The general consensus is that in order to create a good team, you need good players and a good coach. But nowhere does it say one person cannot fulfil both these roles simultaneously – indeed, it is sometimes a recipe for success. FIFA.com takes a look at the phenomenon of the player-coach – those multi-talented individuals capable of influencing play from the touchline as well as on the pitch.
The player-coach is an endangered species nowadays, especially in world’s top leagues, but in the twentieth century they were a common sight, with clubs frequently willing to assign twin roles. The first to attempt this at international level was the Argentinian, Adolfo Pedernera. Generally regarded as one of the best forwards his country ever produced, he was an integral part of River Plate’s famous five-pronged attack of the 1940s, but it was in Colombia that he discovered that he could coach as well as he could play.
Having travelled the gold-paved road from the Buenos Aires giants to CD Los Millonarios of Bogota in 1949, he was given the nickname El Maestro by the Colombian press, who described him in the aftermath of his first match there as “a phenomenon, an artist, a master of the pass and an example of footballing intelligence. Anything is possible with him.” Anything indeed, particularly when he was appointed player-coach in 1951 and went on to lead the team to three consecutive league titles (1951-53). A great player and outstanding coach, he was also a true gentleman. His vision of football was simple: when you are leading by five goals, do not attempt to humiliate your opponents any further. With a certain Alfredo Di Stefano in their ranks, it is safe to assume it is a situation Los Millonarios were not altogether unfamiliar with.
A few years down the line, on the other side of the Atlantic, a similarly dominant force was to be found in the north-west of England. The star striker of a Liverpool side that reigned supreme at home and abroad from 1978 to1984, picking up five national titles and three European Cups, was Scotsman Kenny Dalglish, who slipped the manager’s blazer over his No7 shirt in 1985 after succeeding Joe Fagan. With ‘King Kenny’ calling the shots on and off the pitch, the Reds secured their first-ever League and Cup double in 1986 – Dalglish even scored the title-winning goal in a 1-0 win at Chelsea on the last day of the season. Two further Championships followed in 1988 and 1990. And while his appearances on the pitch became less frequent, especially following the arrivals of Peter Beardsley and John Barnes, the Scotsman allowed himself a small self-indulgence during the last match of the 1989/90 season, coming on as a substitute in his final game for the club. He received a standing ovation from the Anfield crowd, as well as a Manager of the Year Award shortly after, the third of his tenure.
Staying with the Scottish theme, another Liverpool legend, Graeme Souness, enjoyed a similar experience with Glasgow Rangers, where his role of player-manager also enabled him to bring himself on for one last run-out during the final game of the same season. In his time at the club, Souness used his on- and off-field nous to bring the blue half of the Old Firm back into contention in a Scottish football landscape hitherto dominated by Celtic and Aberdeen, the latter run by a young, up-and-coming manager called Alex Ferguson.
Though not widely known, long before he became ‘Sir Alex’ and built up his incredible trophy collection at Manchester United, Ferguson started out as player-manager of Falkirk. And it could be argued that this is what persuaded Darren Ferguson, son of the Scottish legend, to take on the same type of dual role at Peterborough in 2007, then playing in the fourth tier of English football.
A father-son type relationship is exactly what has blossomed between Ray Wilkins and Dennis Wise over the years. When the former was on Chelsea’s backroom staff, the latter was team captain. Consequently, when Wise was announced as player-manager of Millwall in 2003, he invited his one-time mentor to assist him. “At the beginning, it was just supposed to be for a few weeks, so I accepted, but on the condition that Ray could come and give me a hand,” explained Wise after acquiring the job. “I feel comfortable in the post and even though I have my own feelings about tactics and free kicks, Ray’s organisational skills are a great help to me. In particular, in terms of whether or not I’m going to be playing!”
Aside from Wilkins, who knows something about double duties himself, having fulfilled this role at Queens Park Rangers, Wise did not have to look too far for inspiration. Chelsea were the player-manager specialists in the 1990s, luring Glenn Hoddle from Swindon Town for this purpose in 1993. His relatively successful reign persuaded the London club to extend the experiment first to the “sexy football” of Dutch master Ruud Gullit and then to the energetic Italian, Gianluca Vialli.
This type of dynasty can no longer be seen at the top level in Germany, because Bundesliga regulations do not now allow an existing player to coach as well. Many did take up the challenge previously, however, one of the most successful of which was Helmut Schon, who combined blackboards and boots in the 1950s, first at SG Dresde-Friedrichstadt and then at Hertha Berlin, before delivering the 1974 FIFA World Cup to West Germany aged 59. Superstitious fans out there may see a happy omen in all this, as Joachim Low, his counterpart on the German bench in South Africa this summer, started out as a player-coach himself almost twenty years ago, at Switzerland’s FC Frauenfeld.
And he will not be alone in having taken this path, since French coach Raymond Domenech also juggled the two roles for a period at Mulhouse, between 1984 and 1986. Just like at Chelsea, the idea must have caught on, because Domenech’s predecessor, former French international Jean-Marc Guillou, had performed both tasks at the Alsatian club as well, before leaving to found a football school in Abidjan. “The two jobs are not incompatible,” Guillou explained at the time. “The coach makes sure that everyone feels free to express themselves and gives their very best at all times. The player in me knows what level I’m at, physically and technically. If I’m up to the task, I’ll stay in the team. If not, I’ll bring off Guillou the player, just like I’ve brought off other players in the past. ”
Would the prolific Brazilian Romario, whose love of scoring goals kept him playing well into his forties, have had the inner strength to remove himself from the action? We will probably never know for sure, as his sole experience as player-coach at Vasco de Gama in 2008 only lasted a few weeks – the former world champion parting company with the club after alleged meddling in team affairs by his own chairman.
Fiery Frenchman Eric Cantona, known as ‘King Eric’ during his time at Old Trafford, hung up his football boots in 1997 only to return barefooted shortly afterwards intent on an equally successful reign on sand. Player and coach of the French Beach Soccer team, Cantona led Les Bleus to victory at the 2005 FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup. As you would expect, he had forthright views on the subject of the twin role. “When you’re player-coach, it’s easy to put yourself on the team-sheet,” he admitted to FIFA.com. “For as long as I felt that I didn’t have players capable of offering more than I could, I kept playing. But today I would say that they are probably better than me now."
Mario Kempes (Argentina), Ali Daei (Iran), Trevor Francis (England), Gordon Strachan (Scotland) or Dorinel Munteanu (Romania) are further examples of top players who were able to successfully balance two very different jobs at the same time.
Some players simply find that their deep love for the game and their desire to keep competing are highly addictive. The aforementioned Ray Wilkins admitted as much when asked about any regrets he might harbour from his time as player-manager of Queens Park Rangers. He had just one: "I didn’t play often enough. I should have played more frequently. I was fit enough to do so and I should have thrown myself into it more than I did.”