The British Manager Abroad: Deco or Pembridge?

3 07 2010

Managing in a foreign country is a tricky business. Do you immerse yourself in the culture, embrace the indigenous talents and back your motivational skills and tactical nous to shine through? Or do you act as a modern-day missionary, spreading the gospel of your native land’s footballing beliefs? The former can leave you isolated and vulnerable – perceived as the daft foreigner on the outside looking in. The latter can see you accused of failing to adapt to the native culture – imposing your own brand of football stylistically unsuited to local demands.

Here in England, we have experienced several high profile examples of foreign coaches surrounding themselves with their compatriots. It makes sense on several levels. The manager gives himself a mouthpiece within the dressing room – guys who understand the message, perhaps who have played for him before, that can help the whole squad buy into his way of working. Arsene Wenger was quick to bring in high quality French talent such as Patrick Vieira, Nicolas Anelka and Emmanuel Petit. As well as the stars however, Wenger also brought in Remi Garde in his first season and Gilles Grimandi, who had worked under him at Monaco, in his second. These were more experienced players never likely to take the league by storm but ones who could help the coach assert the culture he wanted at the club. In a similar vein, we have seen Rafa Benitez at Liverpool bring in a plethora of fellow Spaniards on and off the field, with his early Champions League success only hastening the speed at which ‘the Spanish influence’ was embraced on the red half of Merseyside. But what of the British manager on his travels..

So far, the 21st century has seen only a handful of British managers try their hand at the highest level outside of these shores. Sir Bobby Robson and John Toshack were already plying their trade abroad at the turn of the century and continued to manage abroad until both returned closer to home in 2004. Whilst their approaches differed, with Robson relying heavily on interpreters (no need to mention his most famous one) and Toshack attempting the native language, often with comical results, it is noticeable that neither manager sought to rely on British players. Robson never signed a British player while in Spain or Holland. Toshack’s influence on Sociedad was a factor in the Basque club dispensing with their Basque-only cantera policy but the man himself was not actually the coach when John Aldridge was signed, soon to be followed by Kevin Richardson and Dalian Atkinson. Interestingly, when Toshack returned to Sociedad after his brief dalliance with Real Madrid, all three British players were to leave the club.  

A coach with a very different outlook on the benefits of taking British players along for the ride was Graeme Souness. In the dying embers of the 20th century his penchant for Dean Saunders, a player he had bought for Liverpool, was once again made clear when he paid £2.35m to take the 31 year old to Galatasaray with him. This was to be but a toe in the water in comparison to what was to follow however. After a brief stint at Torino, where Souness left in frustration at not being allowed to sign who he wished, the fiery Scotsman showed the Italians just what they were missing when he embarked upon a British invasion of the Portuguese game while in charge of his new club Benfica from 1997 to 1999.

Saunders would again link up with Souness and was joined by such luminaries as Steve Harkness, Michael Thomas, Gary Charles and Brian Deane. In a well-documented example of history not treating the manager kindly, Souness also decided to offload a young midfielder who had impressed while on loan at Alverca. The manager was unconvinced by the young prospect and was keen to add more British steel to his midfield. And so it came to pass that Graeme Souness elected to dispense with the services of Deco in favour of Mark Pembridge. 6 years on the little Brazilian-born magician had a Champions League winners medal and came 2nd in the Ballon D’Or voting. Meanwhile, Souness and Pembridge had long since trudged out of the Estadio da Luz.

The experience of Graeme Souness is perhaps a warning coaches should heed in the future. The desire to turn to what you know is bound to be strong – bringing in players whose strengths and weaknesses you understand. However, care must be taken not to overlook the virtues of players already at the club even if you are not familiar with them.  Relying on the scouting network can help but this is, to excuse the pun, often ‘foreign’ to British coaches who are used to entrusting agents to come to them with players.

One high-profile British manager now enjoying success abroad is the former England coach himself Steve McClaren. McClaren, perhaps keen to take the Robson route to public rehabilitation in his homeland and steer clear of a Souness-style dependence on friends from back home, conducted a low-profile transfer policy at Dutch club, Twente. McClaren was not afraid to use his contacts in the English game where appropriate, bringing in Miroslav Stoch from Chelsea on a very successful loan, but in the main he relied upon coaxing performances from the players already there and those new stars identified by his scouts. The key signing in the 2009/10 title winning season was Bryan Ruiz, a Costa Rican forward from Gent. Not for McClaren the 31 year old journeyman purchased at the over-inflated prices of the motherland. As the former Boro boss moves on to Wolfsburg and hopes of Bundesliga success, it may be the embarrassing ‘Schteve’ interviews that have captured the attention back in England but he has gone about the challenge of managing abroad in shrewd style – embracing the culture with an open-mind and trusting his coaching skills to bring him success.

Clearly there is more than one way to skin a cat when it comes to football management. Learning the language is important.. but not strictly necessary. Utilising contacts from back home can be an excellent tool to get ahead.. but you’d better make sure they’re better than what you’ve already got. After all, get it wrong and you’ll have people bringing up ”Deco or Pembridge?” over a decade on…..




5 responses

3 07 2010

Chris Coleman managed Real Socieadad for a season a few years ago. He brought fellow countryman David Vaughan to Spain when he first arrived at the club though Vaughan only played half a dozen games for the club before returning to England with Blackpool.

4 07 2010

Coleman even getting that Sociedad job is a testament to Toshack’s enduring influence at the club isn’t it. I’m actually fascinated by Coleman’s time there but don’t know enough about it – on paper, getting them back in the top flight should have been an attractive job. I don’t know the behind the scenes issues he faced there, although the washing machine story indicates he maybe didn’t take the challenge as seriously as he might!
I like Vaughan as a player – curious to see how he gets on in the Prem.

4 07 2010

Vaughan is a very similar player to Pembridge. Wales have a bizarre habit of producing left sided midfielders: Pembo, Ledley, Bale, Giggs, Speed. I think Real Soc. were promoted this summer so they’re back in La Liga this season.

17 07 2010
Tom Williams

Top stuff chaps. Steve McClaren’s pulling power is demonstrated by the fact he’s managed to persuade both Simon Kjaer and Mario Mandzukic to join Wolfsburg this summer, despite significant interest in both players from supposedly more attractive clubs.

31 07 2010

Cheers Tom, sorry for belated reply. Yeah, McClaren looks to have immediately forged a potentially excellent centre-back pairing in Kjaer and Friedrich while Mandzukic is an intriguing one too. Further to the above article, I love the fact that, like at Twente, the Wolfsburg signings aren’t just a case of McClaren delving into his English contacts book.. instead he’s clearly prepared to listen to the advice of others and back himself to coach the players. Really interesting Bundesliga season ahead.

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