Thursday, 12 November 2015

The Age of Management

Not so long ago, I found myself wondering whether football managers and coaches were getting younger, particularly those in the Premier League. Where once the First Division was dominated by bosses that were old enough to be your dad (or even granddad), now they’re usually younger than me. How the hell did that happen?

Maybe I was seeing a skewed version of reality. True enough, I'm in my mid-forties now, but that shouldn't mean all top-flight coaches are undergoing some sort of Benjamin Button complex as a direct consequence. Are there really more Eddie Howes and Alex Neils around than there used to be? I needed to find out, and I needed a spreadsheet. A big spreadsheet…


My aim was to establish the average age of every manager that’s started a season in charge of an English First Division or Premier League club from 1960-61 to the present day. To carry out this seemingly straight-forward task, I’d need to find out which teams were playing in the top division during each of the last 56 seasons, who their managers were on the opening day of every season and what their birth dates were. Perhaps not so straight-forward after all, but then again I'm no stranger to a wild goose chase in the name of football blogging.

To the best of my knowledge, I have done exactly that - with one exception. At the start of the 1977-78 season, Newcastle United’s manager was Richard Dinnis. At the end of the previous season, he guided The Magpies to a UEFA Cup spot (Newcastle’s first for seven years), and for that he was held in high regard by many of their fans. Unfortunately, despite this considerable achievement, history has not been kind to Dinnis because there’s not a single page on the internet that gives his date of birth (as far as I could tell). With much regret, therefore, this single detail has not formed a part of my research and one only hopes it doesn't affect the overall findings too much.


To try and make sense of the huge amount of data I’d collated, I had to lay down certain standards - usually with a view to simplifying the overall task.

Firstly, it would take far too long to include the age of every manager that has ever led a top-flight team at any stage of any season. I've therefore decided to focus on the managers in charge of First Division or Premier League teams on the opening day of every season, from 1960-61 to 2015-16.

In a few isolated cases, clubs have started a new season without a manager in post. Where this is the case, the overall figures are based on and include these absences where appropriate.

To regulate the calculation of how old each manager really is, I have opted to use a date that is consistent for every year - September 1. All the ages you see mentioned throughout this piece are based on how old a manager was on this standard date, such as it falls just after the start of every season. If I’d worked out how old each manager was on the first day of every season, it may have fluctuated if he’d been born, say, in the middle of August. Because the start date for every First Division / Premier League season changes every year, it has a capability to show variations in a manager’s age, as this table shows.

Something else relating to those ages. To make things a bit more ‘metric’, all the graphs I've created (yes, there will be graphs) describe ages to one decimal point. To illustrate this, instead of saying someone’s age is 38 years and 140 days, I've shown their age as 38.4. The ‘140’ part is shown as a percentage of 365.25, the extra 0.25 allowing for the frequency of leap years.

Now this is all well and good, I hear you say... or was that snoring I heard? What if someone was born on September 2? In theory, their age would be (for instance) 38 years and 364 days, but shown in ‘metric’ form it would be 38.997... and using one decimal place, that would be 39.0. Not exactly correct is it? Well, no, but mentioned earlier, this is my attempt to show the data in simplified form. It’s also meant as a guide, not the last word in authoritative report writing. What I wanted was a general litmus test to see if those pesky football managers were getting younger before my very eyes. If I use one decimal place to come to a conclusion, well… don’t shoot me.

Finally, before we get onto the exciting stuff (and I use the term ‘exciting’ quite wrongly), I’d like to declare my sources as being Wikipedia and The validity of this whole exercise rests to some extent on the accuracy of those and one or two other websites that helped to confirm the birth dates of certain managers. But not Richard Dinnis, oh no. International man of mystery is Richard Dinnis, apparently…


It all begins in the 1960-61 season, a season when Tottenham Hotspur would do the League and FA Cup double, Preston North End would be relegated from Division One never to return (thus far) and somewhere, just south of Buenos Aires, a legend was born that would have a hand in England’s footballing fortunes over two decades later...

Of the 22 men starting that season as managers of their First Division clubs, one name stands out above all others. He was the oldest of them all - Matt Busby, still rebuilding the Manchester United team that had seen eight of its members die in the Munich air disaster only two years previously. Busby would still be in charge of Man United at the end of the 1960’s, but at the start of the decade, his youngest counterpart was the wonderfully named Bedford Jezzard. Aged just 32 when the 1960-61 season started, Jezzard had only recently retired as a stalwart striker for Fulham and was now managing the Craven Cottage club after its recent return to the First Division.

There was nearly two decades of difference between their respective ages, and the average for all those men leading their First Division clubs into battle on August 20th 1960 was 43.4. Slowly but surely, that figure would rise and rise...

