Opinion

What's driving the new trend of clubs hiring ex-players as managers?

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Steve Corica lifted the A-League championship trophy for the second time in a row on Sunday, levelling him up with his greatest on-field rival, Kevin Muscat, for off-field success.

But the two are part of a wider trend that has been sweeping the globe rapidly after a long period when the idea sat uncomfortably: a club hero taking the managerial reins.

Once considered something of a quick fix, or the sign of a boardroom lacking in ambition, it now seems to be growing as a genuine option.

The three biggest Premier League clubs of this millennium’s first decade – Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea – are all managed by former players, none with any major success elsewhere. 

Just in the past few weeks, Juventus have thrown the keys to Andrea Pirlo after a few days in charge of the club’s youth team.

Barcelona went for Ronald Koeman. Do they possess the best CVs for the job? Not even close. 

Yet the UEFA Champions League has been dominated by old boys in recent times: six of the past seven trophies have gone to clubs with ex-players as managers.

Before that, Pep Guardiola, Roberto Di Matteo, Carlo Ancelotti and Vicente del Bosque did the same. 

Locally, four of the past six A-League titles have been won by heroes-turned-managers (Corica and Muscat), which might explain the domino effect happening elsewhere. 

Warren Moon has just been given the job at Brisbane Roar. Grant Brebner has just been given the job at Melbourne Victory. Carl Veart is expected to be given the job at Adelaide United. 

There’s no question clubs have always considered it an option, it’s just that a series of factors have made clubs more open to the idea than they were previously. 

In the midst of a pandemic, cost sits top of the list. Clubs fear hiring low-budget options will earn them the wrath of the supporters – but they know that fans will be more tolerant if it’s a former star incoming. 

Equally critical is the question of culture. Hiring an outsider is fine if you’re looking to change things up.

But if it’s continuity you’re looking for, or a return to a glorious era, former players are ideal because they don’t need time to adjust: just plug and play. No need for any induction sessions. 

After all, there is nothing worse than having a manager who is the wrong cultural fit. It drives fans insane: think of Quique Setien at Barcelona, Rafael Benitez at Chelsea or Unai Emery at Arsenal. 

Specifically, that’s why the interim boss of a club is often a former player. You automatically know they care deeply about holding the ship together – even if they’re not ready for the job. 

Ironically, Corica probably wasn’t ready in 2012, when he lost three out of four as interim, his only point coming in a 0-0 home draw with lowly Melbourne Heart.

Six years later, he would come back transformed, with an educated mind and precise vision of how to succeed.

Therein lies a key point. Suitability is less about whether the manager is a former hero and more about whether their credentials really stack up.

Mikel Arteta, sculpted by three-and-a-half years with Guardiola, has looked far from out of his depth at Arsenal, despite it being his first senior job. 

Locally, I think of John Aloisi as someone who obviously wasn’t ready when given the opportunity at Melbourne Heart.

A year as youth coach wasn’t nearly enough and while the fans gave him every chance at first, they eventually turned.

He coached much more effectively at Brisbane and will be even better again in his next role. Coaches, like players, mature at different rates. 

Even Zinedine Zidane didn’t walk off the street, as people seem to think. Before becoming interim boss in 2016, he’d spent 18 months managing the youth team, two years as the club’s sporting director, a year as Ancelotti’s assistant in 2013 and another year working as a first-team advisor under Jose Mourinho. Not the worst apprenticeship. 

There is a final point to note. Whilst “old boys” may get the inside running for jobs, once there, their talents are often underrated.

Corica, Muscat, Zidane and Luis Enrique all had to win multiple trophies to prove the first one wasn’t a fluke. 

Even Guardiola was forever plagued by those ridiculous “fraud” taunts until he left. The tag of cronyism is hard to shake, even for the best. 

Irrespective of the veiled criticism, this trend is gathering more and more speed and, right now, appears to be at full tilt.

Will it stay that way? Like any trend, as long as it works, it won't be changing any time soon.