Lee shows it's tough at the top

Bolton Wanderers manager Sammy Lee left the club on Wednesday (‘by mutual consent’, as the lawyers like to put it). Nothing unusual there – but the sorry tale of Lee’s time at Bolton demonstrates how hard it for even the best technicians to step up into a leadership role.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Lee was widely considered to be one of the best coaches in the game – impeccably qualified, with an excellent reputation from his time at Liverpool and England. Having spent two years at Bolton as assistant manager to Sam Allardyce, he also knew the club and the players. So when Big Sam left for Newcastle this summer, Lee seemed the obvious choice to continue the club’s progress.

Unfortunately, things haven’t quite gone to plan. Two months into the season, Bolton lie one point off the bottom of the table, with a measly one win in nine games. So much for the coaching badges.

In retrospect, the warning signs were there from the start. Lee seemed desperate to step out of the shadow of his successful predecessor, criticising his tactics and methods – which didn’t go down well with a group of players who had all been brought to the club by Allardyce. Lee also managed to fall out with influential senior players (including one he'd appointed as first-team coach). Before long the backroom staff were departing in droves, and there were constant leaks about dressing room unrest.

Lee’s problems will be all too familiar to anyone who’s had to step up into a leadership role. Simply being good at the basics just isn’t enough – you also have to be authoritarian, psychologist, orator, and much else besides. At most football clubs, the second-in-command tends to be the players’ go-between, not an authority figure – which is perhaps why the game is littered with examples of highly-respected number twos who never quite make it as number ones (Peter Taylor, Ray Harford, Brian Kidd and Carlos Queiroz to name but a few). Unfortunately, working closely with a great manager is no guarantee of becoming one.

But, in sport as in business, it can be done. Liverpool’s Bob Paisley, English football’s most successful manager (and Lee’s former boss) was second-in-command to the charismatic Bill Shankly for many years before (reluctantly) taking charge. Former Chelsea poser Jose Mourinho and current Liverpool rotation specialist Rafa Benitez also worked as underlings before graduating to the top job.

But for many ex-number twos, being the main man is often not all it’s cracked up to be. Just ask Lee, who now finds himself on the managerial scrapheap after just six months in the job. Liverpool fans used to sing of him: “He’s fat, he’s round, he’s worth a million pound” – let’s just hope the same can be said for Bolton’s compensation cheque.

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