The Agenda: The scandal of English football's great brain drain

What can be done to get the brightest and the best to get involved in coaching again wonders Chief Sports Writer Mark Douglas

Stu Forster /Allsport The 1998 England football team
The 1998 England football team

On a busy news week, it was a small announcement. It barely even made the news-in-brief section of most major newspapers and probably skimmed under the radar of most football supporters.

On Thursday, Alan Shearer gave an interview in which he confirmed that his career in football management was all but over. “I love my job and know I’m lucky to have it. Could I see myself returning to management? Probably not,” said the former England captain and all-time greatest goalscorer in Newcastle’s history.Now to some that might prompt a snort of derision or a shrug of the shoulders. After all Shearer’s foray into management was, by the bare statistical analysis, an unsuccessful one – even allowing for the almost impossible task that was presented to him when he took over in the spring of 2009.

But dig deeper and there are plenty of reasons why his decision should prompt a lament in the corridors of power at Wembley. Shearer’s decision to turn his back on coaching in any form means yet another influential, experienced and knowledgeable voice has been lost to the game. It is a worrying trend.

There is no fixed correlation between success on the field and glory in the dug-out, of course. Some of the finest managers have never played the game to the highest level and some of the best players make hopeless coaches – but what is troubling about the development of English football is that our finest stars are not even bothering to try it any more. Consider the evidence: of England’s World Cup squad in 1998 (the one that Shearer spearheaded) just seven of the 22 chanced their arm at coaching. Compare and contrast with Germany, where 14 of the 22 have managed or coached at professional level. Another one of their number – Oliver Bierhoff – remains involved with the national team in an advisory capacity.

Look also at France. On the face of it they have encountered a similar brain drain to England, with only seven of their 22 trying their hand at management. Yet two of the seven who have entered coaching have managed the national team.

Now you could argue that France are no great shakes in international football at the moment, but the German experience suggests that having experienced players involved may be no bad thing. With the Bundesliga improving, the national team a strong bet for the World Cup and the country garnering plaudits for their innovation and fresh thinking, there are clearly benefits to creating an environment where the top players can get involved in coaching. In England, management is increasingly looking like the worst of all available options to players who have graced the top level. Take Keith Gillespie, for example. Last week he was in Newcastle to promote his excellent new autobiography and a simple question was put to him about a possible coaching career.

Gillespie, of course, has played for some of the best managers around, with Kevin Keegan and Sir Alex Ferguson among those that he has observed during a playing career that saw him win international caps, grace the Champions League stage and challenge for the Premier League title. Yet he sees little to encourage him to share that with another generation.

“I started my coaching badges around three years ago but I just haven’t got round to finishing them,” he told The Journal.

“I don’t know whether it’s for me really. I’ve really enjoyed the media thing the last few months and I wouldn’t mind getting more involved in that. It’s something that a lot of ex-players are trying to get into at the moment.

“Coaching is not a comfortable career at the moment and I think my generation of players is probably recognising that now. Look at Alan Pardew and the fact he was under pressure not a long time ago. He is the third longest-serving manager in the Premier League at the moment so you look at that and it doesn’t look like the most stable career to get into.”

It is getting worse, too. Of the England squad that went to Italia ’90, 17 of the 22 tried their hand at coaching or management in some form. Admittedly there was mixed success in that bunch but it says little that in just eight years, the drop off has been so marked.

Clearly, the instability of the English game plays a part. Shearer talks of having one of the best jobs in the country in analysing football for Match of the Day and there is merit in that. No one would want to frog-march him into the dug-out if he has seen a better way.

But why is no one from the Football Association or our Premier League clubs looking to at least engage him and his colleagues? It is a waste and there seems to be a sniffiness about engaging former professionals unless they actively want to become part of the game.

When the Football Association announced its commission to look into the future of the English game, it was announced that Danny Mills was included because he wrote to them with some ideas. When Gary Lineker criticised the body, he was told that he should have done the same.

It seemed like spurious logic. In the world of industry they would head-hunt for the best, sourcing fresh ideas and innovation from those who had experience at the highest level. Yet in English football the achievements of these same experienced and successful figures count for very little. Sometimes they even count against them.

Something needs to be done to reverse that alarming trend.


David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer