Perhaps it was inevitable that trying to accommodate Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard in the same league was never going to work in the long term. Yes, a nice idea in theory, given their star quality and illustrious record at club level. But somehow their talents never quite dovetailed. It turns out that there was only ever room for one Premier League coach with a furrowed brow, vaguely defined appeals to “character” and “hard work”, and a reluctance ever to discuss their gilded midfield playing days, lest anyone doubt their job was earned on pure merit.
Gerrard’s sacking by Aston Villa on 21 October is the first real setback of a coaching career that appeared to be destined for greatness when he led Rangers to their first Scottish title in a decade in 2021. Gerrard’s success or failure as a coach has always seemed to represent something larger. For years English football has been waiting for the moment when its talented “golden generation” of the mid 2000s came of coaching age. So, how are things going?
The short answer: not great. Lampard, written off after being sacked by Chelsea, is probably the best of the group right now, quietly but precariously rebuilding his reputation at Everton. Wayne Rooney weathered financial chaos and relegation at Derby County before moving to DC United, who have just finished bottom of Major League Soccer in the US. His former Manchester United team-mate Phil Neville is faring slightly better, steering the David Beckham-owned Inter Miami into this year’s play-offs after a shambolic 2021 campaign.
And those are just the ones who can find work. Sol Campbell spent years trying to get a foothold on the managerial ladder before ending up at lower-league Macclesfield and Southend. Paul Scholes lasted seven games at Oldham Athletic. Gary Neville’s disastrous tenure at Valencia in 2015-16 convinced him that punditry was a far easier way of making a living. John Terry and Nicky Butt both tried to serve their apprenticeships in smaller coaching roles, at Aston Villa and Manchester United respectively, but without success.
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Some may come good; some may come again. But let’s be real: it’s not as though we have a Johan Cruyff or Pep Guardiola-level genius in there. Cruyff and Guardiola are often held as the exceptions that prove the rule of great players rarely reproducing their success as coaches. In fact, it happens more often than you think. France’s golden generation of 1998-2000 produced Zinedine Zidane, Didier Deschamps, Laurent Blanc and Patrick Vieira: a triple Champions League-winning coach, a World Cup winner, a four-time French champion and one of the most promising young managers in the Premier League.
The Argentina team of the early 2000s produced at least three world-class coaches in Mauricio Pochettino, Diego Simeone and Marcelo Gallardo. Meanwhile Spain’s famous class of 2008-10 hasn’t even fully retired yet, but has already produced Xavi and Xabi Alonso, the respective managers of Barcelona and Bayer Leverkusen.
Why have England struggled in comparison? It begins to make a little more sense when you examine the style of those teams mentioned above: France’s emphasis on technical ability and pace; Spain’s passing game; the hard-pressing football embodied by Marcelo Bielsa, who coached Argentina between 1998 and 2004. When those players entered the world of coaching, they carried that genetic material with them: an intellectual foundation upon which they could develop their own identity.
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English football in the 2000s, by contrast, lacked any of this. The Premier League’s pre-eminent thinkers – Arsène Wenger, Jose Mourinho, Rafa Benitez – were foreign. Its national side was driven by personality and celebrity, run by its star players and riven by their cliques. Not until much later would the penny drop that its serial tournament failures were attributable to a severe deficit of tactical expertise that had allowed its rivals to surge ahead.
As coaches, the golden generation tried to learn. They made all the right noises about humility, progressive football, waiting for their chance. But on an intellectual level, there was little underpinning any of it. Even now, it’s almost impossible to define Lampard’s coaching philosophy. Likewise Rooney or Gerrard. Reflecting on their own era, Gerrard said in 2020: “Looking back, we needed a manager who was bigger than all of those individual players, who was prepared to make the tough decisions.” It was a telling remark: an admission that for all Gerrard has learned, coaching boils down to character.
Instead, the real English visionaries would emerge away from the spotlight: coaches with little playing success, who had earned their chances not through celebrity but through ingenuity and toil. The Chelsea manager Graham Potter learned his trade at Ostersunds in Sweden. Michael Beale, the young Queen’s Park Rangers manager, coached in Brazil before returning to Britain to work as Gerrard’s assistant. Newcastle’s Eddie Howe gave up playing at the age of 29 and spent years chiselling away in the lower leagues, eventually leading unfancied Bournemouth into the Premier League.
For these men, coaching would be a specialist vocation, not an appendix to a gilded first career. And not by coincidence, it is they who represent the future of English coaching, the likeliest successors when the current England coach Gareth Southgate steps aside. By contrast it is those of the golden generation who now feel like anachronisms: former stars of the small screen now desperately clinging to a world that is threatening to leave them behind.
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This article appears in the 26 Oct 2022 issue of the New Statesman, State of Disorder