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The following season, there were three future England managers in the First Division. A 42-year-old called Alf Ramsey was celebrating the major achievement of guiding his Ipswich Town team to the pinnacle of English football, while at West Ham, Ron Greenwood was starting a 13-year stint that would bring notable success to The Hammers. At Villa Park, however, Joe Mercer was mid-way through his six years in charge of Aston Villa and was about to see his side win the very first Football League Cup.

As the years progressed, more and more familiar names arrived in Division One: Bill Shankly at Liverpool in 1962-63, Don Revie at Leeds in 1964-65 and Tommy Docherty at Chelsea in 1965-66 - the youngest manager in the top flight the season after. Come the 1969-70 season, the average age of a top-flight boss was up to 46 and Matt Busby, the oldest manager in the First Division since the start, had been replaced by Wilf McGuinness who instantly became the youngest of the twenty-two.

The arrival of the 1970’s coincided with the arrival of yet more famous names into the First Division managerial circle. While Brian Clough was leading Derby County to glory and Bobby Robson was riding high with Ipswich, the average age rose to 47.7, largely thanks to the ubiquitousness of managers like Joe Mercer, Bill Nicholson, Bertie Mee and Shankly.

Even when Bob Paisley took over in the Anfield hot seat, he began his first season aged 56 and soon became the oldest of all the First Division managers year in, year out with the Eighties fast approaching. Despite this, the average age dropped during the middle of the Seventies as many young bucks arrived for a taste of top flight management experience. Terry Neill was just 33 when he started the 1975/76 season at Tottenham, and Johnny Giles was only 35 when he took the helm at West Bromwich Albion the season after.

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The youngest ever manager to start a Division One season came along in the form of Colin Murphy. As reserve team manager at Derby County, he’d been promoted following Dave Mackay’s sacking late in 1976 and began the 1977/78 campaign at the tender age of 27. To this day, he remains the only man ever to start a season as manager of a top-flight club while still in his 20’s.

During the 1980’s, the average age of England’s top club managers levelled out between 44 and 45. Joe Fagan replaced Bob Paisley not just as Liverpool’s manager but also the oldest manager in the First Division two seasons running, and the title of ‘youngest manager’ changed regularly until Kenny Dalglish replaced Fagan for the 1985-86 season.

By now, some of the managerial greats of our childhood had become part of the establishment. Lawrie McMenemy at Southampton, Brian Clough at Nottingham Forest, Howard Kendall at Everton and Graham Taylor at Watford. After Joe Fagan’s retirement, however, the age of the oldest First Division manager dropped from 63.5 to 52.8 and suddenly things didn't seem quite as patriarchal as they once had.

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Into the Nineties, the slow and steady stream of recently-retired players turning their hand to management continued. Steve Coppell, Trevor Francis, Billy Bonds, Peter Reid... all showed that it wasn't necessarily an old man’s game, and this was a sentiment shared by Chelsea in particular. Between 1993-94 and 1998/99, the Stamford Bridge club was where you’d find the youngest manager in the Premier League; first Glenn Hoddle (starting at the age of 35), then Ruud Gullit (from age 34) and then Gianluca Vialli (also 34). One could argue that an intent to facilitate younger coaches helped form the foundation of Chelsea’s huge success today, and with some justification.

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At the other end of the scale, the age of the oldest manager was steadily increasing. First Ron Atkinson, then Jim Smith pushed the top end of the range towards 60, but when Bobby Robson took charge of Newcastle, the age of the oldest manager rocketed. Starting the 2000/01 season aged 67, he was 71 when his last campaign began at St James Park, and were it not for youngsters like Fulham’s Chris Coleman arriving on the scene, the average age would have rocketed upwards too.

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Ironically it was only when Alex Ferguson replaced Robson as the oldest manager in the Premier League that the average age started to rise noticeably. From being 46.8 in 2005/06, it climbed quickly to 51.8 in 2011/12 and this became the peak of the average age for top-flight managers in England. Since then, the figure has fallen only slightly to 51.3 for the 2015/16 season, propped up by stalwarts like Arsene Wenger (65 on September 1st 2015), Dick Advocaat (the oldest at 67) and Claudio Ranieri (63).

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And so it seems that even with Eddie Howe at Bournemouth (35 at the start of the current season), and Swansea’s Garry Monk (36), top flight management is not seeing its personnel getting younger with every passing year. Quite the opposite, in fact. As you can see from the graph below showing the entire 56-year period covered, the thin diagonal line in the middle shows a steady trend moving in an upward direction.

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Who'd have thought, then? It would appear that within the next couple of decades, we could be witnessing the advent of the elderly Premier League manager as a very real concept. Already comfortably past 50 on average, there must be something to be said for experience over youth. Whether it remains as the dominant factor when choosing the right man to lead one of English football's top teams in the future remains to be seen.

-- Chris Oakley


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