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Developing Mindsets Community Integration

United! United! Football Managers’ Extraordinary Power to Unite a City

Blake Richardson spoke to Manchester United’s Head of First Team Development Nicky Butt to explore the special relationship football managers and football clubs have with their local community. A United midfield legend during Sir Alex Ferguson’s illustrious reign, Butt knows from personal experience that delivering success on the pitch sets in motion a positive ripple effect off it that brings cheer to people’s lives

If we hadn’t played well in a game we would get a rollicking from Sir Alex, who would tell us we had a duty to entertain the fans because they were spending their hard-earned money every week to come and watch us play football. He would really drum it into us how much the local community cared about the club and how we can affect their week.”

– Nicky Butt

Professional football is often derided, largely because of the exorbitant wages and extravagant lifestyles enjoyed by the top players. As such, while rarely out of the spotlight themselves, the positive impact that football managers have on their local communities can pass under the radar. 

The fact is, they play a pivotal role in enriching the lives of the fans who pour their money, heart and soul into supporting their local club. 

This article argues that the best football managers, like the best coaches in any sport, are a force for good in our communities.

It is, without a shadow of doubt, one of the most stressful professions on the planet. 

Premature greying of the hair is one of the more trivial pitfalls of the job; rocketing cortisol levels a far more serious hazard.

Job security is practically zero. Indeed, the average tenure of a football manager in the Premier League and Football League is a smidgeon over a year… and falling.

The heavy weight of expectation is unremitting, by virtue of the unreasonably high bar set by passionate fans and financially driven chairmen and owners and fueled by the fickle nature of the national media. It means even the most successful managers are only ever a few bad results away from the sack. 

Win, and inevitably it is the action of the players on the pitch that has determined the outcome of the match. Lose, and the blame falls squarely at the manager’s feet. 

Football managers have the unique ability to turn cheers to jeers and plummet from hero to villain, and back again, several times in one 45-minute half of football.

Which is all a roundabout way of saying, who’d be a football manager? Who’d want to permanently tread this finest of lines between success and failure?

And yet… and yet! 

Not only can results break you, they can also make you.

For those managers who get the great coaching formula right consistently over the course of several seasons, they can leave a legacy that transcends time. 

Just as football clubs and playing legends are woven into the fabric of a city’s cultural identity, so the club’s greatest managers can become iconic figures, with their place in the hearts of the community immortalised in bronze outside stadiums – and, increasingly, in the documentaries menu in Netflix!

When you think about it… when you really take the time to think about it, the power football managers command to uplift, to inspire, to unite a town, a city, a global fan-base, is quite extraordinary.

Mancunian born and bred, Nicky Butt has a long and glorious relationship with Manchester United: a legend as a player, having won six Premier League titles, three FA Cups and the UEFA Champions League, and more recently the Head of Manchester United’s Academy, Butt – who also made 39 appearances for England – worked closely with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as Head of First Team Development.

As someone who lives and breathes the beautiful game, and as a football club owner himself (he co-owns League Two side Salford City with fellow Red Devils Hall of Famers David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Gary and Phil Neville) he knows the importance of managers and clubs completing the treble. That is:

  • delivering success
  • embracing the club’s identity and heritage 
  • forming an emotional connection with the people of the city. 

Building a relationship with the fans and the community was something Sir Alex was obsessed about,” says Butt.

Much, much more than an effective motivational tool employed to elevate performance levels, Sir Alex, says Butt, passionately believed every word he was saying.

“I was very fortunate to play under Sir Alex for so many years and he would be forever drilling home the importance of the fans – in training, in the dressing room before and after matches.

From an early age the players were told about the impact that winning a game and playing the right style of football would have on the community.”

Even the blue contingent of Manchester will begrudgingly admit that few managers, if any, have had such an immensely positive impact on the lives of people living in the city as Sir Alex, who was a champion on the pitch and a community champion off it. 

A players’ perspective

Butt has met thousands of United fans over the years for whom football is not so much a recreation as a religion. 

Those fans who bleed the colours of their team, whose club crests are forever inked in their hearts: they root for the club because the club is rooted in their community.

Football is a way out for people. Going to the match on a Saturday afternoon to watch with your kids, your family or your friends, it can lift everybody, and it helps you forget about all the negative things that are going on in your life,” says Butt.

“I remember when I first started playing, we had fans on the side-lines watching us train. The former training ground, The Cliff, had a history to it where the working class fans who lived in the area would come and watch the Busby Babes train. You felt part of that history.”

Butt felt the same infectious enthusiasm from the fans during his days as a Newcastle player, and the same sense of responsibility.

“They are another very passionate fan-base. So, if you go out on a Saturday night for a bite to eat, you can see what it means to the community when you are on a roll and playing football the right way. There is a feel-good factor; a buzz in the air. And on the flip side, if you’re having a bad run, you can see that people are feeling down.”

Former Liverpool and Newcastle boss Rafa Benitez understood the mutual benefit of club and community working together. One of the few managers in modern times to be hero-worshipped by two sets of supporters, he told the North East Times:

“I have visited a number of the [Newcastle] landmarks and tried to experience as much of the culture as possible. I believe it is important to embrace a city and its people, and I am grateful to have such a positive relationship with our fantastic supporters… the connection between the club and its community needs to be strong – we want everybody to be working together and helping each other.”

