Football's most effective manager

Charlton Athletic's rise through the ranks is no fluke: it is the story of a model club with, in Alan Curbishley, a model manager. Ian Wylie reports on a tale of long-term planning that is paying off.

by Ian Wylie
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Haven't you been listening to a word I've said?' Alan Curbishley, the usually mild-mannered Charlton Athletic manager, is running out of patience.

Neither of us knew it when we arranged this interview the previous week, but I'm meeting Curbishley - maybe the best English football manager in the Premiership, perhaps the next England coach, certainly a man who knows how to squeeze the last drop of value out of every pound he spends - on possibly the toughest day of his 13-year managerial career. Today is the day that he has surrendered Scott Parker, his best player, to 'the Russian'.

Plucky, unglamorous little Charlton is flying high in the Premiership at the time of writing, just 16 games away from Champions League football.

This despite a budget that would barely pay for boots at Man United or Arsenal. But the club has just accepted a £10 million offer from Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich for the 23-year-old midfielder, who Curbishley has nurtured for 10 years.

While his chairman and chief executive are putting pen to paper in west London, Curbishley - whose record of performance on the pitch and fiscal prudence off it has got Charlton where it is today - stands in the cold at the club's New Eltham training ground. He's talking to reporters, the same questions asked again and again. 'Alan, what do you feel about the way in which this deal has been conducted?' 'Alan, did you promise Parker he could leave for a Big Three club?' 'Alan, how do you intend to spend the money?'

After 45 minutes, he's had enough. Following the boss of the Addicks (Charlton's nick-name) into a draughty Portakabin, I'm not confident of a productive interview. But as it happens, 'Curbs' is relieved to have an opportunity to put the Parker deal into some kind of perspective. After all, with only Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea ahead of Charlton, Curbishley remains the highest-placed English football manager in the country.

'Where we are is a fantastic achievement already,' he says. 'And if we finish in the Champions League this year, we'll probably have arrived too early. I've never set myself ambitious goals. The goal for the last two seasons has been to stay up, and this year is the first we've been talking not about getting 40 points to survive, but about being in the top 10.

'We are successful,' he asserts. 'Charlton is a phenomenon. And, relatively speaking, I've been as successful as Alex Ferguson.'

Do the maths and you'll understand what he means. Sir Alex has won the Premiership seven years out of the past 10, but according to the latest figures available, each Premiership point gained costs Manchester United £958,000 in players' wages. Charlton, on the other hand, picks up Premiership points for half that figure - £481,000 (see table). In other words, Curbishley manages to get twice as much performance for his money as Ferguson.

This is a model club with a model manager, run in a model manner. And while it may not stay fourth in the Premiership for long, there is a tireless progress at Charlton. Curbishley and his board of directors are ahead of schedule in an ambitious experiment to prove that they are more than a one-off - more than just another rags-to-riches-to-rags Wimbledon story.

They want more than 'relative' success and Premiership survival. They want to prove that in the topsy-turvy, boom-to-bust world of football, their unfashionable business model of long-term planning, financial prudence and sound management of resources will deliver them the biggest prizes.

As chairman Richard Murray told shareholders in December: 'Clubs that have demonstrated financial responsibility will reap their reward.'

Turning over £35 million and employing 250 staff, Charlton is, in business terms, an SME. Man United's earnings from European competition alone exceed Charlton's entire turnover. But Charlton is a fastidiously well-managed club. At the end of last year, it announced an operating profit of £2.8 million. Meanwhile, one of the country's so-called big clubs, Leeds United, had debts of £83 million.

There is no shortage of business acumen in the Charlton boardroom. Murray's media company Avesco owns stakes in TV shows Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?

and Pop Idol. But just as significantly, he is a long-term supporter of the club, as is chief executive Peter Varney.

'We run Charlton like we would run a ball-bearing factory,' says Varney.

'We have sound three-year business plans, we create strategies, we set budgets and, most importantly, we stick to them. The emotion that runs through football means too many clubs ditch their long-term plans and end up buying a striker they can't afford.'

