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Leading questions

One of the key figures at the SFA’s centre of excellence at Largs is Dr Brian Howieson, a business and management academic. Sound odd? Not when you hear his views on leadership in the game.


This article first appeared in Issue 7 which was published in March 2018.

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Even the greatest managers of them all may be vaunted around the world for his leadership but one aspect of management may not endear him to young players today.

Football and academia, at first glance, may appear unlikely bedfellows. After all, what does dispassionate research have to do with the beautiful game, where skill on the ball is prized above matters of the mind? Actually, quite a lot, according to Dr Brian Howieson, a business and management academic at Dundee University.

Last year, Dr Howieson began working with up-and-coming coaches studying for their UEFA Pro Licence at the Scottish Football Association’s centre of excellence at Largs, the coaching hub that the likes of Jose Mourinho, Fabio Capello and Andre Villas-Boas and many other household names passed through on their way to the top of the management tree. It marks the latest stage of Dr Howieson’s long-standing relationship with the Scottish FA, a collaboration that he believes shows how out of date the public’s preconceptions about ‘football people’ are. At Largs his job is to develop his students’ leadership, a skillset he sees as lacking in today’s game, and just one of the many many aspects of modern football that coaches must master.

Managers have always been leaders. Now they must lead while navigating a myriad of 21st-century challenges that would have left the legendary managers from Scottish football history dumbfounded. Bill Shankly never had to contend with social media. Page after page of data on everything from time stamps to gait analysis never landed on Jock Stein’s desk.

That being said, Dr Howieson, a passionate football fan and season ticket-holder at the Falkirk Stadium, cannot help but hark back to yesteryear for inspiration.

“I start the class with a quote from Willie Miller, who said that when he spoke to coaches at professional clubs throughout Scotland they complained of a dearth of leaders,” he said. “We are not producing Graeme Sounesses or Billy Bremners anymore. I then introduce coaches to the subject of leadership in different industries and we talk about what it looks like in football.

“I ask two questions – if you see it, how are you going to develop it, and if you don’t see it, what do you do about it. I can’t teach these guys anything about what happens on the park – my aim is to get them thinking about not just how they coach but how they manage. I want them to consider that their job is not just about getting someone to cross the ball better, it’s also to work on players’ personal qualities.”

Here Dr Howieson touches upon one of the paradoxes of his involvement with the Scottish FA. Football’s reputation as a closed industry fiercely protective of its exceptionalism and equally suspicious of outsiders was well-earned over many decades. Football, the theory goes, is heart over head, something that can only be understood through feelings rather than study. The theory is also, according to Dr Howieson, completely superannuated.

The Pro Licence qualification, the highest coaching certification available, takes a minimum of 24 months to obtain. It involves an intense blend of practical units on the pitch and classroom-based learning. Modern coaches, after all, are expected to not just execute a 4-2-3-1 or 3-4-1-2 but also support players’ personal development, manage a network of technical support staff, and help shape club policy. It is clearly not a job for the faint of head and is similar in many regards to higher education.

“There is now an acceptance that football can learn from other sectors,” continued Dr Howieson. “Academia is part of that. It’s about helping people to develop their thinking. And it goes both ways as well. Sir Alex Ferguson has written a best-selling book on leadership and lectured on the subject at Harvard. There’s never been a better time to look at how ideas from one industry can be applied to others. The Scottish FA realised this some time ago. They are very progressive when it comes to education.”

This last statement may raise a few eyebrows given the ongoing travails of Scottish football and well-documented discontent with the leadership of the national game, but Dr Howieson is adamant that the organisation he and his colleague Stephen Morrow from Stirling University have worked with for the past nine years is ahead of the curve when it comes to developing coaches. To him, derisive references to ‘blazers’ and the ‘Largs Mafia’ belie the modern and innovative approach taken by the national association.

