El Mister: British Managers in Spain

There’s always something for British football to wring its hands about. Ten years ago it was foreign owners in ‘our’ game. Before that, foreign players. In the 1980s, among other things, it was the ‘talent drain’ of managers heading off to foreign lands was troubling the fretters of the nation.

“I hope Spain has now had its fair share as far as Everton is concerned,” huffed then Toffees chairman Philip Carter in 1987. “It is a real problem for British football and there are moves afoot to liberalise the situation even further…[it] should be of great concern to those involved with our national game.”

Carter was speaking after Howard Kendall, having just won his second league title with Everton, had left Goodison Park to take charge of Athletic Bilbao. Russell Thomas wrote in the Guardian that Kendall’s move ‘confirms the most depressing trend in British football: the drift of talent, player and managerial, to the continent,’ while in the Times Stuart Jones said Kendall’s departure represented ‘another disturbing signpost. It points to the continuing decline of individual talent, whether it be on the pitch or on the periphery of it.’

Of course, British and Irish managers moving to Spain was nothing new. The early history of many Spanish clubs is littered with names like Patrick O’Connell, Arthur Johnson, Robert Firth and Frederick Pentland, the latter known as ‘The Bowler Hat’ because of his favoured headgear. Indeed, the rough Spanish equivalent of ‘gaffer’ is ‘mister’, which partly came about due to the early prevalence of British coaches in the country.

However, 1987 seemed to be the peak of a minor exodus, inspired by the huge success of English teams in Europe, success that was then stymied by the five-year ban after Heysel. British coaches were tempted abroad with the promise of, among other things, continental competition, although the lifestyle and salaries probably helped too.

Kendall’s move to Spain was at least partly inspired by the English ban from Europe. “Would I have stayed if we hadn’t been banned?” he told the Set Pieces earlier this year. “Probably, yes. We would have been involved in Europe again. But when your top players are allowed to leave, as Trevor Steven and Gary Stevens did, it takes some rebuilding.”

Kendall managed Bilbao for two seasons, Terry Venables won the league with Barcelona, Jock Wallace took charge of Sevilla for a while and Ron Atkinson had a brief spell as Atletico Madrid boss. Colin Addison took Celta Vigo up from the second tier then served as Atkinson’s assistant, taking over upon his dismissal, while John Mortimore, Chelsea stalwart of the 50s and 60s who won the league twice in two spells with Benfica, had a year in charge of Real Betis. In the summer of 1987, seven of the 20 managers in the Spanish top flight were British.

Of those who joined the exodus, John Toshack is the daddy of them all, spending a total of 17 seasons in Spain with Real Sociedad (three times), Real Madrid (twice), Deportivo la Coruna and Real Murcia. Toshack, once thought to be a shoo-in for the Liverpool job, left his homeland after life at Swansea soured, relegation to the Second Division starting the wilderness years that eventually left them in the fourth, where he had lifted them from in the first place. Toshack first went to Portugal and Sporting (turning down Aston Villa) and then to Sociedad, where he became their first ever non-Basque manager. Indeed, one of the problems he had to face was the club’s policy that all players had to come from the Basque region.

“It so happens that all my best defenders are left-sided, but you just have to adapt,” he said in an interview in February 1988. “We started the season with a squad of 20 players, 10 of whom had virtually no First Division experience and that was that. Any problems have to be solved as best you can.” The non-Basque policy was relaxed in 1989, when Toshack recruited John Aldridge as the club’s first ever foreign player.

Toshack was a huge success at Sociedad, winning the Copa del Rey but perhaps as importantly endearing himself to the locals. “Toshack has done so much for Real Sociedad,” Spanish journalist Luis de Andia, who covered Toshack for Diario Vasco, told the Guardian. “His big triumph is that he is now regarded as a Basque and they cannot give you a greater accolade.”

In a March 1988 profile of the big Welshman headlined ‘A Genius Shunned’, the great Brian Glanville wrote: ‘In three years, Toshack has utterly transformed the demoralised team he found when he arrived, and all the great Spanish clubs of Barcelona and Madrid are said to want him. One in the eye, surely, for all those English clubs who might have engaged him before he took off, a disappointed man, for Portugal.’

“They’ve been great to me and I’m in no rush to come home until I’ve tried to do a lot more for them,” said Toshack in 1988, but a year later he moved to Real Madrid, winning the title there before returning to Sociedad in 1991, and again in 2001.

The appeal of leaving British football, in something of a state during the late 1980s, would seem relatively obvious, but with some there was a residual attitude that England was still the best place to be and anyone leaving was chasing cash. In reporting Kendall’s impending move to Bilbao, The Times rather sniffily noted that the Basque club would ‘pay a signing on fee of 45 million pesetas (£220,000) should Kendall decide to place financial security at the top of his priority list.’ However, the challenge of succeeding in a different environment was clearly a powerful factor for some.

“I decided when I came over that I wanted to make fundamental changes in the way Barcelona played,” Terry Venables, who won the title with Barca and lost the 1986 European Cup final on penalties, told Hugh McIlvanney in 1985. “It wasn’t easy. Apart from the obvious difficulties of altering the formation, the playing system and the attitudes of the team, I had to do it without the knowledge of the language…Mind you, those restrictions may have encouraged me to concentrate on essentials, to simplify what I was getting across to the fellas…

“There were many other changes I worked for, such as what we call pressing the ball, which means hustling the opponents in possession with three or four players at one time and trying to rob him in parts of the field where we could counter attack fast and effectively – instead of falling back and only winning the ball when their whole team is in front of you. If you can win it halfway through their team you have only maybe five guys to get past to reach goal. It sounds childishly simple but when you can get the chaps doing it life becomes a lot easier out there.” Gegenpressing, clearly, was not a Kloppian invention.

