On the first day at a club, the players and staff show me respect for what I have achieved, as a player and as a manager. After that, they are looking, watching you every day: What are you doing? Are you serious, are you professional? If they don’t think you can add value to them, the players don’t care who you’ve played for, who you’ve managed. It works the other way too. If they think you can add value, they don’t care whether you’ve played or not.”
- Carlo Ancelotti, Quiet Leadership
With every day supposedly being a school day and all that, it’d be fair then to say that all managers and coaches in sport should always be learning on the job.
But, as the case of Frank Lampard has underlined, there is such a thing — and a problem — as having too much to learn on the job.
While he served an apprenticeship as a player, he hadn’t adequately served one as a manager. He didn’t get enough time in the Chelsea job because he hadn’t put in enough time as a coach prior to getting the Chelsea job.
But his ‘failure’ isn’t on him. It’s on those who hired him. While the career of most managers — like politicians — ends in falling short, it is staggering the rate of unsatisfying stints there has been at Chelsea over the past decade and more. The major takeaway lesson from the Lampard episode isn’t so much that one of their greats wasn’t yet qualified for the job but that the people who hired him once again proved that they weren’t qualified for theirs.
There was a certain logic in hiring Lampard. For all the turnover and turmoil Chelsea had undergone with previous managers, there was a certain core that held it altogether for more than a decade, namely in players and leaders like John Terry and Lampard himself. They were the glue. They gave some semblance and air that: ‘This is Chelsea. These are our values. This is our identity.’ By bringing back Lampard, they were looking to reclaim, or even retain, some kind of institutional memory and DNA.
But if there’s one thing we’ve known for some time now, even with all the trophies a string of managers have been able to squeeze out, the Chelsea Way is not having a Chelsea Way, or at least a desired one. When you can fire Carlo Ancelotti in a tunnel at Goodison Park within minutes of the end of the season and within 12 months of him winning the double, then anyone, even you’re all-time leading goalscorer, is disposable.
The Lampard episode brings home once more the remarkable wisdom and humility Ronan O’Gara has shown in the coaching path that he’s taken. It’s nearly eight years now since he finished playing for Munster and headed off to Racing to serve as one of their assistant coaches. You need only read his weekly column in this paper to learn all that he’s learned and how he views coaching so differently now than he did when he first embarked on his journey. Person first, player second. Having a real culture of caring. Viewing the why and how of a session and not just the what. When he finally takes a job with Ireland or Munster, he will be ready, in a way a Lampard never was.
Even allowing for Lampard’s inexperience, it was still staggering to learn from reports in website The Athletic that Lampard, such an intelligent player and likeable team-mate, was both a poor communicator and tactically challenged as a manager.
There have been brilliant first-time managers or coaches who bypassed having the sort of apprenticeship and pathway that a Jurgen Klopp did in Germany. Most obviously there’s been Pep Guardiola in Barcelona, a Steve Kerr with the Golden State Warriors in the NBA. But both went around the globe picking the brains of some of the game’s greatest coaches. They wrote out and crystallised their philosophy, kept an archive of plays and drills that they could call upon when the time to coach came. That way they didn’t have too much to learn on the job.
It’ll be very interesting to see if Lampard gives coaching and management another go. Numerous successful managers and coaches began their careers in failure. John Wooden, the famous UCLA coach now cited by almost every GAA manager you know of, had a losing record in his first 16 years on the bench before he’d then form and articulate his philosophy and the famous pyramid for success.
Pete Carroll, the Superbowl winning coach of the Seattle Seahawks, was fired three times previously in the NFL, one of them when he was at the New York Jets where in his one season in charge he had mixed bag of results similar to Lampard’s. When the Bills owner, Lou Hess, announced he was changing coach, he quipped with a smile: “I’m 80 years old. I want results now, not five years from now.”
When reflecting on where he went short, Carroll had to admit that he had been partly responsible for his own downfall. “I did not have my act completely together,” he’d write in Win Forever. “I didn’t do everything I could have done to make sure the owner understood my vision. I still had some work to do so when it came to defining and articulating my philosophy.”
After that Carroll was very definite in honing his vision and philosophy and methods to know what his next programme should look like. Part of what made Kerr such an instant success was that he spent days shadowing Carroll.
Lampard may not have the patience or desire or need to follow the path of a Carroll, Kerr, or O’Gara. Maybe he’s done with life on the sideline and training ground and from here on in we’ll see him in a television studio going a similar route to his cousin Jamie. Or maybe we’ll see him take another gig, this time off Broadway or far away from the West End.
In the meantime, Roman Abramovich will remain as impatient as Lou Hess, even if he’s still a good bit younger.
But the more intolerant he gets in his craving for Chelsea to have some form of identity and stability, the less likely he is to get it.