The balancing act of football management

Whether managing in India, England or Spain, football coaches often need the diplomacy of politicians to survive.

Steve Kean
Former Chelsea manager Carlo Ancelotti and assistant Ray Wilkins both struggled with the club’s hierachy [GETTY] 

More than two months into the English Premier League season and no club has yet parted ways with its manager, although Blackburn’s Steve Kean and Owen Coyle of Bolton, among others, will continue to look over their shoulders until results improve.

But over in India, a veteran Liverpudlian coach has lasted just 82 days in charge of Kolkata giants, Mohun Bagan.

Steve Darby, one of Asia’s most travelled managers, tendered his resignation less than three months into the new campaign because of what he described as unacceptable interference from upstairs.

Although his story may be seen as a cautionary tale for any manager thinking of trying his luck in India, it has parallels with some of the issues faced by coaches in the bigger European leagues.

“… many ‘experts’ who have never played or coached at any level think they can tell a coach how to do his job”

Steve Darby

Darby, 56, moved to India after almost three years as an assistant to Peter Reid and Bryan Robson in charge of the Thailand national team. He’d been a trophy winning club boss in Malaysia and Singapore and also worked in Australia, Bahrain, Vietnam and his native England.

Darby pulled the plug when Mohun Bagan appointed a three-man technical committee to oversee him, ahead of the start of the I-League season. This came after Bagan’s disastrous performance in the Federation Cup tournament in which they were knocked out in the group stages after failing to win any of their three matches.

“I don’t tell my accountant how to fill out my taxes out or the mechanic how to fix the car but many ‘experts’ who have never played or coached at any level think they can tell a coach how to do his job,” Darby said.

“The final straw was the appointment of the technical committee, made up of some unqualified people who have never coached outside of India. And I only found this out via the press after no consultation or discussion.”

Multi-level management

Interference from club directors or owners can come in a variety of ways. Last season, Chelsea’s Carlo Ancelotti saw his assistant Ray Wilkins sacked and was then forced to play new $80 million signing, Fernando Torres, who was hopelessly out-of-form. Both decisions affected the team’s results and ultimately contributed to him losing his job.

Earlier in the season, Martin O’Neill walked out on Aston Villa as England midfielder James Milner was being lined up for a move to Manchester City. He was told by management that there was no extra money to bolster the squad and refused to stick around for a clear out of some of Villa’s biggest stars.

At Mohun Bagan, Darby certainly couldn’t complain about the strength of his squad with the signing of two of the I-League’s stop strikers, Odafa Okolie and Sunil Chhetri, the first Indian to represent a Major League Soccer club in the United States.

But he said that factions within the club were trying to force his hand by pushing their own players and destabalising the dressing room with an ugly power struggle.

“Even after just a few weeks into my new job, one faction was trying to get me out and get their own local coach in,” Darby said.

       Steve Darby worked alongside Bryan Robson when he was managing Thailand [GALLO/GETTY] 

“Mohun Bagan are just a political members club and in many ways I was just a pawn in the election process.”

The Green and Maroons have had six different head coaches in just 18 months, which makes the Newcastle United manager’s position seem like a secure government job.

Darby agrees that there is a fine line to be walked by owners and directors when it comes to dealing with coaching staff and assessing performance. Adequate time must be given to any new recruit, but the impatience for good results can cloud logic.

“The coach has to be a decision maker because he lives and dies by these decisions,” Darby said.

“Employers have the right to sack and appoint as they see fit, but is it a coincidence that the most successful teams in the world have a consistent and stable coaching structure?”

Once a powerhouse of the Indian scene, Mohun Bagan have fallen on relatively lean times as they look to get the upper hand on their arch rivals and neighbours, East Bengal. They haven’t won the I-League in almost a decade and their last victory in the coveted IFA Shield came in 2003.

As for Darby, he’s returned to Vietnam, where his wife hails from, to ponder his future options. He’s been linked to a return to the Malaysian league, but fancies another spell in the Middle East. He worked as assistant national coach of Bahrain in the late 1970s.

So how does he look back on his tenure in India as the shortest-ever serving manager of Mohun Bagan?

“Maybe I should have listened to the advice of both Indian and foreign people and not taken the job, although the players were excellent and very professional,” he said.

“Every other position I have had has been a minimum of three years but fighting daily battles on a political level is such a waste of everybody’s time.”

* Jason Dasey is an Asia-based international sports broadcaster and host of Football Fever, the world’s first international soccer podcast with an Asia-Pacific perspective. Twitter: JasonDasey

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Source: Al Jazeera