In football management experience is an incredibly valuable commodity to have. It is an unforgiving career in which patience is low on the agenda and subsequently experience at the top level is incredibly difficult to come by. This is why there is so much value in building experience coaching lower down the football pyramid, abroad, or wherever an opportunity presents itself.
Graham Potter is a prime example of the value of gaining experience out of the spotlight and forging your own path. Potter spent seven years at Swedish side Östersund, taking them from the fourth division to the top flight and into the Europa League where he gained recognition for his side’s 2-1 first leg victory over Arsenal at The Emirates. He impressed the decision-makers at Swansea City enough to be offered the management role in South Wales in 2018. A year later he was a Premier League manager with Brighton, where he has been gaining plaudits ever since and is perhaps the most exciting up-and-coming manager in the division.
With this in mind, the tendency to throw recently retired, big name players straight into the deep end of elite management is one that seems to contradict logic to an extent. That is not to say it is impossible for players to be successful in their first jobs post-playing career, but that they have far less experience to draw on and will very much be learning on the job. Through exposure to an array of different managers, coaches, and even fellow players throughout football careers there is a certain amount of knowledge and ideas that will filter through to a player by pure osmosis. For those with an eye on future management, they may well listen more intently, study the game deeper, and consider what traits they may adapt from those they play under throughout their careers. However, once you jump into the frying pan of club management and are suddenly the one in charge it is a different proposition entirely – even more so when you boast a big reputation in the game. The scrutiny is far more intense; with the watchful gaze of the footballing world waiting to see if the player can make it as the manager.
With all this in mind, this post considers three managers who have all seen themselves fast-tracked to elite management roles. Whilst it may be harsh to say that none of the three were given these roles on merit, the weight of their playing career played a substantial part in getting each of their feet in the door. Scott Parker, Frank Lampard, and Steven Gerrard all enjoyed glittering playing careers. All three were England internationals and were captains; displaying obvious leadership qualities. Yet, all three have so far struggled, to differing extents, in management. The scrutiny on them is perhaps more intense than on other managers, but then other managers have not been presented with such opportunities so early in their managerial careers.
Have Parker, Lampard, and Gerrard been fast-tracked to failure?
Senior management roles: Fulham, Bournemouth
When Fulham were nose-diving towards Premier League relegation in the 2018/19 season, Scott Parker was entrusted with the role of caretaker manager until the end of the season. Having been first team coach under Slaviša Jokanović from the beginning of that season, and being kept in the role when Claudio Ranieiri took over from the sacked Jokanović in November, by February Parker was the man in the hot-seat. Fulham were 19th in the league when Parker was temporarily given the role as manager and he was unable to save the Cottagers from relegation; their fate sealed with five games remaining. However, in that time he showed enough to persuade the Fulham hierarchy to appoint him permanently in the summer.
Parker got Fulham promoted back to the Premier League at the first time of asking, albeit via the play-offs. Upon returning to the top flight Parker’s side really struggled and didn’t win a game until November. Ultimately, Fulham were relegated once again. Faith was placed in Parker for the duration of the season, but following relegation the young manager left his role by mutual consent. On the very same day as departing Fulham, Parker was announced as the new Bournemouth manager. This was to be the Cherries’ second consecutive season in the Championship and they had retained the bulk of their squad from the Premier League. Parker achieved promotion with a second place finish – with former club Fulham winning the division. Parker should of course be commended on achieving two promotions in his fledgling managerial career to date, but on both occasions it is difficult to argue against that being the bare minimum expectation given the strength of the squads he had to work with in the Championship.
A 2-0 win over Aston Villa on the opening day of this season was not a sign of things to come. In the three games following that victory, Bournemouth lost all three with an aggregate score of 16-0. A difficult run that saw Parker’s side face Manchester City and Arsenal culminated in a 9-0 hammering at the hands of Liverpool. If this was not enough in isolation to see Parker lose his job, his comments speaking out against his own board’s lack of summer spend was the nail in the coffin. Whilst Parker may have had a point regarding the lack of investment in the summer, speaking so publicly in a negative manner about your employer rarely ends well. The squad is incredibly light in terms of Premier League experience and quality and it will be a real struggle for anyone to keep them in the division, however the club’s board answered his plea in January to invest in the squad in order to try and consolidate their promotion push and he should perhaps have been more mindful of this.
So in his short managerial career so far Parker has two promotions to his name, but also two relegations. Had he been given the opportunity to continue at Bournemouth that was likely to become three by the end of this season. On top of that, his most recent act was to throw his own board under the bus in order to try and protect his reputation and deflect attention from his own inadequacies following a record-equalling Premier League defeat. In truth, Bournemouth fans were luke-warm on Parker even before the start to the season. In the promotion season last year fans were often left slightly bemused by his sometimes questionable, one-dimensional tactics and his stubbornness in approach when things were not working. Parker certainly talks a good game and comes across very well in interviews and media duties, but does he deliver?
Senior management roles: Derby County, Chelsea, Everton
Of the three managers that are the subject of focus, Frank Lampard has had the most jobs. Despite this, he also has the least quantifiable success when compared to Parker and Gerrard. When considering Lampard’s managerial career to date in the cold light of day, he guided a Derby County side that finished 6th in the Championship the previous season to another 6th place finish, guided a strong Chelsea squad – albeit with a transfer ban – to a top four finish before being sacked with the club in ninth the following season, and was unable to steer an underperforming Everton side who were sleepwalking towards a relegation battle away from said relegation battle.
