Centre circle

Centre circle

Lessons from the Liverpool boot room could stop more mistakes like Moyes

Bob Paisley and the Liverpool boot room dominated English football for two decades. Bruce Stokes, CC BY-NC-SA

I remember the “next big thing”. His name was Wayne Harrison and when he moved from Oldham Athletic to Liverpool in 1985, aged 19, he became the world’s most expensive teenage footballer. He was Kevin Keegan and Kenny Dalglish rolled into one, a young successor to two previous kings of Anfield.

But Harrison never played for Liverpool’s first team. In fact, a series of injuries meant he retired from football at just 23 years old.

I also recall one of Liverpool’s later “next big things”: Roberto Martinez. Remember Martinez and the 2012 photograph of him sauntering along a Miami street with the Merseyside club’s owner, John W Henry? Dalglish the Liverpool legend had returned, spent big, and failed to manage the club back to success. Enter Martinez; a man without any notable trophy successes, being actively courted by a millionaire US businessman as the person to succeed Dalglish and bring the glory days back to Liverpool.

Whatever deal might have been in the offing, it failed to materialise and Henry instead turned to Brendan Rodgers as manager. Rodgers was no Bill Shankly, nor a Bob Paisley. In fact some might have argued that he was not even a Martinez. But with Rodgers’ appointment came the final and ultimate death of the famed Liverpool “boot room”, even if Rodgers’ appointment now seems to have brought the club some success.

The “boot room” was the internal club organisation that groomed managerial successors and created a culture whereby Liverpool always knew what was coming next, thus ensuring continuity in the way the club functioned. Most notably, over decades the club’s management seamlessly changed from Shankly to Paisley to Joe Fagan and then to Kenny Dalglish. Yet this happened without a change in direction and generally without a significant decline in levels of performance.

This was textbook succession planning.

And so it was to be at Manchester United: from the Busby Babes to Ryan Giggs and the Class of 92 via Sir Alex Ferguson. The incomparable Ferguson was inevitably going to retire and would need replacing. We could see where United was heading, although many of us assumed his eventual departure would be carefully planned and managed.

After all, Ferguson had given ample warning having first announced his retirement a decade ago (only for him to go back on this decision). Moreover, United is not simply a football club it is a global corporation. Like any other such corporation, one might therefore have thought that the recruitment of a replacement would be a strategic decision, a mixture of art and science, overseen by wealthy entrepreneurial owners and instigated by highly-paid professional executives.

Alex Ferguson to David Moyes was supposed to be the managerial equivalent of a Rooney to Van Persie pass – clear, well-directed, appropriately paced and with guaranteed success at the end of the move. Yet Ferguson to Moyes was not even the equivalent of a misplaced pass, it was completely the wrong move. Result: Moyes sacked after just ten months.

Succession planning involves identifying and developing employees so that they are able to replace outgoing senior managers or executives. The success of Liverpool’s “boot room” highlights the importance of such continuity and stability.

But formal (and effective) succession planning is important for other reasons too: it helps in identifying those people who can assume greater responsibility at some stage in the future; it exposes such individuals to key learning and development experiences; and it promotes the need for a better understanding of an organisation’s workers, their capabilities and their potential. It builds employee commitment, and minimises the need for expensive external recruitment.

With these things in mind, it seems that Manchester United had its chances: under Fergie, the likes of Bryan Robson, Steve Bruce, Steve McLaren or Roy Keane could have been nurtured as potential future managers, and yet all came and went. That such players and coaches left United to pursue careers elsewhere suggests either that there was no succession plan in place at the club, or else that it was not a plan that could motivate and retain existing employees.

One unintended consequence of Ferguson’s long tenure was that other employees inside United clearly perceived too few opportunities for progression (in other words, Fergie wasn’t going anywhere) and so left for pastures new. Over the years Fergie’s assistants left the club to manage Blackburn, Middlesbrough and even Real Madrid. The club failed to stop this drain on resources, presumably having concluded that Ferguson was something just short of immortal, his tenure seemingly unending.

Once the managerial switch eventually came, much was made of the fact that David Moyes is from Glasgow, just like Alex Ferguson. This connection is telling as well, from the perspective of both club and manager.

Research shows that, when succession planning is handled too informally and is thus unplanned, a job incumbent tends to identify a successor whose background, appearance and values are similar to their own. This can result in the creation of what some commentators have called a bureaucratic kinship system, where a manager selects as their replacement someone who looks and behaves in broadly the same way as they do.

That United ended up with Moyes implies something about the possible absence of formal succession planning practices within the club, about Ferguson’s pervasive power at United or maybe a combination of both.

Succession planning is not just a challenge though for Manchester United and its owners, nor even just for football. It is relevant to players, to off-field management and to other sports as well. Indeed, as we head into the summer, football clubs and sports teams across the world will be grappling with the task of recruiting their next coach or identifying a player who can be the “next big thing”.

Liverpool didn’t succeed with Harrison and Martinez but seem to have got it right with Rodgers. Manchester United got it wrong with David Moyes, and now the club has to find a new manager; is Louis Van Gaal the correct, albeit delayed, successor or was Ryan Giggs the right choice in the first place?

Only time will tell whether United and their new manager are made for each other. But whoever the successor is, the club, football in general as well as other sports should be watching carefully and reflecting upon the lessons of the failed Moyes succession.

Found this article useful? A tax-deductible gift of $30/month helps deliver knowledge-based, ethical journalism.