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Thursday, July 01, 2010

Drawing the Boundaries

With Oldham's new boss Paul Dickov wishing to combine his managerial duties with still playing, Nobes considers the lost role of the player-manager.

Dickov has been given his managerial breakthrough at League One Oldham

It would seem unthinkable now, but a quarter of a century ago, the English League and Cup double had just been won by a player-manager - Liverpool's Kenny Dalglish.

Now, Dalglish was no ordinary player, or indeed no slouch in the dugout either. However, he managed to combine both roles to great effect on Merseyside.

The thought of one of the biggest clubs in the country utilising a similar set-up in the 21st century takes a giant leap of the imagination. However, why not in the lower divisions?

That's what Oldham Athletic's new boss, Paul Dickov, intends to do. The former Manchester City and Leicester player's appointment at Boundary Park raised some eyebrows when it was confirmed this month.

Even more brows were furrowed when he announced his intention to continue playing - when he could.

Not that Dickov, at 37, should be contemplating hanging up his boots. He was still putting in performances and scoring for Derby in the Championship last season. Why shouldn't he able to perform at a lower level?

Nor is it a surprise that Oldham, a club who have a tradition of giving untried managers a chance - as well as firing them readily - have opted for the Scot to fill their managerial vacancy.

However, combining both roles these days is a rarity. Last season, Yeovil's Terry Skiverton was the only official player-manager in the Football League.

However, fitness problems dictated he ultimately didn't turn out for the Glovers, and he has now opted to focus purely on the management side at Huish Park and retire from playing.

Other players who have been appointed managers have decided, there and then, to give up playing the game.

Darren Ferguson, when moving from a player at Wrexham to manager at Peterborough, registered as a player - but never made an appearance for Posh. He chose, with great success, to focus purely on life in the dugout.

While his responsibilities off the pitch will be great, Dickov still hopes to take to the field of play himself though - and make a good go of it.

There are plenty of examples of player-managers in the lower divisions in recent years too. Paul Simpson, first at Rochdale and then at Carlisle, combined both roles.

It was notable, however, that his success as a manager was almost directly linked to the less time he spent on the pitch. Being fired by Dale after one season was followed by successive promotions in Cumbria.

In his first spell in charge at Gillingham, Andy Hessenthaler was a player-manager - taking the Gills to progressively improving Championship finishes of 13th, 12th, and 11th in his first three years.

Ultimately, things went wrong for Hessenthaler, although it would be harsh to suggest it was rooted in his desire to continue playing as well as coaching.

Darren Ferguson decided not to play as well as manage at Peterborough

It is a surprise, too, that in tight financial times that more clubs don't consider cutting their cloth and looking to combine two roles in one.

When Bury were suffering huge financial worries at the beginning of the new Millennium, they could at least count themselves fortunate that, in Andy Preece, they had a player-manager more than capable of fulfilling both roles effectively.

The reality is though that, when manager's jobs are even more demanding than ever, trying to multi-task will, inevitably, lead to difficulties in one area, if not both.

As well as trying to coach on the training ground and conduct deals in the transfer market, the manager has a whole host of other commitments - not least satisfying the demands of the media.

It's why so many clubs have tested the Director of Football model, trying to relieve the burden on their manager and help him focus on simply preparing his team. Appointing a player-manager simply wouldn't fit in with these days of micro-management.

The days of the likes of Gordon Strachan successively doing both jobs at Coventry or Jan Molby taking Swansea to the League Two play-off final while still playing seem to be over.

Instead, chairmen will point to the less successful experiences of Paul Merson at Walsall, Keith Curle at Mansfield, Brian Tinnion at Bristol City, and Steve Claridge at Portsmouth.

Perhaps the greatest difficulty is not just the workload, but trying to define just what it takes to perform such a dual-role.

How does the player-manager establish the line between his camaraderie with his teammates and his seniority as the man who decides whether they play or not?

If he can do it successfully, then a harmonious relationship should ensue. If not, then his reign will be a short and unsuccessful one.

Managers, let alone those who play as well, have trouble trying to find the balance between being too pally and too close to the players and being too cold and distant.

That's before we even raise the issue of what happens when it comes to selecting himself to play. Does the player-manager drop himself, or will his pride prevent him seeing he would be better off remaining in the technical area?

Ironically, in that respect, despite still crossing that white line every Saturday afternoon too, the player-manager is in as great a danger of losing the dressing room as someone who focuses purely on management.

This is the challenge that awaits Dickov as he embarks on a new chapter in his football career. The new man at Boundary Park has boundaries of his own to establish.

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