Ultimately, Lampard did manage to stem the tide and keep Everton up last season, with his biggest achievement perhaps reconnecting his side with the Toffees faithful. The extent of the credit he deserves for securing safety is very much up for debate, however. When Lampard took over from Rafael Benitez on 31st January of this year, Everton were 16th in the league. Where did they finish the season? 16th in the league. The club’s survival was only secured in the penultimate game of the season.
Lampard did initially earn plaudits during his time at Derby, due largely to their playing style. When the Champions League winner was appointed as manager of the Rams in 2018 he had only been retired as a player for two seasons. As can be seen from the subsequent appointment of Wayne Rooney as manager, Derby have a tendency to go bold with their recruitment; something that has contributed heavily to their financial struggles. Lampard was given the opportunity on little more than name alone, something that surely must have irked managers in the lower divisions who were working hard to make their mark in the game.
When Chelsea approached Lampard at the end of the 2018/19 season it was not simply because they felt he had made a really impressive start to management and deserved the job on merit. Even the most staunch supporter of Lampard would be hard pushed to argue that he was not appointed as Chelsea boss purely off of his playing legacy at the club. The fact that Chelsea had a transfer embargo and Lampard had seen success using Mason Mount and Fikayo Tomori when on loan at Derby from Chelsea would have contributed to the appointment, due to the necessity of utilising the resources already at the club, but in truth it was a stop-gap appointment as Chelsea would struggle to persuade a top manager to join a side who could not make any signings.
Whilst this may seem like a damning assessment of Lampard as a manager, it is too early to write him off just yet. It was noticeable when Lampard took the job at Goodison Park that he had a view to play out from the back and play attractive football. To his credit, he soon identified that this was not the right approach for a team low on confidence who desperately needed to start picking up points as soon as possible and instead concentrated on making his side more solid and taking less risks in their own half.
Now, with a pre-season under his belt and a better squad following some good additions in the summer following the sale of Richarlison, this will be the season to judge Lampard on. Currently, Lampard’s side have four points from six games and sit in – you guessed it – 16th place.
Senior management roles: Rangers, Aston Villa
Steven Gerrard fell on his feet getting the Rangers job. To manage such a big club in your first job as a manager is a huge show of trust, but success in Scotland was never going to be enough to qualify him as a good manager in the minds of most. At a time when Celtic had their worst side in a decade, Rangers capitalised by investing in their squad and succumbing to Gerrard’s transfer demands. The result was domestic success; stopping Celtic achieving ten consecutive SPL titles in the process. A run in Europe was also gaining momentum before Gerrard fell to the allure of the Premier League and swapped Glasgow for the claret and blue part of Birmingham.
When Gerrard replaced Dean Smith at Villa Park there was an air of excitement surrounding his appointment. The ex-Liverpool captain made a strong start to life as Villa boss, but results soon became inconsistent. Gerrard’s side ended the season in 14th place, which represented a disappointing end to the season after a promising start of Gerrard’s tenure. To start this season, Villa lost to Bournemouth on the opening day before beating Everton the following week but haven’t won in the league since. A draw at home to champions Manchester City on Saturday represented a good result, but Gerrard now needs his side to kick on from this. It feels very much like Gerrard does not know his best side, with his constant tinkering of formation and personnel not helping his team find consistency. At Villa, Gerrard’s record stands at played 35, won 12, drawn six, lost 17; giving him a win percentage of 34.3%. Much has been made of Gerrard’s record at Villa being statistically worse than Gary Neville’s stint at Valencia. The general consensus regarding Neville’s time in Spain is that it was a disaster, is it all that different for Gerrard at Villa?
One thing that Gerrard does have is a pull in the transfer market. His reputation as a player is still high in the game. Connections with former teammates who are still playing have also proved beneficial, with Philippe Coutinho’s move to Villa Park one that simply would not have happened without Gerrard being in charge. This will not last forever, though. As time goes on and Gerrard’s playing days become a distant memory, the allure of playing under him on name alone will slowly dissipate. It is then that his managerial credentials will come into play. If things at Villa don’t improve soon then just what will those credentials look like?
Much was made of Gerrard’s Villa contract tying in with the end of Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool contract. It was, of course, no coincidence, and Gerrard would never deny that he dreams of becoming the manager of his hometown club in the future. However, this is certainly not a foregone conclusion. If Gerrard does not prove himself to be up to the task then Liverpool will not bend over backwards in search of justification to offer him the job, no matter how much sentiment they may feel towards him.
The purpose of this article is not to begrudge the likes of Parker, Lampard, and Gerrard getting good managerial jobs early in their career. It is, instead, to assess whether this approach actually benefits these big name players-turned-managers in the long run. The problem with starting at the elite level is where do you go from there if things don’t go so well?
Gerrard has been earmarked for the Liverpool job almost from the moment he retired as a player, yet he is struggling in his Premier League audition at Aston Villa. Scott Parker now has the burden of two relegations on his CV and is likely to have to rebuild his career in the Championship. Lampard has the support of the Everton faithful currently, but should that turn can he really expect to get another Premier League job without having to take some time out of the English top flight and rebuild his reputation?