What’s the secret to great man-management?

Managers devise training sessions and draw up complex tactical plans, manage multi-million-pound budgets, field challenging questions from the world’s press, shoulder the pressure of the club’s fanbase – and yet, when it comes to managing human beings, the thing that should come naturally, they struggle. Why? Because relationships are complicated. 

Each player has their own distinct personality, shaped by a unique upbringing. Their own entourage pushing for a bumper contract, with each hanger-on looking for a teat to latch onto. And, of course, their own inflated ego and mood swings.

The Proper Football Man would put them in their place with the hairdryer treatment, but the sensitivity of the dressing room has changed alongside the development of modern-day masculinity. The best managers find the right formula for team chemistry and lead their teams to history-defining success.

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“Dealing with different personalities is the hardest thing about management,” explains former Brighton manager Micky Adams, who led the Seagulls to successive promotions at the turn of the century. “You’ve got to find out what makes them tick and I see a lot of managers losing their jobs because they can’t forge those personal relationships. 

“You have to understand the players’ feelings and frailties and show empathy, but also cajole and demand the highest standards from them.

“When I played, it didn’t bother me if a manager got in my face and told me I was shit – my reaction would be, ‘I’ll prove you wrong and show you that I’m not’. That’s going out the game now because the modern player needs you to reinforce how good they are all the time. 

“Whatever era you’re talking about, one thing hasn’t changed – you need the support of the characters that run the dressing room. Without them, you’re in trouble.”

The characters are often the match-winners, the leaders and – most importantly – the catalysts. Managers use different techniques to galvanise their lieutenants and for Harry Redknapp, widely considered to be a master of man-management, the arm around the shoulder was his go-to approach. 

This makes the most sense to the layman. Energise the player with compliments and give them free rein off the pitch, just as long as they deliver on it. Paolo Di Canio, Rafael van der Vaart and Paul Merson were all maverick playmakers to benefit from this method. 

During Portsmouth’s 2002-03 title-winning second-tier campaign, Merson told Redknapp he needed to check into Tony Adams’ Sporting Chance Clinic for his drinking and gambling issues, but he actually flew to Barbados on holiday.

He thought he’d got away with it until he ran into one of Redknapp’s best mates. Rather than punish his captain, the manager turned a blind eye. Merson scored 12 goals as Portsmouth won promotion to the Premier League.

“I came back, so brown, you know, it was January and he just got on with it, Harry,” says Merson. “You could tell him what you needed, he wouldn’t tell you what you needed. I think that was a massive thing with him.”

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Current Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp has cultivated an almost religious devotion from his players by forging very personal relationships. By being tactile and showing a genuine interest in their lives, he has built a trust and connection that has helped the team overcome crushing defeats in two major finals to go on and win the Champions League, Premier League, UEFA Super Cup, FIFA Club World Cup and most recently, the League Cup. 

One of the squad’s key players between 2016 and 2021, Gini Wijnaldum, snubbed Tottenham in favour of Liverpool after chatting to Klopp. 

“I had great conversations with [Mauricio] Pochettino and Klopp,” he told The Guardian in 2016. “But in the meeting with Jurgen, we had a laugh and did not speak only about football. He was interested in my personal life and that was good for me. He was not only interested in Wijnaldum the footballer, but Wijnaldum the person.

“When you’re not out on the football field, you have to communicate as people and it is good if you know something about how the other person is. It makes things easier.

“Every training session we do is to improve you as a player. That’s different to what I’ve experienced before and I’m really happy with it. The manager [Klopp] gives you confidence. He’s not a manager who yells at you or gets angry with you whenever you make a mistake. He will only get mad if you don’t do the things you are good at.”

Professor Sophia Jowett of Loughborough University has distilled this approach into a framework entitled, the 3+1Cs (closeness, commitment, complementarity and co-orientation).

Wijnaldum’s account outlines the sharing of personal details (closeness), challenging training sessions (commitment), a similar outlook on life (complementarity and co-orientation) and strong lines of communication.  

Drawing on conversations with coach-coachee dyads, Jowett’s study found that the presence of these four elements created a “positive, effective and harmonious” relationship that can provide a “platform from which weaknesses and needs can be expressed and goals and objectives can be achieved.”

And, in theory, Klopp’s hugs do more than just suffocate their recipients. The ‘cuddle’ or the ‘love’ hormone oxytocin is released by the brain when people embrace one another or bond socially. When the cap-wearing German wraps his arms around one of his players, he’s actually activating a feel-good hormone into the body.

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This doesn’t work for everyone. When you examine Steven Gerrard’s achievements under the guidance of Rafa Benitez – FA Cup winner, Champions League winner,  PFA Players’ Player of the Year, FWA Footballer of the Year – you could be forgiven for thinking they were close. In truth, they were anything but. Gerrard says the Spaniard’s “frostiness” brought the best out of him because he had “a hunger” to earn his praise.