Most clubs like to give the impression they listen to their customers, the fans. But Charlton is the only Premiership club with a supporter on the board. Its attention to customer service has paid off. The Valley, Charlton's stadium, near Greenwich and the Millennium Dome, held just 8,000 people in 1992. Now 26,000 supporters turn up for each home game.

Plans have been drawn up to increase the Valley's capacity in stages to more than 35,000, and the club intends to target fans from the 100,000 new homes due to be built in the south-east. The club advertises as far afield as Brighton, reminding locals that Premiership football is only an hour away.

'Executives come to visit us from other clubs to discover what we do, like we're some kind of aliens from Mars,' says Varney. 'But it's quite simple. We have a plan and we stick to that plan. It's not rocket science.'

There is an equilibrium between Charlton and its fans that is absent at most other clubs - a bond that derives its strength from years of pitiful torment in the lower divisions. In the first half of the 1980s, the team was so poor and the directors so divided that the club almost went out of business, and it had to vacate its crumbling ground to share a pitch with rivals Crystal Palace and West Ham.

It was the fans who came to the club's rescue with a campaign to return the club to its home. The Valley Party fought in elections to apply pressure to the local authority. Fans, including Varney, volunteered in their hundreds to stuff leaflets through letterboxes, and later helped to clear the overgrown terraces at the ground before it reopened in 1992. That experience taught Charlton an important business lesson - that the only constant in football is the fans.

If Charlton is run like an SME, 46-year-old Curbishley, with his estuary English, loose grammar and fondness for Rod Stewart and Genesis, could just as easily be the manager of a paper company in Slough. He began his career as an apprentice with West Ham in 1973. After spells with Birmingham City and Aston Villa, Charlton bought Curbishley in 1984. After three years at Brighton, he returned to SE7 again in 1991 as a player/coach and joint manager alongside Steve Gritt. He took over sole running of the team in 1995 and is the second-longest serving manager in the Premier League, behind only Sir Alex.

'I know I underperformed as a player, given the ability I had,' he admits.

'But I really wanted to be a manager and I've worked harder at management than I ever did as a player.'

Aside from relegation to the first division in 1999, Curbishley's managerial record is virtually unblemished. Premiership status is not guaranteed at any club, but after three years in the top flight, Curbishley has steered Charlton to a point where fans can now legitimately dream of European football and domestic cup triumphs.

Curbishley doesn't throw teacups or kick boots around the dressing room.

He's not a fan of psychological mumbo-jumbo either. 'I got sent off once as a manager when I got wound up too much,' he recalls. 'It made me think that if I'm losing my rag, what must the players be thinking? We're professional people and one major attribute of being a professional is that when things are going wrong, someone has to have a level head. Ranting and raving at half time is a waste of time.'

The secret to Curbishley's success is plain hard work. Methodical in his preparation and diligent in execution, he has learned to focus on the fundamentals of running a football team and club in tandem. He's had no alternative. Even if he believed in the power of the quick fix - which he doesn't - Curbishley has never had the cash to try buying his way out of a hole.

'The management challenge I had at the outset was survival,' he says.

'We were going bust and selling players to survive. That first season was the most important we've ever had. Had we been relegated to the old third division, this club may never have come back.'

Curbishley knows Charlton inside-out and works closely with the chairman and the chief executive, in daily contact but meeting formally once a fortnight to discuss club matters. He attends all the club board meetings and was at the heart of negotiations with current sponsors All-Sports and kit manufacturer Joma.

'It's only in recent years that managers such as Sir Alex have had to get involved in the business side. But I've always had to work to a budget,' says Curbishley. 'If I go after a player and he wants more money than we can afford, we don't get him. I've lost plenty of players because we couldn't afford the wages or the fee.

'But the big thing at this club is that we all sing from the same hymnsheet - we're all in it together. Everything we've done in the last 13 years is for the best of this football club. No decisions have been taken for personal gain. The directors are all Charlton fans who have put money into a black hole for many years and they don't take anything out.'

From the 800 kids who play in the club's toddler programme through to the 110,000 youngsters it coaches every year, Curbishley's youth development programme scheme has been of critical importance to Charlton's on-field success. The best players progress to the club's academy, where Mick Browne, the academy director, supervises 120 boys aged from eight to 16. On average, seven of the 15 boys in each year are given scholarships at 16, and two or three offered a professional contract at 18.

