Behind all great managers is an equally capable number two; a faithful lieutenant who shares the manager’s vision and philosophy. Whether they get the gig for tactical acumen or motivational ability, the number two becomes a vital cog in any team’s success.
The game has thrown up some memorable double acts over the years. At Liverpool, Bill Shankley forged a dream ticket with Bob Paisley as the legendary boot room set the benchmark. Brian Clough and Peter Taylor were the yin and yang that turned Nottingham Forest into European Champions.
More recently, Steve McClaren was Alex Ferguson’s right hand man when Manchester United were pre-eminent. Modern managers like Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp seem to lack a single identifiable assistant; but more a team of number twos.
The backroom staff are often seen but rarely heard. Only the players can really appreciate the impact they have on the team. West Ham’s nailed-on head of the backroom was Paul Nevin; anointed as a member of Gareth Southgate’s England set-up he seemed to be a ‘keeper’.
But Nevin left in July to take up a new role with Ligue 1 club Strasbourg. Whilst the chance to work alongside Patrick Viera has its appeal, it seems like a sideways move. On his departure, David Moyes spoke with careful diplomacy: ‘Paul has played an important role for us during his time here and I would like to thank him for all his support and hard work’.
He added: ‘Paul is highly ambitious as a coach and is keen to test himself in a new environment and we wish him well in doing so’. Nevin blandly returned the compliment: ‘I’ll always look back on my time and the opportunity I had to work at West Ham with great fondness. I wish the club every success in the future and look forward to following their successes from afar’.
Both statements sound like they’ve been drafted by the club’s press officer. This might suggest the pair have locked horns once too often and Nevin has jumped ship. If so, we can draw a line under the matter and say its life; sometimes people need a change and move onto new pastures.
But Nevin is the third coach to leave in the past 18 months. Mark Warburton recently left by mutual consent and Stuart Pearce stepped down last May. For Psycho, it was more about enjoying the fruits of his labours. After a fine career as a player, coach and manager he deserves some relaxation. No one would doubt Pearce has put in a decent shift both as a player and coach at West Ham.
But Warburton’s exit is more debatable. His appointment was curious and a strange trajectory in football management. Warburton had previously managed Brentford, Glasgow Rangers, Nottingham Forest and QPR. Then spent a year as coach at West Ham before leaving to seek a more senior role.
Leaving by mutual consent is a catch-all expression that could mean absolutely anything. Coaching would always appear to be a stepping stone to management but rarely does it work in reverse. Moyes has consequently started the season with two vacancies in his backroom team. Billy McKinlay and Kevin Nolan have shuffled up the pecking order with Xavi Valero as goalkeeping coach.
But what is the impact if any on team performance? Nevin has a tactical brain and this is where his absence will be most felt. Scan the touchline and it would always be Nevin whispering in Moyes’ ear. For all their qualities, McKinlay and Nolan are basically cheerleaders and lack deep insight.
In an ideal world, coaches would have a mix of tactical and motivational skills but few have both in abundance. A rare exception was Terry Venables, but even he had to lean on Don Howe for guidance as England manager. So far this season we are relatively unscathed, but Moyes lacks tactical nous and would surely rely on someone like Paul Nevin.
The players shouldn’t be fazed because the messaging will be consistent. Whoever occupies the backroom will share the same mindset as Moyes. Managers will invariably bring their own staff with them; Billy McKinlay has been with Moyes at Sunderland, Real Sociedad and both spells with the Hammers.
So what’s missing is an ideas man; someone who thinks in 3-D and sees all the angles. McKinlay and Nolan will ensure the players are fit and motivated which is important but that’s only half the equation. We expect the team on the pitch to be balanced and settled. Likewise the backroom team should follow the same pattern.
The manager will share common ground with backroom staff but would not want ‘yes men’. It’s not a dictatorship and a manager must invite challenges when necessary. It’s when these lines are crossed that push comes to shove; and the same situation is played out at every club somewhere along the line.