Discover more from NTT20.COM
Are "tried and tested" managers overrated?
Why EFL clubs are stepping off the managerial merry-go-round and looking to the future.
In the last couple of weeks, we’ve seen some interesting hirings and firings, with Bright Young Things™ being the flavour of the month for EFL decision-makers.
The decision of Gillingham owner Brad Galinson to sack a manager in Neil Harris, who might as well have “Tried and Tested” tattooed on his forehead, only to replace him with a rookie boss in Stephen Clemence has certainly raised some eyebrows.
Earlier this week Lincoln City made the decision to hire Michael Skubala from Leeds, who managed the English National Futsal side, but beyond a Caretaker spell at Elland Road, has never been given the reins at a football team above academy level.
Millwall have given Joe Edwards his first senior management job after he built a big reputation in Chelsea’s academy, while MK Dons invested in non-league managerial talent when moving fast to appoint Mike Williamson from Gateshead.
The good news is that this article isn’t me just factually going through which club has appointed which manager and from where. What the above lays bare is how the managerial merry-go-round has ground to a halt and transformed into something resembling 'Hook-a-Duck’ — you only discover what you’ve won once you've made your choice.
The EFL Newsletter by NTT20 is a reader-supported publication. To receive three posts a week and support our work covering the EFL, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
This is especially pertinent to my fan experience at the moment, with Oxford looking for a new boss after Liam Mannning (hisssssss) accepted Bristol City’s offer of employment. Des Buckingham, currently Mumbai City manager and with a very impressive coaching CV, is supposedly in the frame, as is Notts County boss Luke Williams after he led Notts back into the EFL last season.
Both look like exciting and progressive appointments, but many Oxford fans are concerned by the ‘lack of EFL experience’ or even asking ‘have they got a promotion on their CV?’ This obsession with experience is not unique to Oxford fans. Most fans, most of the time, attribute greater risk to first-time appointments.
I want to find out whether there is a method in the perceived madness of ignoring the trusty bangers and mash of a Steve Cotterill in favour of Des Buckingham’s Plat du Jour. So I’ve gone back through the last three seasons of League One and League Two to see if managers really do need to ‘know the league’ or ‘have a promotion on their CV’ in order to repeat the trick.
Plymouth Argyle famously beat Ipswich Town to the League One title last season with a staggering 102 points. The architect of this was Steven Schumacher, who was given the top job on the basis, not of a managerial record, but his experience as Argyle’s Assistant under Ryan Lowe. With this glaring gap on his CV, Schumacher won the League One title in his first full season as Argyle boss.
There are two other first-time gaffers who replicated this achievement, although both in League Two.
Mike Duff, as with Schuey, took over at Cheltenham mid-season having served as a no.2, albeit at Burnley rather than the club he took over. Duff also won a title in his first full season as a manager and did a dance that confirmed to any doubters that he had definitely not experienced that kind of euphoria before.
Rob Edwards is a bit of a curious case as the Forest Green job wasn’t his first time in the top job; he had a brief, uneventful stint as AFC Telford boss in 2017/18. I can’t imagine fans at The New Lawn were too enamoured by that 14th-placed finish in the National League North, so for the purposes of this piece we are ignoring non-league dalliances and he is being thrown into the same pile as Schumacher and Duff. Edwards also won the title in his first full season in charge of an EFL club and is very handsome.
That means 50% of League One and League Two winning managers in the last three seasons did so for the first time in post and in their first full campaign. That feels like a fairly compelling case to ignore ‘experience’ and ‘know-how’ — especially when you add former Wigan boss Leam Richardson to the conversation.
He doesn’t fit neatly into the ‘no experience’ brotherhood due to a six-month spell in charge at Accrington Stanley, where he took over from his boss Paul Cook, only to then leave to follow him to Chesterfield, Portsmouth and then eventually Wigan.
Having pulled off nothing short of a miracle in keeping them in League One during half a season as Caretaker boss, Richardson then won the title in 21/22 in…. his first full season as a manager.
The other two title-winning bosses buck the trend. We have last season’s League Two Champions Leyton Orient, managed by Richie Wellens, who won League Two with Swindon in 19/20 (in his first full season of management). Wellens isn’t a great poster boy for success ‘guaranteeing’ success though, having had ill-fated stints at Salford and Doncaster between the two title wins.
Then Grant McCann at Hull, who neither had a promotion on his CV nor lacked any managerial experience. Before joining the club there had been hints of talent at Peterborough and Doncaster, and Hull were rewarded for spotting that and appointing him.
So of the six title-winning managers in the last three seasons in the third and fourth tier of English football, four have been relative rookies, with only one having previously won a promotion. 1-0 to the Hook-a-Duckers.
Kieran McKenna and Ipswich are a match made in heaven, with Town fans still wondering how a side that finished with a goal difference of +66 managed not to win League One.
McKenna was another mid-season appointment who won promotion at the first full time of asking and, given Ipswich’s lofty position in the Championship at the time of writing, has to go down as one of the best appointments since we have been doing the pod. If the trend existed before, McKenna is now the blueprint.
