An old boy’s club. A select band of members who only let in one of their own and don’t appreciate imposters. No ID, no entry.
That’s the perception of British football management. A place where qualifications and knowledge are no currency compared to playing achievements, contacts and reputation. Or at least that’s how it’s viewed from the outside.
Yet with an ever-thinning number of opportunities for young, homegrown coaches to prove themselves capable, even former players who may have expected to walk into first jobs based on their past glories are struggling to get a seat on the managerial merry-go-round.
“There’s a couple of players on my coaching course who have applied for dozens of jobs and haven’t even got to interview,” former Bolton striker Kevin Davies tells The Set Pieces.
“They’ve had good careers, but for whatever reason they just can’t get to interview, which is frustrating and you start to feel as though something’s not quite right.
“Have you got a [bad] reputation? There’s a lot of talking in football and things can go against you. You just have to remain positive and keep plugging away because eventually something will happen.”
Thankfully for Davies, he wasn’t left on the shelf for long. But his first break into football management hasn’t arrived at a level many might have expected.
A one-time England international who racked up 444 Premier League appearances, Davies was a leading figure in a Bolton side who continually punched above their weight alongside the country’s big hitters. In times gone by, Davies’ playing record might have been enough to score himself a decent job in the Football League, but instead he had to fight off stiff competition just to get a chance at National League North outfit Southport.
Not even his strong roots at Chesterfield, where Davies made his breakthrough as a player, could get him a look-in higher up the tree when he applied for a position with the struggling Spireites.
“I spoke to Chesterfield on a few occasions,” the 41-year-old recalls. “When Danny Wilson got sacked, I offered to help, but they appointed somebody else.
“I applied for the job when it last came about, but didn’t get an interview because they looked at my CV and there was no managerial experience on there. You do get stuck wondering how you get that experience, but that was a step for me and the first interview I went for at Southport, I was fortunate to get because there were over 100 applicants.
“There were lots of ex-players and a number of foreign coaches going for it, even in the sixth tier of football, so it tells you how hard it is to get a job. It’s difficult and I count myself fortunate to have been given the opportunity.”
The same professionalism Davies showed throughout his playing career helped him get a chance with Southport – a club whose list of previous managers reads like a back catalogue of lower-league journeymen – but many other prospective coaches fall by the wayside.
The lack of jobs available to those not already in the inner circle helps to explain why England lag behind the other major European nations in the number of its active UEFA A-qualified coaches, with Spain boasting 15,423 to England’s 1,395 ahead of the last World Cup.
But this isn’t a new phenomenon. When former Brighton, Tottenham and England defender Gary Stevens was attempting to become a coach, he too saw no clear pathway to the top. So after leaving a job with Charlton’s academy in the early noughties, he decided to move abroad – taking roles in Azerbaijan, Ireland and Thailand.
“I would have liked to be a number one in England and had a long career at a club or clubs there,” says Stevens from his home in Asia.
“I’m not disappointed it happened abroad instead because it has broadened me as a coach and a person, and I would recommend every coach do it once in their career.
“The reason I never became a manager in England is because, in my opinion, when I retired as a player, I didn’t focus on coaching and management [straight away]. Having taken 10 or 12 years away from the game, I never got on the merry-go-round and was too far away, so when I decided to get back into it, I had to go in at academy level and couldn’t see too many ways to become a number one or head coach in England.”
For a top-tier player and former international to feel like he’s on the outside looking in only enhances the idea that management has become an exclusive club in England.
Although Stevens’ job prospects were curtailed in the UK, his contacts in the game did help him get a foot in the door overseas, as he worked under Tony Adams at Gabala and benefited from strong links with people at Leicester to land his first job in Thailand with King Power-owned Army United.
Having experienced both sides of the coin, Stevens accepts how difficult it is to make a breakthrough in such an insular market.
“I don’t know how I’d word it because it’s not an old boy’s network as such, but it is about contacts,” he says. “Like most things in life, it’s not always about what you know but who you know.
“Being an ex-player gives you contacts and you know people, therefore I can understand why people who haven’t played the game to the highest professional level think it’s unfair and I make that right.
“I’m not judging if that’s right or wrong, but what I would say is that being a coach at the highest level is different to playing at the highest level. Your skills and qualities that helped you succeed as a player can be an advantage, but in my opinion it gives you no guarantee of being able to coach or manage. What it does do is give you an opportunity and you’ll be found out quickly if you can’t do it.”
For Davies, when the opportunity arrived to have an interview at Southport, he was determined to prove he was a former player who could make the grade.
No stone was left unturned as he created a dossier of information – which included a map of all the clubs and his contacts within an hour’s radius – to convince the Sandgrounders’ board of his vision and knowledge of non-league.
It’s no real surprise that the approach worked. After all, Davies had canvassed opinion from a host of current managers, including Burnley boss Sean Dyche, to help him prepare. He does, however, feel more can be done to help other qualified coaches get their first job.
“Little things, like putting together a CV and preparing for interviews – which I’d never done before – are what a lot of ex-footballers struggle with,” Davies adds.
“You’ve got to really sell yourself and your assets, and I think players can get a little bit more help with that. The PFA and other organisations can probably do more to help by putting on mock interviews and things to get them ready.”
But while hopefuls can be equipped with tools to help, there’s no easy way to find a key that unlocks the door to English football’s coaching club.