The extraordinary managerial success — or chief coach’s as more and more English clubs now call the role — of Mark Warburton at Glasgow’s Rangers reminds me of a famous remark by Arrigo Sacchi when manager of Milan, subsequently manager of Italy, “You don’t have to have been a horse to be a jockey.”
Warburton has yet to scale such heights, but his career has been original and remarkable. He broke through at Brentford, the West London club which rose from mediocrity in the years before and during the second World War; during which as a 10-year-old I saw them win the regionalised wartime London Cup against a heavily favoured Portsmouth team including most of the men who had won the 1939 FA Cup as 4-1 victors over Wolves; both finals at Wembley. En route, Brentford in the semi-finals had knocked out a powerful Arsenal side, whose bogey team they were for years. But that bright team grew old together, the Bees, as they are known, dropped out of the old First Division in 1947 and have never got back.
Could Warburton have got them there? It is at least arguable as in his spell at Griffin Park he had them high in the so called Championship division. Now Brentford’s loss is Rangers’ gain as his team, striving to recover from scandalous behaviour by previous owners and thrown out of a Scottish Championship which they, the Protestant club and Celtic, the Catholic club, had dominated for so many long years. Now they are top of Scotland’s Second Division whose generally minuscule crowds are dwarfed by the regular amazing 45,000 which turn up at Ibrox Park to cheer their beloved Rangers. Warburton is their first ever English manager and his appointment has been inspired.
Yet Warburton came to football from the city of London where he was a wealthy and well regarded trader, working not only in London but in the USA and Asia. But watching his son James play for Watford’s junior teams, he was seized with the ambition to coach and even though it eventually meant giving up his lucrative city career, he found himself coaching at that level, with such enthusiasm and satisfaction that he was seized by the ambition to do more. He took his coaching badges, and boldly and riskily worked his way up the club’s coaching hierarchy deciding to give up his city job and gamble on succeeding as a soccer coach.
The gamble was supremely successful. Once a modest amateur footballer himself he proved a natural coach full of original ideas, and in due course found his way to Brentford, working for its wealthy owner, whose fortune was made out of a betting operation and who had poured large sums of money into the club. Matthew Benham has his own particular ideas of how a club should be run which entails numerous staff engaged with various instruments to measure a variety of aspects. Benham and Warburton however had very different philosophies of football. Warburton, by now well into his 50s, stood firm under the bombardment of statistics. So it was that last season was barely halfway through, with Brentford enjoying a sequence of success with real prospects of promotion, and Warburton very much his own man, not a bit inclined to impose Benham’s ideas on his own, that Benham announced that Warburton would be leaving at the end of the season.
It seemed at the time a daft and self indulgent decision, but Warburton, who had no intention of changing his methods agreed he would leave at the end of that season, which he did. Warburton had lifted the club from the so called League 1 to the verge of the Premiership, and says, “Yes, it was frustrating. We really could have built from there. So it was a great shame but it happens. I’m not bitter. You just have to learn from it and be better for it. Everyone told me to take six months off, but I am not made that way. It is perfect for me here.”
It was James, his son, who convinced him to apply for the Rangers post, showing him a video of Rangers fans singing their anthem at a Celtic derby in Glasgow. No doubt at all about the almost fanatical commitment of Rangers fans to their team, though it can sometimes have an ugly, violent, bigoted side. But Warburton was so impressed that to Ibrox he went. And took very little time in regenerating a team which had just missed promotion the previous season, with sixteen players having left after the team lost in the play-offs.
Since then, Rangers have been setting the pace though Hibernian, another club, from Edinburgh, with a fine historic record, are close behind them. Brentford? They appointed a Dutch manager under who results were unimpressive. He wasn’t helped by the fact that early in the season the Bees sold their top goal-scorer Andre Gray. His successor didn’t last long after a series of indifferent results. Recently, I watched the team, down to ten men after an expulsion, at least showing high morale. Their newly appointed manager, Mr. Smith, is a name unknown to me, but perhaps that is how Mr. Benham prefers it.
Arrigo Sacchi’s is a still more extraordinary story than Warburton’s, who at least played in a recent grade of football. Sacchi never did. A little fellow, he was so poor a player that the President of his minor club on the East coast of Italy told him, “Why don’t you coach our juniors?' This Sacchi did with such success that he found himself doing the same job with famous Fiorentina. On the day when he eventually was made manager of Milan he sat in the managerial chair at the club’s Via Turati and said he couldn't believe it. But he went on to win League titles with a 4-4-2 pressing team which flourished till opponents played him at his own game. With Italy though controversial he reached the 1994 World Cup final losing only on penalties. Having begun in New York with a sensational loss to Ireland, at one point he substituted an enraged star Roberto Baggio who, as he came off, was lip read to say, “But that man is mad!”
Long ago between the World Wars there was Leslie Knighton who began as a teenager at little Castleford, he too a non-player. Yet he managed both Arsenal and Chelsea.
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