced by AVB at Chelsea in terms of ego management and massage are less likely to occur as you drop down the Football League ladder. Earning more than £100,000 per week does tend to create a chip on Terry's one's shoulder.

A simpler initial measure is to surround yourself with experience. Upon Karl Robinson's appointment at MK Dons, he immediately asked John Gorman to be his assistant manager, a position he remained in until his retirement last summer (and the Dons' performances have since slipped). Robinson explained the importance of his assistant: "If you do not sit down and speak to experienced people then you will fall short. You have got to find your own footballing godfather, your mentors, people that you can bounce ideas off. They can tell you things that you can only guess about."

However, the biggest roadblock to younger managers being appointed is not within the media or players, but our own view of football management. Of the 92 Football League managers, only Villas-Boas, Robinson and Russell Slade have not played professional football (Brendan Rodgers was a pro at Reading before career-ending injury at 20). Of the other young managers (Howe, Johnson, Richardson etc), their coaching careers have only been accelerated as a secondary to playing (either through injury of a player-manager role). Eddie Howe has become a hero at Bournemouth, but would not have been elevated into such a position without a knee injury causing his retirement at 30.

When youngsters are introduced into the game, it is only ever as players. No child dreams to be in charge of their country and win the World Cup, but to score a goal in the final. No child wants to mastermind an FA Cup final victory but score the winning penalty. They idolise players, and aim to emulate their heroes. Given the infinitesimal chance a child has of making the grade at the top level, why do we not focus more on coaching badges, which provide a degree of extra-curricular education as well as exercise?

The strongest limiting factor in the quality of our national coaching is the supposition that to succeed as a coach you need to have played the game, and chairman and owners will be loath to offer jobs to somebody whom they consider to be a footballing 'outsider'. The only way managers can get younger is if we curb the national and natural assumption that playing football is the only answer, and that coaching is the fall-back option. Currently, a mediocre player has a higher status than a very good coach, if you forgive the over-simplicity.

Perhaps it seems a fanciful or churlish point to suggest that we may soon have a 23-year-old in charge of a Football League club, but one of football's most positive forces has been its ability to break down boundaries and pre-conceived ideas of what we consider to be the norm. As a footballing equivalent of Murphy's Law would dictate: "Anything that can happen, will happen".

Daniel Storey - he's on Twitter.

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