“I can pick up the phone and speak to all of my previous Liverpool managers, except for Rafa,” Gerrard wrote in his autobiography. “It’s a shame because we shared the biggest night of our careers – the 2005 Champions League victory in Istanbul – yet there is no bond between us.

“On a basic human level, I prefer a likeable manager, such as Gerard Houllier or Brendan Rodgers, but in terms of football I really don’t mind working with a colder man. An emotionless and distant relationship with the likes of Rafa Benitez and Fabio Capello can sometimes produce more success.”

Nomadic forward Jon Stead experienced a similar approach from Mark Hughes when the pair worked together at Blackburn Rovers during the 2004-2005 season. 

The former England under-21 striker, Stead, made a flying start at Ewood Park after joining the club for £1 million in February 2004, scoring six goals in 13 games. The man who signed him, Graeme Souness, left in September of that same year and in came Hughes – and the connection just wasn’t there. 

“Mark Hughes wasn’t a nasty character, but I couldn’t read him,” recalls Stead. “I need a manager who is open and honest. When I don’t know what they’re thinking or I can’t get direct answers from them, it plays on my mind and causes me problems.”

Hughes, a disciple of Sir Alex Ferguson, will have observed the mind games employed by Manchester United’s greatest-ever manager first-hand in the dressing room. If he was trying to provoke a reaction from Stead it didn’t work, the striker only managed to score two goals in 36 appearances under the Welshman.

Ferguson had far more success rattling the cages of his most talented players. He would direct dressing room rants at the likes of Wayne Rooney and and Ryan Giggs to get a rise out of the rest of the team. 

“I always had a great relationship with the manager but there were times in most games at half-time where me and the manager were at each other,” Rooney told the UTD podcast. “He knew, by doing that to me, he was getting a message to the other players. He did it with Giggsy as well. 

“Always after the game, the manager might walk down to the bus and give me a slap on the back of the head! It was his way of saying, that’s over.”

Ex-Brighton boss Adams employed a similar technique to motivate centre back Danny Cullip during their time together on the south coast.

“I used to address the team with my back to Danny and talk about defenders,” Adams recalls. “I’d say, ‘Listen boys, we’re gonna have to score four goals here to win this game because you can’t rely on these defenders’. I’d insult him without being confrontational, but he used to digest that as me picking on him and it would really fire him up.” 

Ignoring key members of the squad is one of many tactics used by Jose Mourinho. Former Chelsea captain John Terry received mixed messages from the Special One during his two spells at Stamford Bridge.

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Mourinho would lavish praise on the five-time Premier League winner making him feel “10 feet tall” but when he was injured, the manager would blank him, provoking Terry to work harder so he could get back out on the pitch quicker.

“If you picked up a knock and missed a day’s training, he’d come in and wouldn’t speak to you. He’d walk straight past you on the treatment table,” said Terry. 

“But you’re sitting there, captain of the football club, and you’re looking for a high-five with the gaffer – and you don’t get it, he blanks you.

“He says to the physio, while you’re there, ‘How long?’ And the physio will go, ‘A couple of days’. And he’d just walk out. He provoked me and pressed my buttons.”

While the approaches of Benitez, Ferguson and Mourinho all differ, they’re all designed with the same purpose, says sports psychologist Dan Abrahams.

“They’re creating an environment of high-challenge and high-expectations,” explains Abrahams, who works with Premier League players and the England rugby team.

“By its nature, high-challenge can create a culture of confrontation and that’s certainly the case when you look at parts of Mourinho’s career. They say to the squad, ‘Here’s the game plan and my philosophy and you either do it or you don’t if you don’t, you’re out’. 

“It’s a high risk approach with today’s players – they can get exhausted by it after two or three years. It’s very difficult to be both high-challenge and high-support – the sweet spot is in between the two. 

“Having worked with Eddie Jones and England rugby, I know he’s had to soften his approach to help him understand the individual needs of each human being.”

The talent within a squad plays a significant role in a manager’s success, but crucially, it’s their ability to earn a player’s commitment that unlocks the team’s potential. 

There’s no blueprint to creating the perfect working relationship. Each player-manager link-up needs a tailor-made plan and, even then, outside influences may sabotage the configuration. 

To ensure long-lasting success, managers have to be flexible and prepared to adapt to changing attitudes in society, but this won’t necessarily guarantee long-lasting relationships.

Given what’s at stake – three points, vast sums of money and personal reputation – clashes are inevitable. It’s not going to be all high-fives and trophy presentations.

The intensity of these bonds can lead to burnout and in that sense they’re more akin to a marriage than a friendship: you might not always like each other, but there needs to be an understanding and a commitment to a cause beyond a self-serving agenda. But, as Adams explains, the best players are willing to enter this matrimony if you bring them success.

“Don’t think everybody likes the manager, because that’s not how it works. The players have to believe in you and that what you’re doing will get results,” he says.

“I must have got it right somewhere down the line because I had four promotions. Now, did they like me? I’m not sure they did. But I guarantee they respected me.”

What’s the secret to great man-management?
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