To ensure the best chance of developing, on average 12 of the 16 players in the reserve team squad will have graduated from the academy. Where some managers are reluctant to throw young players in, Curbishley has few qualms. That, in turn, makes the club attractive to parents in deciding where to send their son. Current first-teamers Richard Rufus, Kevin Lisbie and Jon Fortune were all youth academy graduates, as were Jermain Defoe, Lee Bowyer and Scott Parker, who joined Charlton as an eight-year-old.

Players say Curbishley instils a work ethic and builds camaraderie among them. And when his own players move on, he makes sure he gets a good price.

When Charlton-trained Defoe was sold by West Ham to Spurs last month for £7 million, the club picked up £1.75 million thanks to his shrewd insistence on a cut from the on-sale.

In 13 years, Curbishley has spent £30 million on players, but taken in £22 million. In the past couple of years, he has perfected the art of snapping up players of proven quality at knockdown prices from relegated clubs. This is how he has added to his squad Irish midfielder Matt Holland (£750,000), Icelandic international Herman Hreidarsson (£900,000) - both signed last year - and South African defender Mark Fish (£700,000), signed in 2000.

'Once I'm interested in a player, I make sure I do my homework on them,' says Curbishley. 'I don't buy players from watching videos sent by scouts or from agents I've never met. I'll watch the player myself five, six times, maybe more, before making a decision. With foreign players, I make sure that they've already played a full season here with someone else. I'll talk to people who know them and find out about their character.'

Curbishley's signing and management of Paolo di Canio from West Ham has silenced critics who reckoned the manager couldn't handle flair players.

The controversial Italian has proved difficult to manage in the past, but so far has not given Curbishley a moment of trouble. However, like everyone else, di Canio was made to sit down beside Curbishley and watch a tape of what the Valley used to be like.

Curbishley believes the level of coaching, training and medical care Charlton can offer players is second to none in the Premiership. This season, he has reorganised the medical department, recruiting a former medical officer to the South African national rugby team.

'Our training is structured and professional. I'd never, ever ever want a player to leave my football club and say: All we did was five-a-sides. We educate the players on diet and nutrition, and they each have their own weights programmes, which we expect them to do on their own. We don't stand over them as if they were children. We explain to them that if they can squeeze out just another 10% in terms of performance or career length, it will make a massive difference to their lives. We all work hard here and everything we get, we deserve.'

He's biased, of course, but Varney believes Curbishley is the best manager in the country, period. 'When you have to make do with no or limited money and it all boils down to your management and coaching ability, there's no-one better,' he says. 'Alan is driven. He's at games most days of the week, he works on his days off. With the players, he's strict and single-minded. He knows what he wants to do with them, but importantly, he is able to communicate that to them.'

Comparisons have been made between Curbishley and Ferguson: a working-class upbringing in Forest Gate and the Gorbals respectively, solid playing careers, and a coaching and managerial apprenticeship that bigger names often do not bother with. Curbishley, although quick to emphasise the differences in scale, is proud to have helped build his club in the same manner as Ferguson.

'We have no debt - we own our ground, we own our training ground, we own our players, so we're in a fantastic position,' says Curbishley, whose definition of success differs from what you'd hear from most other football managers. 'If we get to the stage of completing a 35,000 all-seater, wrap-around stadium, I can look back and say: Well, that was 10 or 15 years of really hard work, but I've achieved a lot.'

Is that really enough? His chairman has pledged never to sack him, but surely Curbishley craves the on-field success that Ferguson has enjoyed?

'I am ambitious. I want to wake up on Saturday mornings thinking: If we do this right, we'll win, no matter who we're playing. There are only three or four managers who can expect that in the Premiership.

'I might achieve that with Charlton. It may be with someone else. I could go and manage any club in England and I'd be comfortable. Going to a bigger club wouldn't faze me at all. I've got the experience to handle it. I've had three or four opportunities to leave for more money, but none of them was the right move. I've never been money-motivated, which helps me when making big decisions.' The fact that a few days later he signed up for another three and a half years at the Valley bears him out.