Time for the ‘been there, done that’ to go there and do it again. Darren Ferguson and Paul Warne had five promotions between them before going back-to-back in 2nd in League One with Peterborough and then Rotherham.
It was these three consecutive promotions that led Derby to replace rookie manager Liam Rosenior with the promotion-whisperer Warne in a move that is currently ageing about as well as Joey Barton saying he was looking forward to having Oxford back to the Mem later this season.
In League Two, there are three automatic promotion spots, and the aforementioned former Gas boss grabbed one of them in 21/22. Barton falls into the middle ground of managing before but without any tangible success, while promotion partner Matt Taylor took Exeter up that same season in his first managerial post, albeit in his fourth campaign in charge.
Last season Steve Evans was the bridesmaid (what a picture that is) when he earned the fourth promotion of his career with Stevenage. With a wealth of EFL experience behind him, Evans is the most compelling case so far for the tried and tested, although he couldn’t work his magic at Gillingham, Peterborough and, erm, Leeds United. I told you the world was different back then.
He was joined by Jon Brady, the nice rookie Australian who blamelessly brought Northampton down before taking them to the brink of automatic promotion the season before they actually managed it, only to see Bristol Rovers score the seven goals needed to pip them to the post.
There can’t be many managers who think that they have won promotion once their final ball has been kicked in both of their two first seasons in charge, only actually to do so once.
The class of 20/21 in Mark Bonner and Ian Evatt are pure unadulterated Bright Young Filth. Bonner was entrusted with the keys to his boyhood club having worked every job apart from Tea Lady on his way to the dugout, while Evatt recruited from non-league Barrowcelona with whom he’d won the National League the season before. No EFL experience, not bother. Two automatic promotions in their first full seasons in charge.
That means four of nine promotion postmen delivered in their first EFL job, even if Matt Taylor’s Exeter round were left waiting for longer than hoped. Across the profiles — Taylor as a promoted player, McKenna the elite academy hotshot, Bonner living the fan dream and Evatt the non-league Guardiola — they represent four very different backgrounds, but share the trait of very blunt managerial teeth.
Evans’ and Warne’s teeth are sharp though, as are Ferguson’s, although he was probably born with them, so there is some cause for hope for those still on the merry-go-round and begging for a ride. Let’s call this one a score draw.
Darren Moore, Alex Neil and Neil Critchley are the managers who have overseen the last three play-off wins and hit all three buckets in this game of managerial pigeonhole. Neil was brought in by Sunderland to deliver promotion having done so at Norwich and succeeded, while Moore won plaudits for the jobs he did at WBA and Doncaster without taking either up.
The Critch brings us back into the warm embrace of a promotion achieved in a first full season as manager, leading Blackpool on a merry dance through League One after a slow start that ended in victory over Lincoln at Wembley.
Interestingly Liam Manning 🐍🐍 is the only other rookie manager to secure a play-off berth in that time, although our old friends Duff and Evatt do feature as they continued their upward career curve.
In League Two, the play-offs are a big win for the real football men. Paul Simpson, Darrell Clarke and Derek Adams all have so much experience and success that I can’t believe any of them actually have CVs. When the heat was on they delivered for Carlisle, Port Vale and Morecambe, suggesting that maybe the pressure cooker of the play-offs demands those who have spent some time in a kitchen.
Dave Challinor and Neil Wood deserve a mention here for taking Stockport and Salford into the League Two play-offs last season, although maybe that was the bare minimum expected for both given their resources. Also, Challinor may not have an EFL promotion yet, but he does have seven in non-league to fall back on, so who knows where he fits into this conversation.
The play-offs therefore look to support those who value a history of success in the dugout, although Critchley does show that it’s not essential.
So what does this all mean?
As I wrote last time, I think the way we label and define managers is reductive. Why should one rookie manager’s achievements have any bearing on another’s? Why does Steve Evans’ success mean Steve Cotterill should be given another chance? Or Steven Pressley? Or Steve Bruce? It has as much to do with their chance of success as the fact that they are all called Steve.
There is a quite clear precedent for success in League One and League Two when appointing Head Coaches or Managers with no managerial roles on their CV and certainly no promotions. This isn’t a reason to hire a first-time manager, it would be ludicrous to think so given the huge range of backgrounds those we have discussed have come from.
In 2018 the notion that Mark Bonner and Kieran McKenna's careers were in any way similar would have been ridiculous. McKenna was sitting in the home dugout at Old Trafford, working every day with Paul Pogba and Romelu Lukaku while Bonner had to make do with David Amoo and George Taft.
There are also countless examples of Bright Young Failures — hello Crawley Town 22/23 — when what looks like a brave and progressive appointment doesn’t turn out to be a success. This may not even be the fault of the rookie manager, as they are of course just one variable at a club alongside budgets, working environments, squad personality and blind luck, to name a few.
What the above does show, though, is that rookie managers have had quite a lot of success recently, so there is no need to panic when there isn't a Wikipedia win percentage around which we can form an opinion before they’ve even got the job.
Please vote for Not The Top 20 in the Podcast of the Year category of the FSA Awards? It would mean a lot to us. You DON'T need to vote in any other categories for the vote to count, and you DON'T need to enter your details into the second page.