Craig Brown: The Assistant Manager

Photos courtesy of Craig Brown

Written by Craig Brown

It’s nothing short of amazing how much times have changed in the game of football. Over sixty years ago I joined Glasgow Rangers FC, then the top team in Scotland. Every Christmas the present to the players was a framed, named, team photograph taken at the annual public trial, first team against reserves when there would be a 10,000+ in attendance. This was a wonderful initiative because six decades later it is possible to identify individuals all carefully named under the photograph. Who was the Assistant Manager? There wasn’t one. 42 players in the team group with only three staff, Manager Scott Symon, Trainer Davie Kinnear, and Assistant Trainer, Joe Craven. At that time, there was no qualified physiotherapist, as I found to my personal cost, and Joe Craven, the Assistant trainer, took charge of the reserves.

Credit: Craig Brown

A more up to date team group confirms a transformation. The proliferation of staff is quite remarkable, but understandable. Every possible member of support staff is now a sine qua non at the top level – assistant manager, first team coach, goalkeeping coach, sports scientist, fitness coach, injury prevention coach, analyst, physiotherapist, masseur, dietician, psychologist, kit controller etc., and many roles are at least duplicated. It can easily be seen then that an assistant is required to help the Manager deal with staff as well as players.

Credit: Dundee United Football Club

By appointing Davie White as his assistant some years later Mr Symon was conceding that his role was becoming more and more onerous. Why Davie White? As manager of part-time, Clyde F C, White had managed to get them to third place in the top flight in season 1966-67. His determination to learn about management was confirmed as had travelled with Celtic to Lisbon to observe them in the European Cup Final and had travelled with Rangers to European Cup Winners’ Cup Final in Nuremberg for the same educational purpose. Scott Symon had been impressed and, although Davie White’s only Ibrox credentials being that he supported the club, championed his appointment as assistant manager.

It was apparent that Symon wanted White to work with him, learn from him, learn about Rangers and grow into the mammoth task of succeeding him as only the fourth manager in Rangers near 100 year history. Four months later when Symon was unceremoniously sacked, shamefully in the opinion of many Rangers’ fans, after winning 6 League Titles, 5 Scottish Cups, 4 League Cups, a European cup semi-final and 2 finals of the European Cup Winners’ Cup, his assistant was appointed. How unlucky was the timing for ambitious Davie White because the man in charge of their greatest rivals was the incomparable Jock Stein.

When former assistant manager, White was struggling as manager in the opening weeks of season 1968-69 it became obvious that he needed help. An assistant! Rangers turned to one of the greatest names in the club’s history, a Rangers man, a man with an impeccable C V having managed Dundee and Partick Thistle, Willie Thornton.

This historical Ibrox episode encapsulated contrasting philosophies regarding the need for, and appointment of, an assistant to the club manager. The preponderance of playing and technical staff clearly confirms that a right-hand man is necessary. What criteria are most applicable? Should he be a young, ambitious coach with succession planning in mind, or an experienced club legend to support a fledgling manager?

In my opinion there is no definitive answer. Before I explore the various possibilities I must emphasise something about which I feel quite strongly. The word “assistant” implies subordination in the role. When I hear managers consistently using the first person pronoun, saying, “I did this /that ….” or “My players …..” rather than our, it rankles. Similarly, referring to “My assistant ……” disappoints me when surely the word we or colleague is more respectful and inclusive. It’s a small, but I feel important point, one which is apparent in the many media interviews undertaken by managers. My feeling is that when the game is won it should be inclusive, but after a defeat it’s more honourable to use the singular and personally accept responsibility. In addition, it is pleasing to hear, or read, a secure, confident manager acknowledge his No 2 by name in interviews. Too often the only person known is the main man and, to me, that is the fault of the manager in charge, possibly because of his ego or maybe even his insecurity.

It’s an over-simplification to suggest that the manager’s colleague should necessarily be an aspiring young potential successor. One alternative is a to have an experienced old football fox to impart his wisdom to the younger manager. Whatever combination is preferred, and there are many acceptable criteria, I feel it’s extremely helpful if the two men are socially friendly as well as professionally united. Currently, it’s generally only the manager who has any real profile, with reference seldom being made to his cohort. In contrast, over the years, it was not uncommon to be familiar with pairs, Busby and Murphy, Clough and Taylor, Wenger and Rice, Kendall and Harvey, Reid and Heath, Mourinho and Clarke, Howe and Tindall, Hughton and Trollope, Dyche and Woan, Ancelotti and Clement, Warnock and Blackwell, Hodgson and Lewington, Silva and Sousa, Ranieri and Shakespeare, O’Neill and Keane, Dalglish and Harford, Shankly and Paisley, and Wagner and Bulher, Coleman and Kean, Venables and Howe, Klopp and Buvac, Redknapp and Bond in England and in Scotland, Stein and Fallon, Prentice and McLean, Shankly and Kean, Smith and Knox, Calderwood and Nicholl, Levein and Houston, Dalglish and Barnes, Jeffries and Brown, Wallace and Totten, Lennon and Kennedy, McInnes and Docherty …..and many more.

It would be difficult to take issue with my opinion of the best ever manager on the planet – Sir Alex Ferguson! Over the years had no fewer than nine assistants, six of whom were at Manchester United with him. There’s no uniformity among them which would indicate that he had no one specific criterion for the appointment other than a totally committed work ethic similar to his own. At his first club, East Stirlingshire there was no official assistant but he elevated the status of two senior players, John Donnachie and Bobby McCully. Then at St Mirren he had physio/assistant manager, Ricky McFarlane, followed by two young, bright guys, Pat Stanton and Willie Gardner at Aberdeen, before he lured Archie Knox from the manager’s job at Forfar to join him at Pittodrie.

