The secrets of the football dressing room: The Manager, by Mike Carson

Soccer's top coaches - each with his own distinctive voice - offer a deeper take on the art of management, but even they can't teach judgement, says reviewer Ed Smith.

by Ed Smith
Last Updated: 23 Jan 2014

The Manager Inside the minds of football's leaders

Mike Carson

Bloomsbury Publishing, £16.99

Accepting a lift from the coach when you're a professional sportsman is risky. He might be reading a management book - a cliched compendium of contradictory advice, puffed heavily on the cover.

Your eyes would be drawn to the open page on the passenger seat, where you'd read, underlined in red, something like: 'Don't be afraid to drop the best players. It's good for them. Be ruthless.'

Ruthlessness in the wrong hands is not edifying. 'They're all roofless, the best leaders,' one coach told me, pointing to the management book alongside me, 'absolutely roofless.'

Sadly, the coach was prone to changing his mind. The idea of my career resting in the hands of a leader whose lifelong inconstancy was now anchored to the newfound toy of 'rooflessness' inspired the reaction: please God, let there be a good story in the Sun to distract him from this goddamn book.

So I picked up The Manager, Mike Carson's study of football management, rather sceptically. He won me over. It is terrific: sensible, thorough and wise. It's based on detailed interviews with the world's top managers and any leader will learn something.

Just as importantly, I don't think it will do anyone any harm. To prove how safe it is, I've already forgotten all the bullet points and 'take-home messages but absorbed a deeper, subtler understanding of the art of management.

The most important point, rarely made, is that leadership, although it relies on personal charisma and skill, ultimately rests on authority from above.

No leader can do his or her job properly if undermined by the board or owner; players scent and exploit wobbliness at the top. So anyone thinking of a new leadership role should weigh up the constancy of the board rather than the money or glamour. The foundations, paradoxically, must be laid upstairs first.

The voices of individual managers emerge strongly. By the end, you feel you know them. Wenger is high-minded and clear thinking about the big picture; Ferguson is crisp, clipped and concise; Hodgson is shrewd, considered and engaging; Mourinho is the most original and disarming.

However, the book's splendid access means the principal interviewees are portrayed positively, sometimes too much so.

The digressions into history and politics don't always convince. We find a paean to Bill Clinton, flattering a random Republican voter in a restaurant with 'deep listening'. This is charm, not leadership.

Indeed, imagining Clinton as a football manager highlights how leadership is not always transferable. Sometimes, routine dishonesty is easier on a macro scale; it's much harder within a family-style business like a football club. Would Clinton's players have enjoyed his legendary cheating on the golf course?

More centrally, I think Carson has teased out the contradictions within management. We tend to regard leadership as a series of qualities or characteristics - vision, clarity, communication and so on.

Instead, it might be better to see leadership as the preservation of an almost infinite set of balances: between individual freedom and collective identity, discipline and self-expression, hope and reality, fear and affection, and expectation and forgiveness.The best leaders are always nudging these balances back towards their appropriate equipoise: success being a sustained state of improved overall balance.

The problem with any management book is that leadership is seldom about the intrinsic quality of an idea. It is necessary to be ruthless, and also to compromise; necessary to listen, and also to block out noise; necessary to be available, and also to remain somewhat mysterious.

Here is an example. 'Always tell players the truth,' Ferguson says. Always? When they are vulnerable? When you are rebuilding their confidence? No, the truth is just one of your psychological weapons, alongside bluff and all the others.

Even the best coach I worked with - a man of great integrity - had a subtle relationship with the truth. I remember him watching a bowler's last-minute preparations. It was too late for major advice, only tiny tweaks.

The first practice ball was flawless - 'Brilliant, that's perfect,' said the coach.

The second ball was bad. 'How was that?' asked the player. 'Didn't see it,' the coach replied. Truth, like ruthlessness, is a fine aspiration but best applied judiciously.

So while reading management books might enhance the range and precision of the tools in your manager's kitbag, it is very hard for anyone to instruct you about when and how to deploy them.

That comes down to your judgement. And there are no primers on judgement.

Ed Smith is a former captain of Middlesex and author of Luck - a fresh look at fortune (Bloomsbury)

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