Goalkeepers as managers: The Wrights and wrongs

The jobs of manager and goalkeeper have much in common. So why are there not more making the transition?

By Paul Forsyth

This article first appeared in Issue 1 which was published in September 2016.

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the unique perspective from which a goalkeeper watches the game gives him invaluable insight. He has time and space to think about the game as it unfolds before him.

Imagine the chairman of an ambitious football club, torn between two applicants for the managerial vacancy. The candidates have similar experience, identical qualifications and they share a determination to succeed. The only difference between them is that one used to be a goalkeeper.

In an a ideal world, each would be considered on his own merits, but in the view of Campbell Money, football is not an ideal world. The former St Mirren goalkeeper who went on to manage Stranraer, Ayr United and Stenhousemuir says he is in no doubt as to which of the two options our hypothetical chairman would choose.

“He will go with the guy that’s played outfield,” says Money, who is now a performance academy director with the Scottish FA. “That’s a fact. There is a perception out there that goalkeepers know less  about the game than somebody else, which is very unfair. I never felt that. I had confidence in my ability to do the job. But some people would feel that way. I suppose it’s natural for people to think ‘he’s never played outfield, what would he know about working with players?’”

If that is true, it suggests that the old stereotype about goalkeepers still exists. They are different. They are crazy. They think too much for their own good. Otherwise why would Peter Shilton hang upside down from the bannister, John Burridge ask his wife to throw fruit at him and Albert Camus inspire the likes of David Icke and Pope John Paul II to turn the profession into a philosophical inquiry?

Even if it is not true, there can be little doubt that the goalkeeper is still viewed as an ‘outsider’, which happens to be the title of both a Camus novel and Jonathan Wilson’s more recent study of their history. How else to explain the chronic shortage of them in management, a job that presents so many other professional players with a  welcome opportunity to prolong their career?

Yes, they are a minority in the dressing room, but not so small a minority that it explains their minuscule impact on the managerial game. At the end of last season, 17 of Scotland’s SPFL managers were defenders, 17 were midfielders and seven were strikers. Only one was a goalkeeper. That he is also one of Scottish football’s recent success stories only adds to the conundrum.

Tommy Wright, of St Johnstone, was voted Ladbrokes Premiership manager of the year last season, a campaign that wasn’t even the best of his three at the club. With limited resources, he has guided them to three successive top-six finishes, as well as the 2014 Scottish Cup, the first trophy in their long history.

Like many of the goalkeepers who do find their way to the manager’s office, he was promoted from within. The Northern Irishman had been appointed as assistant to Steve Lomas in 2011, partly because he could double as a goalkeeping coach, but when Lomas left two years later, the board had no hesitation in asking the former Newcastle United and Manchester City player to step up.

Wright is grateful to St Johnstone for recognising that goalkeepers are just as capable as outfield players of moving into management, and maybe even more so. In the same way that journeymen professionals make strong coaches because they have worked out what comes naturally to others, so are goalkeepers more inclined to break down and understand the mechanics of a team.

“People maybe haven’t been given opportunities because perception plays a big part in football, but perception isn’t the reality,” says Wright. “St Johnstone gave me an opportunity after seeing me work as an assistant. They knew the qualities that I had to go and manage. The perception was that you had to be a player to manage, but Arsene Wenger didn’t play at a high level. Jose Mourinho hardly had a playing career at all. There are numerous coaches in the top leagues around Europe who have never kicked a ball at senior level, but they get opportunities because they have gone into coaching early and built up a resumé. Goalkeepers have probably been overlooked because there is a perception that they don’t make good managers, but Dino Zoff  did well with Italy. Mike Walker was quite successful with Norwich City in the 1990s. And I like to think that I’ve proven you can be an ex-goalkeeper and a pretty decent manager.”

The goalkeeper’s potential has often been undervalued. Wright remembers occasions as a player when managers more or less excluded him from their team talk. “You were set apart,” he says. “It’s moved on from that now, but in those days, you were stuck away in the corner with two or three balls, probably the worst two or three they had in training.”

