Derby drama at Manchester: In search of leadership lessons

December 9, 2012

Football violenceBy LWD armchair reporter Tudor Rickards

An unedited report of the game between Manchester City against Manchester United at the Etiad Stadium, December 9th 2012

Warning to readers: This report will not make much sense to readers who are not football followers. I have tried to indicate CY [City] or MU [Manchester United] to provide a little more information

I noted before the game that Kompany [CY Captain] is going around encouraging players one by one. Good. The game starts with a lot of ugly hacking, more by Utd than City. Rooney MU gets yellow and is in danger of red card. City press hard. Evans MU fouled and injured, but Kompany CY is first to limp off. Rooney scores with weak shot. 1-0 Was Hart CY goalkeeper out of position? Game more even now. Half chances. Then another breakaway, Rooney scores more convincingly this time. 2-0 United

Is it a plan by MU to defend deep and then break? Evans MU limps off. Free kick saved by Goalkeeper de Gea MU . Utd attack. Then another city corner and pressure. Game a bit shapeless. Foul count continues. Now a bit more fouling. Pinball stuff. No obvious calming influence . Scrappy to HT . [This on-line stuff is harder to do than I imagined. Maybe I could try Chess?]

Is leadership mainly from coaches Ferguson MU and Mancini MC? On the field , I realize now, there are few chances for verbal signals by any captain. This game is a wild tactical one, although perhaps the teams have a prearranged plan which may or not be stuck too.

Game increases in intensity. More defensive injuries. Evans MU eventually limps off as Ferdinand MU is also crocked , but stays on.

Cleverley blasts well over the bar for fourth time or so (but playing well otherwise in centre). Sense that neither team will string passes together without making a mistake. 55 min of stop-go rather than non-stop stuff

City scores by Yaya Toure. 1-2 MU. Pinball in the end. Stadium comes alive. Game comes alive. Close calls for a penalty for each side. Much more interesting now. More close calls. Rooney MU gets yellow card. Yaya Toure CY also, and injures himself in process [75 min. } Continues to be end to end. super sub Dzeko CY comes on. And Phil Jones for MU. City score. 2-2.

Even more hectic. Welbeck MU on for Cleverley. More hectic stuff Another foul this time by CY. Van Persie MU scores from free kick. 2 mins to go. 3-2 United.

Extra time [4 min]. Injury to Rio Ferdinand MU by object thrown by a fan. Much blood from above his eye. Game ends. MU players too weary to rejoice [or showing a bit of wisdom?]

Leadership conclusion. I didn’t see much opportunity for leadership from on-field captains. Is the leadership role relatively weak or too subtle for me to see as an armchair follower of the game?


For an excellent analyis of ‘the volcanic rivalry’ between CY and MU see the Telegraph’s account. Now that’s what I call a balanced view.

City fan has recurring nightmare that his team lost the Premiership

May 16, 2012

City fan Eric still has a nightmare that his team lost the race to the Premiership title

Eric was interviewed in Leaders We Deserve some years ago. It was at a time when supporting City was a burden to be carried. Eric was recovering from an era of successive relegations from the Premiership and then the championship. The joy of recovery was tinged with bad memories.

Then it all changed

In the early hours of Monday morning, [14th May 2012] having joined in the first night of celebrations over City’s greatest triumph, he went to bed a contented man.

His worse nightmare

But even at the moment of City’s greatest success, his worse nightmare began. Looking gaunt, he describes his nightly torments:

“I’m back watching the QPR game. We are well in control but not winning. Then Barton gets sent off. They are down to ten men. Even we can’t lose it now. The dream’s so life-like. I’m Pozning with glee.[The Poznan: Curious City celebration, involving synchronized jumping up and down].

Then they break away and score. We are going to lose. In my dream the whole stadium is full of jeering Reds. [gleeful United fans].

Then they score again. We go behind. The Reds are cheering.

