Falling off the managerial merry-go-round

It can appear as though some managers, no matter how mediocre their records, are never out of work. In the volatile and highly-pressurised industry of professional football, places on the managerial merry-go-round are constantly opening up as impetuous owners stake their clubs’ futures on another new figurehead.

For all the endless churn, there’s a sense that the same few managers are able to get off and on again seemingly at will, cycling between employers without any discernible success. While this may be the case for some, the reality for most is rather different. According to figures from the League Managers Association, 70% of first-time managers don’t get another opportunity. It can be sink or swim, with no second chances.

Kevin Dillon is someone who’s struggled to return to a first team role. A notoriously spiky and confrontational player, he wasn’t what many thought of as management material. The 57-year-old played for Birmingham City, Portsmouth and Newcastle United, amongst others, before he went back to Reading, his final Football League club, to take up a coaching position in their academy. He progressed through the ranks to become assistant to Alan Pardew and, via a handful of games as caretaker manager, Steve Coppell.

Under Coppell’s guidance, Reading won promotion to the Premier League for the first time in 2006, setting a record points tally and scoring over 100 goals on the way to the Championship title. Once there, they finished an impressive eighth as a squad of journeymen, with a smattering of promising youngsters such as Kevin Doyle, Shane Long and Steve Sidwell, became more than the sum of their parts.

The Royals’ progress eventually stalled, and they slipped out of the Premier League, narrowly missing out on an immediate return. Coppell decided to walk away and within a couple of days Dillon was asked to leave. He had been at the club for 12 years, working at all levels, but was unexpectedly cast aside. Forced to strike out on his own, in November 2009 he was made manager of Aldershot Town.

“I just applied for it. I think I was the last to get interviewed and I got a call twenty minutes later to say I had the job,” says Dillon. “As soon as you walk in, I think you know. It was quite funny but the chairman said, ‘We ended up getting interviewed by Kevin during this process and that’s what got him the job.’”

Aldershot had recently returned to the Football League following the club’s reformation, finishing 15th in League Two. After Gary Waddock was offered the Wycombe Wanderers job a couple of months into the 2009-10 season, Dillon took over. He led the club to sixth, their highest ever league finish.

“My main achievements were the promotions at Reading, but I honestly believe that what I achieved at Aldershot the year I went there was just as good. We finished sixth and got into the play-off semi-finals against Rotherham, which was amazing when you consider the finances at the club and where the club ended up. I think the biggest problem I had there was that I was trying to make it a better club.”

Dillon was keen to transform Aldershot, improve the infrastructure and run things more professionally. There were difficulties behind the scenes, with disagreements over transfer targets and the direction the club should be heading in. After a disappointing run of two wins in ten league games midway through his second season, Dillon received the bad news.

“It was out of the blue. They said they weren’t particularly happy with what was happening. I think they feared me trying to change too many things because it was quite a cosy little club for people to work at. I think I’d moved the goalposts. I wanted to change the size of the pitch. I was very unhappy with the training facilities we had so we got decent training facilities sorted. I got in proper meals for after training. I thought everything was improving, but that’s just life. That’s just the way it is.”

He left by mutual consent in January 2011 and hasn’t been able to find another managerial post since. Aldershot are currently back in the Conference. While Dillon searched for other opportunities, John Stephenson, who he had previously worked under at the Reading academy, asked him to do some scouting for Watford. He has helped out at Brighton and Sheffield United too but the work is sporadic and uncertain.

“It’s not a full-time job. It’s part time but it gets you to games and it keeps you on the circuit. I’ve had lots of interviews for jobs but I’ve never really got one nailed down. I ended up working at Partick Thistle last year, in the Scottish Premier League, doing their scouting in England, but since last July I haven’t been involved in anything,” says Dillon.

“It’s really frustrating because there aren’t many careers where you’ve got the top qualification in Europe – I’ve got my Pro Licence, I’ve got my A Licence, I’ve got my degree in applied management, analyst management, I’ve got everything – and you can’t get a job. And I’ve certainly applied for them. But there’s going to come a time where I’m going to think I’ll probably never get another job. It’s just a shame with the experience I’ve got. My CV’s pretty good as well – I got four or five promotions as a player and three or four as a coach or assistant manager.”

Over the past six years, Dillon has applied for more than 50 jobs, with clubs in the UK and abroad, and at the FA. There have been a few interviews and near misses but it increasingly feels like a closed shop. It’s a vicious circle – the longer you’re out of the game, the harder it is to get back in. New candidates emerge, clubs move on, and it can feel like you’re being left behind. Although Dillon is an easy talker, with plenty of anecdotes from a long career in football, the experience has knocked him.

“It’s very rare you get a reply even. When I get a reply I always send them a message back, thanking them for replying. I don’t know. Maybe I’m not as good as what I think I could be but it does affect your confidence, definitely. When you’ve been out for as long as I have, it gets harder and harder and harder.”

Dillon misses working with young players and helping them to develop. He isn’t optimistic about finding another job and believes there are hundreds of others in his situation – searching, but to no avail. In a business where connections are so important, there’s no easy way back in. A lot of recruitment is done by unofficial channels and word of mouth but the LMA regularly email round a list of vacancies. Dillon’s friends and family also keep a look out for potential opportunities.

Meanwhile, the game continues to grow and evolve. With more money and a higher profile than ever before, the rush to be involved in football in any capacity increases. More than just former players, Dillon is now competing for roles against young coaches and analysts with more academic backgrounds, not so steeped in football tradition. The established order is changing.

“There’s been an influx. Fifteen or 20 years ago, the only people involved in football were footballers,” says Dillon. “Nowadays you’ve got students in different careers. You’ve got managers who haven’t played the game, which is fine, I’ve got no problem with that. You’ve got physios coming in and analysts. They used to be young players who got injured early on in their careers. Nowadays they get them from universities.

“They might not have kicked a ball before, but they don’t need to. They teach themselves, and a lot of managers rely on people like that. So there’s a different breed of people working in football now. And good luck to them. I just wish there was a little role for me.”

Falling off the managerial merry-go-round
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