Rehashed old fundas

It must have sounded like a good idea: All the football clubs participating in the European leagues and championships have a “manager”, who takes the day to day decisions about running the team, selecting the playing 11, planning for purchases and transfers of players.

This manager gets the glory if the team wins and is fired if the team crashes out. Who better than someone whose post is called “manager”, to talk about management topics ranging from crisis management to long-term planning? 

As it turns out, this is about as good an idea as having a boxer talk about packaging material concepts. Or so it seems in Mike Carson’s book The Manager that features interview snippets with a dozen plus football team managers, related to recurring management problems. Because while these are worthy people who have definitely solved the tough problem of running a team full of talented players and achieving team goals (see why the concept is so appealing?), the interview snippets in the book contain no amazing insights on how to achieve those goals.

The managers seem to be reading out from management workshop notes, or else skimming over incidents in their lives that sort-of relate to the management tenet at hand.

It is left to Carson to take the words he’s got from them and interpret them as something interesting, sometimes stretching to get the meaning he wants. So each paragraph starts off with a few sentences from one of the managers, and ends with Carson adding something like, “The more enlightened modern leader sees the need to address the emotional component of his people.” 

In some places, it is clear that the management tenet Carson is pushing for isn’t really that popular in football: take the case of Planned Succession, which according to Carson is an important part of making your organisation bigger than yourself. But Carson himself can only come up with one or two examples of this successfully happening in the football world, and he focuses as much as possible on those. 

Which leads us to another problem with the book: whitewashing. The book is a homage to the greatness of these managers, and it has the blessings of the League Managers’ Association. So obviously Carson is not going to talk about how bad a job so-and-so manager did, and what mistakes he made, especially not in any detail. Negative incidents are glossed over in a couple of sentences, and quotes like “when you go through tough periods, [thinking about what’s important to you] is what helps you survive” then follow to show off the manager in a good light. To read the book, all of the football players are Gods among men, and the managers even more so.
 So the book isn’t good as a standalone management guide. How does it fare as an introduction to the world of football? About as well, sadly. The book expects you, first, to know the European football league world well, secondly, to know the rules of football, and thirdly, to be aware of football history. For instance, we have Sir Alex Ferguson, long-time manager of Manchester United, briefly mentioning “the tragedy of ‘58.” There is no further explanation of what this tragedy was, except that somehow it caused major trouble to that team. It required a Google search for me to find out he was talking about a tragic plane crash that killed several members of the playing team.

Speaking of Ferguson, the chapter that he headlines (about building sustainable success) is far and away the most coherent of the book. This is probably the only chapter where the featured manager has enough history and enough content for the entire chapter, and he does have the related achievement to his credit. Most other chapters start off with the featured manager’s history and a few quotes from him, but then similar-sounding quotes are pulled in from others, often without any context about the quoted person, to fill up the chapter. 

One imagines the target reader of this book as a specific type of individual: someone who has followed the “footie” in his youth and still spends weekends on the couch cheering his favourite team, and now that he’s been working for a few years, is moving into a management position, and is interested in reinforcing the common management chestnuts he hears around him, by associating them with his heroes in the football world. For anyone else: don’t. It won’t work for you.

The Manager
Mike Carson
Bloomsbury2013, pp 320

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