We pour back at them. Wave after wave it was. But whatever we do, the goalie pulls off miracle save after save. Now it’s extra time. Only one minute! [here as elsewhere, Eric’s dream is a distortion of reality]. The Etiad [stadium] changes colour from blue to red. The whole sky goes red. The cheering and jeering is dreadful.

I wake up covered in sweat. I can’t believe it’s a dream.

Yesterday I went over to the celebrations at Albert Square. Fantastic. But after when I got home and got to bed, it was that same nightmare. Nothing changed. United win out again.”

True fans have to suffer

A truly sad tale. We send Eric our congratulations and condolences. True fans have to suffer. But not like this.

Sir Alex Ferguson: He’s only human (like Desert Orchid)

January 1, 2012

It was a week when North Korea reported supernatural events on the death of their dear leader. It ended with a reminder at Old Trafford that even great leaders like Sir Alex Ferguson are only human, and will make mistakes from time to time

Let’s make this personal. Susan and I settled down to listen to the game between Manchester United and Blackburn Rovers, the mid-day match on New Year’s eve. The stated odds were twenty to one against a Blackburn Rovers win. For arcane contractual reasons there were no Premier League football matches televised that day.

More injury worries for United

We listened to the team news with surprise but only slight concern. United’s injury problems seemed to have become even worse with makeshift arrangements in defence and mind-field. And the latest casualty was Wayne Rooney, by general agreement United’s most gifted attacking player.
Still, Blackburn Rovers were in turmoil. They were bottom of the league. Their hapless manager was the target of a vociferous campaign to have him sacked. Sir Alex said Rooney would miss the game but would probably be back for the next one. Rooney watched the game from the Directors’ box.

The crowd sang Happy Birthday

The press had built up the occasion as the day when Sir Alex Ferguson would celebrate his seventieth birthday, and when United would leapfrog their ‘noisy neighbours’ Manchester City to head the league table at the start of the New Year.

The nightmare begins

Sometimes you can anticipate when a team that starts badly is going to get worse. This began to seem one of those times. United were playing as if it were only a matter of time before Blackburn would drop out of the two horse race, leaving the thoroughbreds to canter on to the winning post. But Blackburn defended grimly then broke away and scored. “That’s what the neutrals wanted” said the commentator. “Now we’ve got a game on our hands”.

The nightmare continues

At half time the game remained one goal in Blackburn’s favour. United’s patched-up team had begun to run out of attacking ideas. Then the next blow. Another breakaway goal. The inexperienced defence exposed again.

A brief time of hope, and then

Unlike proper nightmares, there was a brief time of hope. United scored within minutes of conceding Blackburn’s second goal. But then the nightmare continued. Yet another piece of poor defending by United and Blackburn score again. The Old Trafford fans were silenced, as their lambs were despatched. The game ended Manchester United 2 Blackburn Rovers 3. “It’s a disaster” said Sir Alex

The story behind the story: bend it like Beckham?

Within hours the story behind the story broke. Wayne Rooney had mightily displeased Sir Alex, and had been dropped as a disciplinary measure. It all sounded a bit like the famous David Beckham episode resulting in Beckham’s injury from a flying boot, not on the field but in the dressing room.

Perhaps coincidentally, Rooney had made a very public joke about that incident a few days earlier. He had also broken the strict training regime having dinner with a few players and wives after the last United match. A confrontation with the notoriously prickly Sir Alex, and some punishment was inevitable.

He’s only human

I couldn’t help remembering the words of a stable girl after another great sporting personality, Desert Orchid, failed surprisingly. “He’s only human” she said in Dessie’s defence.

Maybe we should remember the same point about Sir Alex. Even the greatest leaders sometimes struggle with the dilemmas they have to deal with.

Mark Hughes, Leadership and Governance

December 21, 2009

Mark Hughes’ dismissal as Manchester City Football Club coach appears to have come as a shock to him. The manner of his dismissal offers a case example of leadership and governance issues

This story can be treated as a local level but also one with a global dimension. It has much to do with sport, while at the same time has to do with wider international issues of globalization, and governance of global organizations.