When Sir Alex went to Manchester United in September 1986 his first, and arguably finest, acquisition was his former colleague at Aberdeen, Archie Knox. It was this formidable duo which put United back on track. Working with the guru undoubtedly provides considerable kudos, so much so that other clubs wishing to tap into the machinations of the famous Manchester United F C, seek to appoint those who have inside experience having worked with The Master !

Credit: Choose Events

Former Dundee United team mate, Walter Smith, was one such wise operator as, when appointed manager of Rangers, he managed to entice Archie back north to Glasgow. There they had unparalled success at home and in Europe while the disappointed Old Trafford manager tried various permutations and characteristics such as attitude, temperament, and nationality, to replace the incomparable Mr Knox. Seeking an assistant with contrasting skills and abilities Sir Alex appointed, and who departed for various reasons, fine men such as Brian Kidd, Steve McLaren, Rene Meulensteen, Jimmy Ryan, Carlos Quieros, Walter Smith and Mike Phelan.

Archie Knox, an outstanding exponent in every aspect of the game, was the choice of an number of managers/clubs in addition to his association at the time with the best Club in England and two of the best in Scotland. In addition to being the number 2 at Aberdeen, Manchester United and Rangers, Archie worked at Everton with Walter Smith, Coventry with Eric Black, Millwall with Mark McGhee, Bolton with Sammy Lee, Blackburn with Paul Ince, Livingston with Richard Gough and, I should know, Motherwell, Aberdeen and Scotland with me! That’s no fewer than 12 assistant appointments. A record, I suggest!

Credit: Russ Hamer

It’s quite uncommon for nepotism to exist and be apparent in football but there have been several examples of father and son instances when the son is a player. The Cloughs, Redknapps, Fergusons, Strachans south of the border and Terry Christie with son, Max, in Scotland. Much more unique is the father and son combination when the son is assiatant, exemplified by Carlo Ancelloti and son Davide, currently at Everton. One thing is axiomatic……the assistant must respect the manager and also must be fiercely loyal to his boss. In my own case I was assistant to two managers, Willie McLean at Motherwell F C and Andy Roxburgh with the Scotland National Team. I held both in high esteem both as persons and as football people so it was straightforward to assume the subordinate position.

Having served my time as a collaborator, eight years in all, I was ready to assume the major role, that of manager in my own right. While in charge of international youth teams my excellent colleague was again Ross Mathie whom I recommended to the SFA while he was one of the two assistants I had in my 9 years with Clyde F C. When Ross left Clyde to go to work as Youth Coach at the SFA, I asked one of the senior players, Rab Thorburn to replace him. He, too, had all the necessary attributes to be a superb cohort – industry, loyalty, intelligence, diplomacy, determination, discipline, imagination, ambition, and game awareness.

In my time as assistant to Andy Roxburgh I also had charge of the national U 21 side so reliable assistance was required. Tommy Craig exemplified all the necessary qualities and could be left in charge while I was working with the senior side.

I was privileged to have two outstanding colleagues in my eight years in charge of the Scotland National Team. This was a part time appointmen, so it was possible for the selected incumbent to remain with his Club and join the international squad for matches only. My first colleague was the then Hibernian manager, Alex Miller, who was very influential in the success we had to qualify for Euro ‘96 and World Cup ’98. Alex later went to work for Liverpool under Rafa Benitez who felt that at international match gathering time Alex should remain at Melwood to coach the young Liverpool players, Gerrard, Carraghar, Owen, etc. With reluctance he had to resign from the Scottish F A. and it was then my good fortune to appoint the doyen of assistants, the aforementioned, vastly experienced, Archie Knox. We has a fruitful relatiomship which extended to further spells together at Motherwell F C and Aberdeen F C. When asked to account for the many different jobs, Archie’s typical quip was, “Keep on the move before they find you out!”

“Leadership can be learned but cannot be imitated.” This wonderful statement from Ancelotti is indeed most apposite in the football profession. Further advice from this great manager emphasises the importance of “relationships”, and the ability to work up as well as down. Most managers are comfortable dealing with players and staff but not all relate well to those in power above them – owner, chairman, vice chariman, chief executive, director of football, football consultant, sporting director, etc. This applies even more so to the assistant manager, but his colleague usually is a buffer between him and the hierarchy. The same is true in reverse as the assistant can be a useful shield between the manager and the players.

There is no definitive job description for a manager’s main colleague, his cohort, but often he is in charge of the training programme, pre-match warm up, collating opposition and recruitment reports, etc, and sharing the team selection and game plan (used to be called ‘tactics’!) responsibility. I learned as an assistant to look at the opposition for the first 10/15 minutes of play and advise if there were any deviancies from their predicted team shape so I instigated this good idea in my own set-up when I was the manager. I also briefly discussed possible substitutions during the game and asked my colleague to watch the effort of each substitute as he warmed up. In many instances either he or the physio made a real fuss of taking the substitute’s pulse count to confirm that we would not be disposed to allow him to enter the fray unless he was properly ready. It would be pleasing for me if someone wants to add to my total of their being eleven reasons for substituting a player, but every player at a team meeting helped compile the list as well as the substitution protocol. My assistant, rather ‘colleague’, was a key man in the substitution process.

Over the years I got to know that if a player has an axe to grind, a complaint, the manager, rather than be “boss” or “gaffer” becomes “he” or “him”. Some players wish to ingratiate themselves with the assistant and offer comments which they hope will get to “him”, the gaffer! Others are disposed to confide in the Number 2 but I always made them aware when I was an assistant that my first loyalty is to my colleague so I told them, “Don’t say anything to me which you don’t want the boss to hear.”

Without having to hear it, a manager wants first and foremost loyalty and trust from his assistant,
rather his colleague, while the colleague wants to feel his contribution is valued.

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