The Non-League Football Paper

Chris Dunlavy: Legends just don’t cut it! Non-League bosses deserve much more

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By Chris Dunlavy

NOBODY doubts JK Rowling’s ability to pen a spellbinding children’s story. But could the Harry Potter author knock up a scientific paper?

Probably not. The medium may be familiar, but the knowledge and experience required to write for academia are completely different. It would be like assuming the bloke who’s building your extension could also bash out the structural calculations.

Or, for that matter, assuming Frank Lampard will make a decent manager just because he scored 177 times in the Premier League.

Lampard, 39, recently brought the curtain down on a glittering 1,000-game career that saw him win three titles, four FA Cups and the Champions League at Chelsea. The midfielder also won 106 caps for England.

Which, of course, is the only reason he was in talks to become the new manager of League Two side Oxford United last week.

It isn’t experience. It isn’t expertise. It isn’t a knowledge of the transfer market or a track record of developing youngsters. How could it be? The guy has fewer coaching hours under his belt than the bloke down my road who does the Under-12s.

Lampard plonked his backside on a seat in the Kassam boardroom not because of what he’s done, but because of who he is.

Just like when Teddy Sheringham was appointed by Stevenage, or when Paul Merson pitched up at Walsall.

Remember how well they did? After the initial blaze of publicity and season ticket sales, it soon transpired that a cabinet full of medals doesn’t help much when you’re trying to mastermind victory over Morecambe or Mansfield.

Watching them flounder is like listening to Jarvis Cocker in Common People, spitting scorn at the moneyed class tourist who’ll never understand how it feels to “cut your hair and get a job”, who can “call her dad and stop it all”.

“I wouldn’t do it again in a million years,” said Merson in 2006. “If you don’t have money and can’t buy players, it’s very hard to change anything. And I suddenly realised how George Graham must have felt worrying about me every day. Being a player is much easier.”


Merson fell into the trap of believing that a decade of drills under Graham had equipped him for life in the dugout.

Teddy Sheringham during his time in charge of Stevenage

Yet as former Doncaster boss Dave Penney said in his recent NLP interview, players are naive to believe that simply “picking things up” from successful managers amounts to a significant education.

“I thought that too when I was a player, but it’s rubbish,” he said. “Until you’ve actually crossed the fence and joined the coaching team, you aren’t really learning anything.

“Yeah, you know how to deal with certain situations. But the rest – dealing with club secretaries, agents, owners, sponsors – you haven’t got a clue.”

Even those who have been successful – Steve Bruce, Mark Hughes, Roy Keane (at Sunderland, anyway) have rarely worked anywhere but large, well-resourced clubs. Wouldn’t any manager have emulated their achievements? Or even bettered them?


And that is the greatest injustice of all. Non-League is full of terrific managers, all boasting a wealth of experience and skills. The Cowley brothers at Lincoln, Dave Challinor at AFC Fylde, the two-decade doyen Billy Heath.

Anyone who has dealt with part-time players and budgets to shame a student is more than equipped to make a fist of things in the EFL.

Just look at what Chris Wilder, who spent a decade managing the likes of Alfreton, Halifax and Oxford, is currently achieving at Sheffield United. He learned from the ground up and built his reputation on a demonstrable record of success.

Lampard hasn’t done that, nor did Sheringham or Merson. All they’ve done is play football. And every time a perfectly good CV is binned to accommodate a hapless household name, it is a savage kick in the teeth for men who deserve more.

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One thought on “Chris Dunlavy: Legends just don’t cut it! Non-League bosses deserve much more

  1. YCFC67

    I appreciate the sentiment behind this piece completely. But you have to appreciate that the prospect of Frank Lampard is incredibly different to that of Paul Merson or Teddy Sheringham. Neither are the sharpest knives in the drawer.

    No one knows whether Lampard will make a good manager or not, but it isn’t unfair to interview him. They didn’t hand him the job, they entertained the idea and would have been stupid not to.

    He is intelligent, has done his badges, and spent last season at the Chelsea training ground at Cobham. Regarding your shortlist, it is a name you’d want on there as he offers another angle. If the Cowley brothers had applied, you’d interview both.

    Giggs starting at United was ambitious, Shearer at Newcastle disastrous. But this is League Two. The guy is just trying to break his teeth in management. I don’t think he should have to start in the Ryman league because others have been in the job longer.

    It’s also worth mentioning both Gary Monk and Eddie Howe at this point. Both young, intelligent British managers. Neither started in non-league, but naturally flourished because they had the intelligence and people skills to engage and improve a group of players. Wouldn’t you put Lampard in that bracket were you to hazard a guess when shortlisting rather than a Merson or a Sheringham?

    I certainly would.


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