The local story is of a venerable Premier league football team in Manchester England, with its tribal fan base of loyal supporters. Over the years ‘City’ has enjoyed periods of success, which have provided comfort in longer periods of relative lack of it, made worse by the increasing success and wealth of its neighbour, Manchester United.

The Club began to change managers with increasing speed. Heroes from their playing days at the club came and went. Outsiders also came and went, sometimes by mutual consent. Mark Hughes was one such outsider, following the charismatic but ephemeral leadership of Kevin Keegan and Sven Goran Ericsson.

Hughes was considered a promising if inexperienced manager, who had been successful with limited resources at Blackburn and before that as national coach for Wales. His status as a much-loved player at rivals MUFC was only an initial talking point, and he began to earn the respect of the fans after his arrival in 2008.

The takeover

Then an event took place which plucked City out of the also-rans of the Premier league. It was taken over by a Middle-Eastern consortium promising to back the club with unrivalled wealth. The fans, if not the incumbent manager, rejoiced. Hughes went on a spending spree to fufill the ambtions of the new owners.

A Chelsea Rerun?

The story was seized upon as a rerun of the take over of Chelsea, by multi-billionaire Roman Abramovitch. Like City, Chelsea was a club rich in tradition but lightweight in financial backing. Chelsea made it clear that the takeover was to lead to it becoming a super-club which would compete with the world’s glamour elite, Real Madrid, Inter Milan, Barcelona, and of course Manchester United. The outcome for Chelsea has been spectacular improvements in performance at national and European levels. Another outcome has been a managerial roller-coaster including the arrival and departure of the self-styled ‘ Special One’ Jose Mourinho as head coach.

But the City story differed in several respects. Mr Abramovitch is an extremely hands-on owner and football enthusiast. City’s new masters were cooler, more distant. Their regard for City as a symbol of prestige was less blatent. And they signalled intentions to leave their young manager in place.

The Drama unfolds at City

The drama unfolded. Hughes spent big, but failed to attract the very best footballers in the world. In hindsight, Chelsea’s wealth had succeeded more in acquiring an entire squad of strong international figures, rather than super-stars. And Chelsea had a stronger base of such figures to build around in the first place.

Hughes began his first season with an agreed target of success including win/loss figures understandable to any sales director of a retail consortium. The team continued to improve, but a run of drawn games was producing speculation of how long Hughes had at the club. This week in spectacular fashion the answer was revealed.

The Succession Plan

In the manner of big commercial interests, the owners of MUFC had a contingency plan which was being put in place. According to Hughes, while his team were slightly off their agreed points target, its owners had covertly reached an understanding with another manager. Shortly before or after Saturday’s thrilling 4-3 win, [December 19th 2009] Hughes learned his fate. His successor Roberto Mancini was said to be in the crowd.

Disgraceful, unethical, or what?

I have written quite a lot about Mark Hughes in LWD. Recently he seemed to have been under strain in public. Mostly, however, he confirmed a view that his leadership style was non-charismatic but that of a so-called fifth-level leader, of ‘quiet but fierce resolve’.

His statement shortly after his dismissal noted

“Notwithstanding media coverage to the contrary, I was given no forewarning as to the club’s decision … At the beginning of the season, I sat down with the owners and it was agreed that a realistic target for the season would be sixth place in the Premier League, or in the region of 70 points.”

The general view expressed in the media was that The City Board had been hasty and even unethical in their treatment of Hughes. They had not even secured a ‘Special one’ although a highly promising young figure. I leave the matter open for comment.

Jim Cassell’s Leadership Signature at Manchester City’s Football Academy

July 29, 2009
Jim Cassell

Jim Cassell

Jim Cassell helped create the highly successful Football Academy at Manchester City. His work helps us understand the nature of fifh-level leadership

News that Micah Richards had contacted Swine Flu while on holiday, [July 10th 2009] concerned his former mentor Jim Cassell, head of Manchester City’s Football Academy.