In truth, the unique perspective from which a goalkeeper watches the game gives him invaluable insight. He has time and space to think about the game as it unfolds before him. A good one is brave when he needs to be, decisive under pressure and willing to live or die by his own instincts. Add to that the communication skills needed to organise his defence, as well as the thick skin that is almost a prerequisite of management, and it is clear that the two jobs have much in common.

“Being an individual in a team sport means that you have to be strong mentally,” says Wright. “It can be a lonely place at times. When a goalkeeper makes a mistake, it ends up in a goal. It’s the same with management. When a team doesn’t play well, the manager takes all the criticism, especially nowadays with social media. Looking back, I would say that being a goalkeeper helped prepare me for being a manager.”

Which perhaps explains why the pantheon of great coaches is not without a few former custodians. Zoff, who lifted the World Cup as a player, managed Juventus to the UEFA Cup and came within seconds of leading Italy to success at Euro 2000. Raymond Goethals guided Marseille to the 1993 European Cup, although his achievement would later be over-shadowed by the Marseille match-fixing scandal. In Scotland, Jock Wallace helped Rangers to win three league titles, three Scottish Cups and four League Cups.

On the face of it, fewer goalkeepers become managers now, but the one in Scotland who has bucked that trend cautions against portraying them as victims. In the absence of any evidence to confirm that they are overlooked for managerial vacancies, Wright suggests that too few of them apply in the first place.

It is a view shared by Bryan Gunn, the former Aberdeen and Norwich City goalkeeper who went on to have a short, ill-fated spell as manager at Carrow Road. He says that, in years gone by, goalkeepers who wanted to remain in the game had little option but to try management. Only when Alan Hodgkinson took up a post with Scotland in the late 1980s was there such a thing as a goalkeeping coach.

These days, there is scarcely a professional club that does not have a coach devoted to the position, which means that a plethora of jobs have become available to those who have hung up the gloves. “This is the era of the goalkeeping coach, which is maybe why so many are not going into management,” says Gunn. “It’s a great way to stay in football. The next best thing to being a goalkeeper is helping another one to achieve a clean sheet at the weekend.

“There are 92 clubs in England, 42 in Scotland, and most of them will have a goalkeeping coach. A lot of these positions are highly paid, certainly in England’s Premier League and at the top end of the Championship. They are comfortable roles and the job security is maybe slightly better than being a manager. A lot have gone down that route and been happy with it.”

The good news is that the line between goalkeepers and outfield players on the coaching pathway is beginning to blur. UEFA now requires goalkeepers to complete a B licence before they reach the summit of their own coaching ladder, while many budding managers are keen to broaden their outlook by undertaking a course that specialises in goalkeeping. If they continue to occupy the dugout in such large numbers, it is surely only a matter of time before more goalkeepers are asked to step up, just as Wright did three years ago.

The St Johnstone manager has achieved so much since then that it is a wonder more clubs have not tried to lure him from McDiarmid Park. While young, smooth-talking coaches are repeatedly linked with clubs north and south of the Border, the suspicion is that Wright’s profile is not what the average chairman is after.

Maybe, at the age of 52, he is not regarded as up-and-coming. Or perhaps, at a club that is frequently under-estimated, his work has suffered the same fate. Surely, after all he has done, it cannot be that his history as a goalkeeper still counts against him? “Well, you would hope that is not the case, but you can’t help but think it’s possible,” says Money, who sees Wright as a trailblazer.

“He is the model for any aspiring coach who also happens to be a former goalkeeper. What he has done is nothing short of amazing. With the greatest respect to St Johnstone, they’re not a fashionable top-tier club, but he has taken them to the top six every season and he’s won the Scottish Cup. I’m sure, one day, he will move somewhere else. His time will come.”

And when it does, the hope is that other goalkeepers will be inspired to show beyond any doubt that, when it comes to management, they fit like a glove

This article first appeared in Issue 1 which was published in September 2016.

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