The challenges America’s first Premier League manager faced are far from unique
A full Premier League season, which clocks in at 38 matches, is far from the most satisfying of sample sizes. This allows for plenty of weird and interesting things to happen but it’s hard to be absolutely sure exactly how good most of the participants actually are. This is not a problem for most neutrals insofar as variance is exciting. If, however, you are a manager and consequently only have a couple months to prove your worth, you might reasonably claim that bosses never truly know what they have.
That is, of course, the nature of the beast. America’s very own Bob Bradley, who lasted all of 11 matches with Swansea before getting canned, might have expected a bit more leeway but cannot be surprised that it came to this. The Swans’ dismal run was probably a combination of a bad team and a manager who wasn’t up to the task—at least not yet. This story consequently reveals little about its characters’ talent levels. American fandom’s experience watching one of their own go through the ringer, however, has been instructive.
If you are upset about the treatment of Bob Bradley, I suggest that you not think of his experience as a story about anti-American prejudice directed at one man. Rather, it is a useful opportunity to understand nativism and the disproportionate barriers all but a select cadre of individuals regularly face in a variety of situations.
Bob Bradley will not, in all likelihood, be managing in the Premier League again anytime soon. This is, on the one hand, completely understandable: His team conceded goals like they were cheaper by the dozen. It is, however, worth remembering that the Premier League is full of managerial retreads who, for long stretches of their careers, flit from one ignominious stint to the next: your Allardyces, Redknapps, and Bruces. As in electoral politics, significant doses of failure are not always disqualifying. It seems reasonable to expect that Alan Pardew’s annus horribilis will not preclude his future employment in the way that Bob Bradley’s godawful three months most likely will.
This dynamic tells us less about Bradley than it does about Pardew, and what might be called the Proper Football Men. Every country has its own version of this character—the type of person who has been around football and has plenty in common with owners, media types, and certain players. Soccer is not actually a particularly inventive field: conforming to the mental image others hold of a manager might be the single most valuable professional asset. Proper Football Men are invariably from the country in which they manage because they can therefore be said to understand local vagaries and come with pre-existing connections. The system is largely self-perpetuating because it is localized. It is also not wholly distinguishable from other forms of nativism.
There is room for creativity in a world of Proper Football Men, but individuals who break the mold are held to a higher standard. An innovative manager has to win at a high rate to avoid being labelled a charlatan. A Proper Football Man, on the other hand, can build a long career out of mediocrity. Premier League history is rife with mediocre foreign managers who enjoyed six unimpressive months in England before being shunted back to Spain or Italy, where they got to be Proper Football Men and move from one gig to the next. This structure ends up being reified in the league table, where the excellence of outsiders is consolidated at the top and the Proper Football Men’s mediocrity marks the lower half. A system that only rewards most participants for their excellence while making the mediocrity of a select few profitable is fundamentally unjust.
The apotheosis of these phenomena is Tim Sherwood, a one-man answer to the question “What if you created a Proper Football Man and manager in a lab but forgot to imbue him with any managerial skill to speak of?” He looked the part. He talked the part. He, like his charges, had played in the Premier League. He could relate to its fans. These are, to be sure, all useful qualities for a manager to possess. Yet stubble, affability, and biographical entries do not a good manager make. Generously speaking, Tim Sherwood was a man with no real tactical ideas who talked a big game at Tottenham and had plenty of friends in the media. He somehow parlayed this into an extension of his caretaker status and, after being fired, another managerial gig with Aston Villa.
Sherwood, in effect, had all the qualities that Bob Bradley lacked. One might reasonably argue that neither ought to manage at the highest level, but that doesn’t change the fact that they were treated differently. Sherwood was afforded a benefit of the doubt that was not extended to Bradley. The thing about the benefit, however, is that it’s not extended to most people. American audiences were particularly attuned to the slights towards Bradley’s accent and nomenclature, but most managers who don’t fit the Proper Football Man mold get a similar version of this treatment. Questions are raised about their ability to adapt to the league as if adaptability isn’t a basic managerial skill. Cultural gaffes, like the ways they address fans, are endlessly parsed. Winning can overcome these factors, but the bar is higher for all but the Proper Football Men.
At this juncture, it’s probably worth noting that virtually all of England’s Proper Football Men, and, as a result, managers, are white. According to research conducted by the Sports People’s Think Tank, 4.1% of coaches in Britain’s top-four divisions were from black, Asian, and minority ethnic [BAME] backgrounds in 2016. That number has held constant in recent years. It’s an unimpressive figure that gets worse when you compare it to the playing population as opposed to national population. Management, unlike playing, remains incredibly white profession. Looking the part can, at times, be a painfully literal concept. This is seen as much in the distribution of second chances as it is in the apportioning of first starts. By the by, bookies have much longer odds on veteran manager Chris Hughton taking over the Swans than Steven Gerrard, whose managerial experience is limited to managing to cash cheques for two years in MLS.
A system does not need overt or explicit discrimination to be a locus of inequity. Indeed, the Proper Football Man phenomenon is strong in large part because it is abstract. Qualities like “he understands players” are hard to measure and can be ascribed to just about anyone. In that respect, the Proper Football Men function like a self-policing cartel. This allows for the sort of hypocrisy wherein Bob Bradley is an inexperienced manager and Ryan Giggs, who has managed four matches (three more than affairs with his brother’s wife), is qualified. The malleability of terms also makes it hard to police nativism in hiring. People rarely say “let’s not hire him because he is American/black/gay/etc.” Instead, these concepts are baked into vague ideas like relatability. Even in the USA, where there is a bit more policy to address this, the NFL’s Rooney Rule only accounts for who gets interviewed and not who gets hired. Jobs with vague descriptions, like that of a football manager, can easily perpetuate the reign of self-serving groups.
Little can be done for Bob Bradley at this point. He had his chance—aided, one must note, by his Americanness; It cuts both ways. But there will be other managerial candidates—and not just Americans—who will fall right on the line between good enough and not making the cut. They, too, will run into the same challenges of not being Proper Football Men. American soccer fandom can use this experience to think about systems — in soccer and other fields; in Britain and everywhere else—that reward specific forms of mediocrity while being extremely discerning with regards to other participants. There was no major anti-American campaign against Bob Bradley because Bob Bradley simply isn’t that special to the rest of the world. Instead, what American soccer witnessed in recent months was a common form of nativism that will still be around when Californians stop waking up in the middle of the night to watch Swansea. Addressing those structures—and not the treatment of a solitary, well-compensated man—should be the focus of soccer fans going forward.