Kendall almost replaced Venables at Barcelona in 1986, but after that move collapsed he went to Bilbao, despite being second choice behind Kenny Dalglish. ‘Many people were surprised at my choice of club,’ he wrote in his autobiography. ‘Athletic Bilbao were not a Barcelona or a Real Madrid, but they were a formidable club with a great history and proud tradition, very much like Everton.’

Kendall actually lived at the training ground during his early days in Spain, which might sound a little grim, but he seemed to enjoy it thoroughly. ‘Every morning I was simply going downstairs and getting changed and going out on the training ground,’ he wrote. ‘It was fabulous.’ Kendall’s first campaign saw them finish fourth, quite a success given that they only avoided relegation in a playoff the previous season. He stayed for another season and a bit, before he and the club mutually decided to part ways (and it really did sound mutual, the Bilbao president throwing Kendall a going away party) in 1989, during which time he turned down a move to Newcastle, a significant pull given they were his hometown club.

When managers were sacked, they were welcomed home with a shrug, sympathy and words of comfort. When Barcelona dismissed Venables, a few games into the 1987/88 season and a little more than a year removed from losing in the European Cup final having also of course won the league, David Lacey wrote in the Guardian: ‘History will show that in a long line of famous names who have come and gone at the Nou Camp, Venables has done better than most. He has been Barcelona’s longest-serving post-war manager and, impressive though their credentials were, his immediate predecessors, Cesar Menotti and Udo Lattek, could not win the championship…Barcelona have not solved anything by dismissing Venables.’ That last point wouldn’t prove entirely correct; after interim spells by Luis Aragones and old faithful Carles Rexach, Barca’s next manager was Johan Cruyff, who did pretty well there, on balance.

Atkinson probably got the roughest end of the Spanish presidential stick, employed as he was by Jesus Gil, the ‘eccentric’ Atletico owner who had a nice sideline in industrial manslaughter; in 1969, 58 people died after an apartment block built by Gil’s construction firm collapsed, a later investigation revealing that the building had been thrown up without fripperies like architects and plans, plus – a minor detail, this – the cement hadn’t properly set when people were allowed in. He was given a five-year prison sentence, but shimmied away from the chokey after receiving a pardon from General Franco. You can always rely on your mates to get you out of trouble.

“Jesus was a big man, around 6’5” built like a fighting bull with a larger than life personality – almost beyond the normal rules of sanity,” said Atkinson, inviting pot/kettle comparisons. “Controversy was his favourite, almost obsessive, game and did he love hogging those headlines. He strutted around and left me with the impression of what Benito Mussolini must have been like in his early days of power.”

When Atkinson arrived in Madrid, he recruited Colin Addison as his assistant, who had been his No.2 at West Brom and had some success in Spain himself, having won promotion with Celta Vigo, in theory to provide some stability. The problem there was that Gil, who Atkinson nicknamed ‘Mad Max’, didn’t exactly place a premium on such things. Atkinson was only in charge for 15 games before Gil sacked him, something he apparently only discovered through Addison, who was installed in the top job. “Perhaps I was too honest,” said Atkinson at the time, “and kicked too many backsides at the club. Certain people behind the scenes didn’t like that one little bit. They are not used to straight talking.”

Such straight talking was apparently absent in the transition from assistant to manager. “What happened is very unfortunate,” said Addison at the time. “I have since spoken to Ron and there is no animosity.” But apparently this wasn’t a view shared by Atkinson, who in his autobiography questioned the speed with which Addison accepted the job, implying that his former trusted right-hand man had stabbed him in the back. Addison, though, paints a slightly different picture. 

“We knew something was up when Jesus phoned me in our hotel one night,” said Addison a few years ago. “I told him I didn’t like the fact that he was ringing me and not Ron, and as soon as I put the phone down I told Ron immediately. `I’ve just had Mad Max on,’ I said…That night, over a beer, Ron knew what was coming and told me to take the job if I was offered it. He never put that in his book. Instead, he claimed the first thing I did when the offer came was moan to him that I had not been given any more money. I think Ron was hurt by the episode, but it saddens me when I think that he called me to help him with his autobiography.”

Language was another hurdle to overcome. When Jock Wallace, Rangers great and former Leicester manager, took over at Sevilla, there were inevitable concerns about communication, which would eventually spell the end for him in Spain. “As long as there is an interpreter I’ll be fine,” Wallace, known as ‘Mister Wolla’ by the players, said. “After all, I had trouble being understood in England when I was with Leicester!” To combat the problem, he hired a Leicester restaurateur named Raymonde Fernandez as his translator, and also employed the services of a US-born bullfighter to teach him the lingo. The initial signs on that score were good, with his assistant Domingo Perez quoted in Jeff Holmes’s book ‘Blue Thunder: The Jock Wallace Story: “Jock has no trouble with Spanish at his team briefings. But when he talks in English we all get a bit lost.” 

However, the communication barrier was enough that, despite the club awarding him a new two-year contract at the end of his first season, he was sacked before the following campaign could even start. The club cited language problems as the key reason for his dismissal, although a falling out with star player Francisco was also said to be a factor.

Like all fashions, eventually prevailing attitudes changed and the Brits dispersed. Atkinson and Wallace were sacked, Addison went the same way a few months later before taking charge of Cadiz and CD Badajoz. Kendall returned to take over at Manchester City and eventually went back to Everton (twice), Mortimore returned to Portugal in 1988, while Venables rocked up at Tottenham. Only Toshack remained, and although others have travelled that path over the years, none have done so in quite the numbers they did in those days when Spain was enamoured with the British ‘mister.’

You can follow Nick Miller on Twitter (@NickMiller79)

El Mister: British Managers in Spain
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