By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (Dec 18, 2017) US Soccer Players – The phenomenon of the player/coach in soccer may not be something currently in vogue, but some of the world’s best players have held that dual role. Legendary players such as Gordon Strachan, Kenny Dalglish, Glenn Hoddle, Ruud Gullit, Gianluca Vialli, and Graeme Souness have all done so.
Other sports have also used player-coaches. Pete Rose famously managed and played for the Cincinnati Reds in the mid-1980s, the last major leaguer to do so. The last player/coach in MLS came during the 1998 and 1999 seasons when former Italy international Walter Zenga was both the team’s starting goalkeeper and coach.
“As a goalkeeper, in many ways I have always been a coach on the field,” Zenga said at the time. “I feel confident that I can continue to provide leadership and also give my best on the field as well.”
The experiment largely failed. Steve Nicol took over for the Revs’ final two games of the year after amassing just 26 points during a 32-game season.
The British game has delivered some of the game’s best player-coaches. Souness was one of those player-coaches that stood out. After his time in Italy with Sampdoria came to an end after just two seasons, Souness became player-manager at Rangers in 1986. His signing attracted a host of stars including Mo Johnston, Ray Wilkins, and Terry Butcher to Glasgow.
The result was three straight Scottish titles and three league cups. All happened with Souness on the field. The midfielder made 73 appearances in all competitions. Plagued by injuries as well as disciplinary issues, Souness would retire from playing in 1991. He would go on to coach several clubs, including Liverpool and Newcastle, before retiring altogether from the game in 2006.
Chelsea had three player-coaches from 1993 to 1998. Over that span, Chelsea had Hoodle, Gullit, and Vialli. All three managed and played with various degrees of success. Vialli won the most games (76 across all competitions) and the most trophies (five) highlighted by the now-defunct Cup Winners’ Cup in 1998 and the 2000 FA Cup. Vialli played himself often and became the youngest manager – at just age 33 – in 1998 to win a European trophy.
The player/coach role is largely dead. Players often don’t have the proper licenses to coach while still playing. The trend in coaching education of the last few years has made it so that most players interested in being coaches do so well after they have retired from playing. The idea is to raise standards among the coaching ranks. In fact, teams would rather call in a person with a coaching resume – and prior playing pedigree – than relying on someone still talented enough to play.
US Soccer announced the 17 coaches that completed the year-long Pro license course, something that’s now a requirement for a pro team. That included MLS coaches and the coach of the US Women’s National Team. It’s a path that’s now part of the job. It’s the same in Europe with the UEFA Pro license. That barrier to entry has seen coaches having to take classes while employed by top clubs. It’s far easier for clubs to hire coaches that already have the license in hand.
For a player, it’s asking a lot to combine coaching badges during a career. That’s especially true for players at the top level. Brad Friedel worked through the UEFA Pro license curriculum late in his career with Premier League club Spurs. Friedel recently took the head coaching job with the New England Revolution. Former MLS player turned Montreal and now New York Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch is currently taking the UEFA Pro course. He got the USSF Pro license in January.
“I always want to better myself in terms of thinking about the game, and this is an excellent chance to see some of the philosophies being taught in Europe,” Marsch told the Red Bulls official site. “I want to continually improve myself as a coach and pick up lessons or a bit of knowledge that I can bring back and implement.”
Marsch got his break from an MLS coaching veteran. Bob Bradley brought Marsch from Chicago to Chivas USA as a player, naming him as an assistant when Bradley coached the USMNT. Bradley also holds the UEFA Pro license, a result of his time in Europe moving from Norway to France to the Premier League.
Maybe there should be a better way for players to move directly into the coaching ranks while still playing. What once wasn’t out of the ordinary has now turned into a rarity when it comes to player/coaches. There once was space for this in the game on both sides of the Atlantic. What’s changed is the expectation that coaching at an elite level requires classwork and time.
From a North American perspective, this is unique. No other sport has the same certification requirements. That doesn’t seem to matter in the other North American pro sports. The pro licenses in Europe and the United States haven’t been around long enough to demonstrate a clear difference between then and now.
Clemente Lisi is a regular contributor to US Soccer Players. He is also the author of A History of the World Cup: 1930-2014. Find him on Twitter:http://twitter.com/ClementeLisi.
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