Curbishley and the directors at Charlton are approaching a critical threshold in their experiment. The club has progressively increased the sums it is willing to spend on new players - Jason Euell cost £4.75 million, Claus Jensen £4 million and Jonatan Johansson £3.75 million. Qualifying for European competition next season - Charlton's centenary - would unlock even greater revenues, taking the club into uncharted waters. If that happens, will Curbishley and his directors be able to hold their nerve and remain financially prudent? The closer they get to the prize, the stronger will be the temptation to risk all to grab it. How Charlton and Curbishley spend the money made from the Parker deal this summer may be the first test.

'I'm losing my best player for a lot of money and I don't have anyone lined up to replace him. Perhaps we should have gambled a little bit more last summer,' says Curbishley in a momentary deviation from the party line.

The following day, when Parker is unveiled as a Chelsea player, I tune into a radio phone-in. A listener has texted a message telling Curbishley to stop being a hypocrite - that if Abramovich offered him the manager's job with lots of money, he'd take it too. The listener clearly knows little about Curbishley and what motivates him. But doesn't everyone, eventually, have their price?

Varney is confident Curbishley will keep the faith and see the Charlton experiment through to its conclusion. 'Alan knows what the plan is here for the next few years because he's helped to create it and he'll want to be a part of it,' he says. 'We've achieved everything we set out to achieve so far. Where else in the world of football could he go where that kind of success would be guaranteed?'

HOW CURBISHLEY HEADS THE EFFECTIVENESS LEAGUE 2002/03

Points Total Wages

wages per point

pounds m pounds '000

1 Manchester Utd 83 79.5 958

2 Arsenal 78 60.6 776

3 Newcastle Utd 69 44.5 645

12 Charlton Ath 49 23.6 481

15 Leeds United 47 55.7 1,185

20 Sunderland 19 34.0 1,790

2001/02

1 Arsenal 87 61.5 706

2 Liverpool 80 56.0 700

3 Manchester Utd 77 70.0 909

14 Charlton Ath 44 21.5 488

15 Everton 43 29.2 680

18 Ipswich Town 36 24.2 671

2000/01

1 Manchester Utd 80 50.0 625

2 Arsenal 70 40.7 580

3 Liverpool 69 48.9 708

9 Charlton 52 17.1 328

14 Middlesbrough 42 32.5 774

15 West Ham Utd 42 31.6 752

SOURCE: DELOITTE & TOUCHE

WANDERERS' RETURNS: TOP PLAYERS AT BARGAIN PRICES

Bolton Wanderers manager Sam Allardyce claims that if only his surname was Allardici, he would be hailed as a managerial genius. Boasting aside, Allardyce's successful use of players on short-term loan this season is being hailed in management circles as a model for businesses that need to deliver immediate success.

In the past three seasons, Bolton has spent only £3.15 million on transfers, while Manchester United has splashed out more than £87 million. So how has Allardyce been able to compete in the Premiership, given the gulf in financial resources? By head-renting, not head-hunting. He has gone down the route of hiring 'interims' on the field - highly qualified players, but on short-term contracts - a practice common in many less sporting businesses.

Allardyce probably knows the European soccer scene better than any manager in the Premiership, and it is here that he has looked for his interims.

Players who would command transfer fees in the region of £5 million to £10 million each, but who are not getting a regular first-team spot. Of the 35 whom he has persuaded to make the transition to Bolton's Reebok stadium, only four incurred a transfer fee. Players of the calibre of Bruno N'Gotty, Fredi Bobic, Ivan Campo, Henrik Pedersen, Florent Laville, Mario Jardel, Youri Djorkaeff and Jay-Jay Okocha would have cost huge sums in the conventional transfer market.

Last year, the wage bill at Bolton leapt from £5.2 million to £21.7 million, but in the event that the club is relegated, it can easily and quickly chop the this commitment back to about £6 million. That's the beauty of using interims, says Martin Wood, managing director of interim executive provider BIE and a lifelong Bolton Wanderers supporter. 'I think Bolton is ahead of its time, and it is an option that will become increasingly common in football.'

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