With 2020 lasting 18 years so far, it’s not a surprise that I’m back here again talking about England managers. Be it previous ones, current ones, would be ones or whatever, this is a never-ended discourse and all just another facet of the year we’re enduring.
Earlier in the year, when the news initially broke that Phil Neville would be leaving the England job at the end of his contract (if not a little before, given how COVID-19 has affected the international women’s football calendar), I did in fact write something about the potential candidates. But I omitted London Bees manager Lee Burch, who ticks more than a few boxes.
Admittedly, Burch works in the second tier but let us again look around the world and consider why we (or rather, The FA) need to broaden the search.
The right style
A drum I’ve repeatedly struck in the past is that a team (club or national) needs to hire a coach that fits who they are, what they have, and accept their own limitations. Lluís Cortés would likely make a fine Spain manager because of who would be available to him. Likewise, a manager like Sarina Wiegman can impart a more Dutch style on her Dutch team.
Although usually steadfast in how she sets her team up, the Netherlands’ first World Cup play-off semi-final against Denmark was a true display of Dutch footballing nous. Though not quite the Rinus Michels school of Total Football, there was something distinctly Dutch about how the team flowed and moved. It’s a long way from possible to imagine England playing in such a coherent and dynamic way.
The same could be said of most coaches in higher level international football, from Peter Gerhardsson to Milena Bertolini. They fit the teams they’re at.
Even still, if you skip down the top 20 or 50 teams in the current FIFA rankings, it’s hard to see many standout coaches, or at least any that would make sense with England. There is that nagging characteristic of an English national team that makes it only seem like they can function with a British coach. Whether it be derived from ability, understanding, or respect, Britishness always seems to be worth its weight in gold when it comes to success in an England job.
Around the leagues
If we are to say that there are no international managers who fit the bill (which in many cases is asking whoever is reading this to dismiss Jill Ellis and Wiegman; the reported shortlist for the job), then we have to look to domestic football.
Again, earlier in the year, I discussed managers who under-perform with club teams and the extra time many seem to be given. If we look at the shortlists that come out for FIFA coach of the year, it’s those who scoop silverware and have a good team to work with who routinely pop up. Which isn’t to say that coaches at the best, most professional teams aren’t good at their jobs but the context is different.
Given national team coaches spend the majority of the year away from their players, not every club coach is built for national team management, which is a factor that needs to be addressed in hiring situations. Joe Montemurro’s name is one that has come up not just with the England vacancy but the Matildas one too, yet if you look at how Montemurro goes about his job, it’s clear there is a huge amount of work done at Arsenal in the day-to-day finessing. Ignoring his penchant for Dutch players and smaller squads, all signs point to him struggling with such a reduced time with his players.
If you are to look at a domestic coach who won the top prize in Europe, like Reynald Pedros, you’ll see a manager who benefited from having the best players. Even when Lyon won the Champions League in 2018 and 2019, the football being played by the team throughout the seasons wasn’t the best. The coach seemed to ignore his options and would set his team up in unfathomable ways, not getting the best out of who was available. He would never be in line for the England job, but it is well worth considering such context when evaluating coaches across the polarised game.
Given the time constraints that come with the role, it (in my opinion, at least) is always a sound idea to start out with the coaches who do the most with the least, to look at those without the mega budgets who can’t sign Europe’s elite players but who develop the abilities of who they have and adapt their team to deal with their opposition and/or promote a clear style of play. There are few coaches across the domestic game who do this as well as TSG Hoffenheim’s Jürgen Ehrmann. Ehrmann has a part-time team who play some of the best football in Germany. His starting XIs aren’t packed with world class talent but rather grafters who buy in to his ideas.
If we’re to look around the leagues that are considered the best in the world (NWSL and parts of Europe) and look for coaches who tick the right boxes for England, there are few that stick out. In the vein of doing a lot with a little, there are still few in the top leagues.
A step down
The logical thing to do, then, is to take that step down into the English part-time second tier. Here, you see not just coaches doing a lot with modest budgets but some of the best utilisations of limited time too.
So finally, we get to Burch. Having worked extensively in the women’s game since his youth, when he cut his teeth in the Hampshire FA, the young manager has made developing younger players a staple of his coaching.
Having played every position on the pitch and worked as a player-coach in men’s football too, it’s clear Burch has a strong vision for how to set teams up and how best to utilise his players, including identifying players who might be out of position. An FA Tutor bringing through the next generation of coaches as well as players, the manager is a true all-rounder who refuses to rest on his laurels and always asks how he can improve.
He has a real talent for bringing the best out of younger players and getting them to raise their game, but he’s useful with veterans as well, always finding ways to push his charges. as a coach and a manager whose commitment is to his players, ensuring a happy changing room, those Burch has helped along the way in his career are only too happy to give a glowing character report.
Another white guy
If the FA’s shortlist is Jill Ellis and Sarina Wiegman, then suggesting another white guy seems not great on my part, for which I hold my hands up.
As Stephanie Yang explored in fantastic depth in 2017, the lack of female coaches in women’s football, especially at higher levels, is a serious and ingrained issue. Even though she’s looking at life on the other side of the Pond, there has been plenty said about The FA’s initial appointment of Neville and the potentially overlooked female coaches who could have taken the role.
Whilst The FA are trying to take steps to get more women into coaching and affect positive change, there is the simple problem that the England job is a highly nuanced role and the coaches who are afforded experience and chances to deal with that nuance are currently overwhelmingly white men. To realistically look around the world and come up with candidates that fit the bill, the list shortens itself after the first hurdle or two thanks to problems that start long before coaches reach the dizzying heights of a national team.
There is, of course, no chance that Burch would get the England job, not because The FA do seem highly motivated to hire a woman to be Neville successor, but because he’s not a statement signing. He doesn’t have notoriety in global football but he is a coach of ability, something that doesn’t always get rewarded in sport.