Jupp Heynckes was formally introduced as Bayern Munich’s interim manager on Monday, declaring that despite having retired four years ago he was “looking forward to the challenge” of leading the club through the remainder of the season, which will conclude a few days after his 73rd birthday. “Critics say I’ve been out of the game for four years but football’s not been reinvented,” said Heynckes, who will take charge of the team for the first time against Freiburg on Saturday. “Age is a number and nothing more. Some feel old at 45 but I’ve not changed. I still love music and sport. I feel young.”
In July, Turkey’s search for a new manager led them to the 72-year-old Mircea Lucescu, whose first job in international management came in 1981, precisely half his lifetime ago. Last month Crystal Palace handed Roy Hodgson the task of rescuing their dire situation, making him the first man aged over 70 to be appointed manager by a Premier League club. “It’s a drug that gets in your veins and stays there,” he said. “At the moment I’m feeling as good as I’ve ever felt. You can’t tear up your birth certificate, but it’s how you feel.”
Heynckes, Hodgson and Lucescu have been managers longer than any of their charges have been alive, the Englishman having first donned a monogrammed tracksuit in 1976, three years before Heynckes and Lucescu laid out their first training cones. Alex Smith, however, can consider all of them to be sprightly youngsters, the Scot having become the oldest manager in Europe’s professional leagues when he stepped into the breach at Falkirk two weeks ago at the age of 77.
“You never lose the love of it,” says Smith, who has stepped back into the role of technical director since Paul Hartley’s appointment last week but is still involved in training every day. “I don’t know when I’m going to stop. I think I’ll always be involved in some capacity. I keep doing it because I love it. I love every morning, getting up and coming in to work. I love the buildup to the game: Friday night, Saturday morning. I still get some Saturday nights when I can’t talk to anybody because I’m so annoyed. Football’s always been that to me, I love it. I was brought up in a mining village and people were working in the pits. That was drudgery, there’s no other word for it. People working six or seven days a week to try to earn a living. That’s a job that really takes guts and courage. This, it’s just fun.”
The new trend for old managers reflects the ageing of the population as a whole, and the resulting shift in attitudes. What is now in fashion was once considered just infirm: in 1991 Don Howe was sacked as Queens Park Rangers’ head coach at the tender age of 55 on the basis that he was too old to lead them through “what is likely to be a revolutionary period in English football”. “I can’t understand what a younger fellow will be able to do that I couldn’t,” Howe grumbled, before going on to coach elsewhere for another 12 years.
When the Premier League started in 1992 82% of its managers were younger than 50, their average age was 45 and the oldest, Brian Clough, was 57. Now a quarter of English top-flight dugouts shelter coaches older than Clough was then, half are in their second half-century and their average age is 51. Of Europe’s top five leagues, only in the Bundesliga is the average age of current managers below 50.
You don’t get about showing kids how to pass the ball like you used to do. But you’ve still got to find the energy
But as coaches drift towards their dotage some challenges do present themselves. “The thing that concerns you is, sometimes you think you might be out of touch,” says Peter Taylor, who took caretaker charge of Gillingham after Ady Pennock’s departure last month and was at 64 the fourth-oldest manager in the Football League until he left the club on Thursday. “That’s been my only concern; I wouldn’t want any players to look at me and think: ‘What the hell’s he doing in the changing room? He’s miles too old.’ They can look at me and see I’ve got grey hair and a few worry lines, but I’d want them to see I’m on the same wavelength as them, and I honestly think I still am.”
Smith has had to modify his style of coaching since he took his first training sessions very nearly 50 years ago, principally to get other people to do the running about. “At my age, you’ve not got the athleticism,” he says. “I find when I’m coaching on the field, my voice takes over and I can coach like a circus master, from the centre circle. There’s times when you need to get about the field quickly but now I tend to let the younger men do the legwork, and I’ll just supervise.
“You learn to delegate, in other words. You don’t get about showing kids how to pass the ball like you used to do. But you’ve still got to find the energy to do the job, to put the hours in. My wife thinks it’s ridiculous that I can put so many hours in at the stage of life I’m at, but that’s the thing that keeps me bubbling over and fresh. I don’t want to stop coaching – my only regret is that I can’t start all over again.”
Taylor, who has won one of his first four matches since taking over, admits that some of his training sessions might be considered “a bit old school”. “I love being on the training field, and it’s working, that’s for sure,” he says. “Nine times out of 10 the players don’t care who the manager is, they just want to be organised and to know what to do. And I’ll tell you something: I’m definitely a better coach now than when I started. If you’re fit enough to walk around and you can have a relationship with the players, I don’t think there’s an age limit on it to be honest. If you want to keep on doing it into your old age then that’s fantastic, it means you still love the game and that’s brilliant.”
Managers have always fought against the tide of time and to postpone as long as possible the yawning emptiness of retirement. In many ways nothing much has changed, except for how successful they have become at doing so. “I’m probably the oldest manager there is, so I am bound to wonder what is going to happen to me eventually,” said a 58-year-old Alec Stock in 1975, the year he led Fulham to the FA Cup final. “I’ve had a good career, won a lot, never had a team relegated. But experience counts for nothing and that’s why for an old manager like me there’s nowhere to go. No one wants to know our opinion, there’s no House of Lords. What a waste, what a wilderness to be sent to. If that is what’s awaiting me then I’m not going.”
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