“The Scottish FA are open to new ideas. They have always had a European reputation for innovation in coaching. There’s a DNA in there going back to Andy Roxburgh’s days when Mourinho and the other Portuguese guys came over to learn. They are always thinking outside the box for solutions. Nothing like what I’m doing with them is happening in other associations across Europe.”

Unsurprisingly, Scottish FA Coach Education Manager Greig Paterson agrees with Dr Howieson’s assessment. “I don’t think many people understand the extent of our coaching education programme in this country, or the depth to which we go into,” he said.

“Something like 10,000 coaches a year pass through our system, from people learning how to coach kids’ teams to those who are doing their Pro Licence, and I think that number has the potential to grow.

“The game is changing. It’s becoming more professional from top to bottom. As clubs become more business-like at all levels they are obviously looking for coaches to be more qualified and equipped with the latest knowledge of what’s going on elsewhere. Everyone is looking for those marginal gains, that extra one or two per cent that makes all the difference on the pitch. That’s what we’re trying to do in producing better coaches who help produce better players as a result of that knowledge.

“When you get to the UEFA B and A and Pro Licence levels, coaches are being equipped to deal with all sorts of things that they wouldn’t have even considered 10 years ago – mental health issues, fitness, performance analysis, pastoral care – all things that help them coax that couple of per cent extra from their players.

“Ten years ago, if you wanted someone to improve your players’ fitness you got a running or strength coach, without much thought as to why you had chosen a particular individual, whether they knew anything about football and whether what they were implementing was actually right.

“We want to develop holistic football coaches with an understanding of all these aspects that are fundamental parts of the modern game. From there they may choose to specialise in one of these areas but for those looking for roles in management, they need big-picture knowledge that helps them make the right appointments when it comes to fitness coaches or video analysts.

“Football has changed and that means we needed to bring fresh ideas in from outside that reflect how similar changes have been dealt with in other industries.”

These changing times have led Dr Howieson to speculate how the great Scottish managers of the past might cope with today’s world. Even the greatest of them all may be vaunted around the world for his leadership but one aspect of management may not endear him to young players today, according to Dr Howieson.

“Sir Alex was famous for the hairdryer treatment,” he said. “There was obviously so much more to his management than that but many people still think that’s the key to getting players to perform. A lot of older managers were simply out-and-out bullies, but that same culture used to exist in other industries as well and they’ve moved on and so is football. What we are seeing now is a massive change with the likes of Pep Guardiola and Brendan Rodgers. They are much more soft skill-orientated and we touch on this in courses. You need to press certain buttons to get the best out of individuals and young players these days don’t respond to intimidation in the way they once did.”

Dr Howieson and colleagues have published several academic papers that attempt to understand the main issues related to football managers’ careers within a rapidly changing business context. Carried out with full access to the coaches they work with on the B, A and Pro Licence courses, this has enabled them to test theories of leadership and management in a unique environment while also accumulating insights that can be fed back into the coach education programme.

“It’s important for managers to understand they’re a leader within a business which looks nothing like it did even a few years ago,” reflected Dr Howieson. “We started from a blank page and were able to question aspects of football that were previously held as sacrosanct just because things were always done in a certain way.

“For example, I’ve wondered at length if having a team captain can actually be counter-productive. If you have a team that just does what the captain says then they are not really empowered. Businesses work within structure but the best ones don’t micromanage – they equip individuals with the skills to make own decisions and take responsibility.

“Members of the Euro 96 England squad were interviewed the other year to mark the 20th anniversary of the tournament and they all commented on how that dressing room was packed with leaders. If you have a team of Graeme Sounesses, what happens? Players who don’t become passive and look for the manager or captain to give them direction would be more empowered, they would have more confidence, stick their chests out and take responsibility.

“In Scotland, we beat ourselves up about other countries being more technically able than we are but what if the reason we aren’t very good at football is because of a lack of leadership rather than a technical shortfall?”

This article first appeared in Issue 7 which was published in March 2018.

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