In Exclusive Kompany: The Weird, Wired World of Life as a Player-Manager

Tom Williams@tomwfootballSpecial to Bleacher ReportJuly 10, 2019

Anderlecht's new player/ manager Vincent Kompany poses for the photographer after a press conference of Jupiler Pro League team RSC Anderlecht to present it's new player/ manager, Tuesday 25 June 2019 in Brussels.
BELGA PHOTO VIRGINIE LEFOUR        (Photo credit should read VIRGINIE LEFOUR/AFP/Getty Images)

For a professional football manager, telling a player he has lost his place in the team is one of the most unpleasant parts of the job. Even more so when you're the player who will be playing in his place.

Andy Preece found himself having just that kind of conversation midway through his first full season as player-manager of English lower-league side Bury. The Greater Manchester club had succeeded in signing striker Jon Newby on loan from Liverpool, and Preece felt that it should be he who partnered the new recruit up front, rather than strike partner Paul Barnes.

"It was a really, really difficult situation, and I really felt for him," Preece told Bleacher Report.

"Jon Newby played up front and I decided that I was the best partner for him. Paul Barnes was gutted because he felt Newby would have brought more out of him. It was a tough one, because I could understand exactly where he was coming from. But you can't allow those feelings to affect your decision."

Preece was ultimately vindicated as his strike partnership with Newby helped Bury avoid relegation to England's fourth tier at the end of the 2000-01 season. But dropping people never got any easier. The former Crystal Palace striker describes the process of distancing himself from his former team-mates as the "most difficult" aspect of the switch from player to boss.

Learning how to straddle the divide between team-mate and manager is just one of the challenges that now awaits Vincent Kompany following his return to formative club Anderlecht as player-manager.

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The player-manager has become an increasingly rare creature in modern football, and should Kompany pause to consider how some of his contemporaries have fared in the role, the former Manchester City captain could be forgiven for having second thoughts.

Successful player-managers popped up now and again in the 1980s and 1990s—Kenny Dalglish at Liverpool, Graeme Souness at Rangers, the trio of Glenn Hoddle, Ruud Gullit and Gianluca Vialli at Chelsea—but the handful of recent examples will not fill Kompany with much confidence.

Kenny Dalglish won the English league and cup double in his first season as Liverpool player-manager
Kenny Dalglish won the English league and cup double in his first season as Liverpool player-managerGetty Images/Getty Images

Gennaro Gattuso lasted less than three months at Swiss club FC Sion in 2013, while Ryan Giggs' four-game stint as caretaker player-manager at Manchester United in 2014 was best remembered for his uninspiring team talks. Kevin Nolan made a good start to life at Notts County after his appointment in January 2017, but he was sacked just over 18 months later following a six-game winless run.

Brazil great Romario's spell in charge of Vasco da Gama in late 2007 proved predictably eventful. He took on the role two days after revealing he had tested positive for a banned substance (which he blamed on a hair-loss product) and lasted only five games after falling out with club president Eurico Miranda over team selection.

In what was unquestionably the most curious player-manager appointment of recent times, former Juventus midfielder Edgar Davids came close to keeping lowly Barnet in the English Football League in 2013 but then veered off track completely: giving himself the No. 1 jersey, refusing to travel to certain away games, getting sent off three times in six matches and, ultimately, resigning.

While there have been some eye-catching player-manager appointments in the Indian Super League in recent years—Roberto Carlos, Nicolas Anelka, Marco Materazzi, Robbie Keane—all the players concerned had clearly reached points in their careers where they felt immune to the risks of reputational damage.

A former Premier League midfielder with Wimbledon, Gareth Ainsworth became player-manager of struggling English fourth-tier outfit Wycombe Wanderers in 2012 following the dismissal of previous manager Gary Waddock. Despite being 39 at the time of his appointment, Ainsworth remained an important first-team player, and he says his first objective was to prove to his squad that he deserved his place in the team on merit.

"It's difficult because you're a manager and you're picking yourself," Ainsworth told Bleacher Report. "It could be looked at as, 'He's only picking himself because he's the manager.' So you've got to prove you can still do it. If anything, you probably try even more."

Money was tight at Wycombe, and Ainsworth found his new role "really, really difficult." But he continued to play regularly throughout the 2012-13 season and puts that almost entirely down to the trust he had in his assistant, Richard Dobson.

"Delegation was 100 percent to Dobbo when I was on the pitch," said Ainsworth, who is still in charge with Dobson at Adams Park. "I had total trust that he knew how I wanted to play. Having a solid, strong No. 2 is the real key to the player-manager role."

Kompany has already taken steps to surround himself with familiar faces at Anderlecht, bringing in Manchester City's former head of academy coaching Simon Davies as his assistant manager and appointing former City team-mate Craig Bellamy as under-21s manager.

Vincent Kompany and Craig Bellamy
Vincent Kompany and Craig BellamyAlex Livesey/Getty Images

Preece became player-manager at Bury "out of the blue" in December 1999 after previous manager Neil Warnock left to take over at Sheffield United.

Bury were on the brink of going out of business, and Preece found himself working around the clock to keep the club above water, all while trying to maintain fitness and keep producing the goods in the opposition penalty area.

"I wouldn't say it's an impossible job, but it's a very, very, very difficult job getting the balance right," he said.

Preece was unsure how to handle his new role at first, initially dropping himself from the starting XI before realising that, as one of the best players in the squad, he would be better off on the pitch.

Crossing the white line did not stop him thinking like a manager, and he can still recall instances when he allowed his annoyance at a team-mate's failure to follow instructions to throw him off his own game. But he also felt that being on the pitch gave him a better feel for what was happening in the match than he would have got standing on the touchline.

"Sometimes managers say things and you think, 'That's not how the game's going. That's not how it feels,'" said Preece, who remained in his post at Bury until 2003. 

"Maybe it's, 'You're getting overrun.' And on the pitch, you think, 'We're not getting overrun.' Sometimes from the side you see it a little bit differently. On the pitch, you can get a good feel for what's going on and what might happen. I would say that's a big advantage."

Gareth Ainsworth says it is harder than ever to be a player-manager
Gareth Ainsworth says it is harder than ever to be a player-managerKer Robertson/Getty Images

After successfully steering Wycombe clear of relegation in 2013, Ainsworth called time on his playing days, although he came out of retirement for an EFL Trophy game in August 2016. He still misses playing but believes that the demands on the modern manager are now too great for the roles to be combined successfully.

"If you gave us another day in the week, we'd be able to fill it easily due to the workload. And I mean that," Ainsworth said.

"Going to games, scouting, hours sat in front of a screen watching videos, opening letters, talking to agents, counselling players, trying to improve players... Training people on the grass is possibly one of the smallest percentages [of what] we do.

"It's a great job, but in modern management now, the game has got so enormous and so important. I think the reason player-managers are dying out is because you just need managers. It's tough to combine that [with playing], even though I'm sure every one of us would love to be out on that pitch."

At the age of only 33, Kompany should still have a few seasons on the pitch ahead of him. But from now on, when he walks out of the tunnel, he will have the weight of a whole football club on his shoulders.


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