Butt agrees with that sentiment 100 per cent. The support has to work both ways: “Managers definitely need to build a connection between the club and its community. If you buy into the community – which I did as a player, buying a house in Newcastle and moving my family up there – it helps you build a relationship with the fans. 

“Geordies are fantastic people and absolutely football mad. When they come up to you if you’re out and about, you soon learn that it’s not that they are being disrespectful, it’s just they are so passionate about their football. The club means everything to them. It’s the same in Manchester. I’ve been retired 15 years but, if I go out in the city centre for a coffee, people still want to shake my hand and speak about the old days. And it’s a really nice feeling.”

United in a common cause

Butt says he fully supports the UK Coaching Week ethos, having been a beneficiary of great coaching himself growing up in the Manchester United youth team.

“The coaches who helped me and my lot through [the so-called Class of 92, or Fergie’s Fledglings, as this golden generation are commonly referred] were great coaches but they were much more than that. They were also counsellors, teachers, your second parents if you like. 

Brian Kidd, Jim Ryan and Eric Harrison were great role models. I got taught football from them for a few hours a week, but they taught me to become a person, a man, a decent human being,” says Butt in a ringing endorsement of a person-centred approach to coaching, and the need to understand and connect with your participants on a deep level if you are to help them thrive as people as well as performers.

That formula is a massive part of this club as well. It produces good, humble people, who become better players, become better role models for your club and become the baton carriers for the next generation of Academy players that come along so they can carry on the tradition.

“You try and create good footballers for sure, but you also want to create good people, good human beings, who stay here for years and years and who epitomise what the club stands for.”

‘The whole city changed that day’

There’s a very good reason why so many clubs use the suffix United in their team name. 

United means “joined together for a common purpose, or by common feelings”. Fans of Leeds, and the other 11 Premier League and English Football League clubs who bear the name, may beg to differ, but the Red Devils have become ubiquitous with the epithet ‘United’.

And united with the fans is exactly what Butt felt after every victory, but none more so than when the club won the league title in the 1992-93 season – ending an interminable 26-year wait but also marking the end of Liverpool’s era of dominance. The sense of affinity he felt with the supporters was particularly strong that day. 

It is one time I remember the city just lifting through football. I was in the stand watching, as I wasn’t part of the first-team squad, and the whole city just changed that day. We became an elite team again. We had a night out together and the whole city was bouncing. From then on, we knew we were going to become a super-power under Sir Alex.

“You can say that about City now. For so many years they were behind United and now they’ve come good, and you can see the lift it has given the blue half of Manchester. For the city to have two such massive powers is amazing.”

To achieve long-lasting success in any club you need great coaching running from the top all the way down, however Butt attributes the lion’s share of credit for United’s incredible achievements to one man.

“Of course you need great backroom staff but fundamentally it has to stem from the main person in charge and they have to put a philosophy in place and be meticulous with that philosophy. 

“Sir Alex came and changed the whole recruitment area, the whole Academy coaching syllabus, got the best scouts on to the parks and put together an unbelievable coaching staff.”

A club built on solid Foundations

Nicky Butt coached United's reserve team before being appointed Head of Academy

The Manchester United Foundation looks after the club’s charitable activities, running a range of programmes for young people living in deprived areas of the city, including educational projects aimed at improving confidence, life skills and employability.

The Foundation further cements the club’s close links with the community, and is something Sir Alex encouraged his players to get involved in.

In his No 1 best-selling book ‘Leading’, Sir Alex writes: “Most of our charitable work was done close to home because we wanted to be good citizens and demonstrate that we cared about people all around Manchester.”

Butt said attending Foundation events was a rewarding experience: “We did what we could whenever time allowed, in between weekend league matches, Champions League, international breaks.

“The most enjoyable thing for me was visiting the schools and delivering presents to the sick children at Christmas and seeing their faces light up. 

“That’s an important thing for players to do because, even more so now, footballers – because of the status people impose on them – become isolated from society and are more distanced from working class people. But most of the players I’ve come across are genuinely nice human beings who want to help. They are painted in the media as unapproachable but that’s not true. Some footballers may earn unbelievable sums of money, but they still have a heart.”

Football: The ‘wonder drug’

The case has been made that management is a precarious business, with governments reshuffling their cabinet ministers less often than football boardrooms seem to reshuffle their managers.

The players may be the ones taking the shots, but the managers are the ones calling the shots. And as the masterminds pulling the strings, the buck stops with them when results tail off.

But the toughest challenges bring the greatest rewards. And few other jobs can generate such a feeling of euphoria when things are going well.

That feel-good factor spreads rapidly around the city – and, for a club of United’s stature, around the globe.

As a regular and reliable source of entertainment and excitement, football is pure escapism. 

Particularly in the era of Covid, the extreme highs – and even the extreme lows that are an inevitable side-effect of being a football supporter – is a welcome release from the health, social and economic consequences of coronavirus. 

If, through harnessing the power of great coaching, in all its different forms, managers can lift the spirits of the fans and the local community, then it follows that football managers, and football in general, should be recognised and respected as a core part of the solution to the long-term health and well-being outcomes of the nation.

Manchester United Great Coaching Stories

United’s Academy Operations Manager Nick Cox discusses the importance of player welfare at football academies in this powerful feature.

Read it here

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