A few hours before the flu news news broke, I had interviewed Jim at his Platt Lane office in advance of a presentation he was planning for The Manchester International Festival. He was preparing for his talk on identifying and fostering talent, subjects in which he is highly qualified.

Micah was one of the talented young players who had been at the Academy, and Cassell talked proudly of him, and other emerging stars such as Stephen Ireland, and of his team which won the youth-cup in 2008, beating Chelsea’s top-dollar stars in the final legs of the competition.

The Cassell story

A Times reporter captured the Academy’s achievements [Oct 14th 2007]

Plenty of Premier League academies are more salubrious, many have annual budgets in excess of Platt Lane’s £2m, several boast better facilities, more recruits, bigger staffs. But none can compete with the output of this place.

“We’ve never won a national trophy and yet we have produced more first-team players than any other academy,” says Cassell. “We sacrifice our teams sometimes because the priority is the development of individuals. If after 10 years we had four FA Youth Cups but no players, we wouldn’t have done very well, but we’ve brought through 25 to the first team, 24 of whom are still playing with us or in league football. Six are internationals. We’ve recouped £31m in transfers and, if you add Micah Richards, Michael Johnson, Nedum Onuoha, Kasper Schmeichel and Stephen Ireland, provided another £40m-worth of players for the current City squad.”

Manchester City supporters have been fulsome in their praise of the contribution made by Cassell, who is quick to share credit with his small team of senior coaches.

A former book-keeper and local government officer, Cassell’s playing career lasted only two games [at Bury, a nearby regional club] in the mid-1960s.

One report explains why:

After doing some scouting work [for Oldham, another local club] he was appointed chief scout at City under Joe Royle [English International and then Manager of Manchester City].

When Royle brought him to City in 1997 Cassell set about re-organising the youth set-up. In Blue Moon: Down among the dead men at City, author Mark Hodkinson describes him as ‘thoughtful and shrewd, candid and friendly, immaculate in a suit and tie and wire-framed glasses, the original Gentleman Jim’. The following summer he presented a 51-page dossier to new chairman David Bernstein and the board. According to Hodkinson, it revealed ‘a club run by people without real job specifications, where the hierarchical structure was muddled and essential facilities had to be borrowed, or were missing altogether’. Bernstein spent £500,000 to implement the reforms, which might be the shrewdest investment the club has ever made. Cassell’s first coup was picking up a 15-year-old Shaun Wright Phillips, who had been released by Forest, and he is responsible for signing Micah Richards from Oldham’s youth academy aged 14.

Cassell’s leadership methods

Cassell leaves a consistent impression on friends, colleagues, and journalists who have turned up at Platt Lane to report on the Academy and its founder. It is reflected in the interviews quoted here, and in my own meetings with him. You could say that he has a consistent leadership signature, authentic and hard to simulate.

Signature leadership is becoming part of the leadership development vocabulary. In absence of a more thorough survey, I would attribute its growing popularity to derive from the work of the Sloane School (MIT) and its Four Capabilities Framework.

This framework is also a good starting point to the related ideas of distributed leadership. It claims that it can:

… help leaders discover their unique Change Signature – the leader’s credo and characteristic way of creating change. Each leader’s signature draws upon his or her values, skills, experience, tactics, and personality in order to build trust, respect, and authenticity.

The fifth-level leader

I was also reminded of a famous quote about fifth-level leaders, who are becoming recognized as more successful in building effective organizations than the turbo-boost results and ego-driven efforts of many charismatic leaders. Probably it’s a coincidence that Leaders we deserve identified Manchester City’s manager Mark Hughes as a fifth-level leader before he joined the club. His style has seen him survive serious corporate turbulence which would have hastened the departure of a manager with a more volatile style and a more abrasive relationship with the owner and board.

The debate over charismatic and fifth level leaders will continue, as there is a need for more and more careful studies of context, leadership styles, and effectiveness.


Thanks to Olivia Day, World Academy of Sport for arranging the interview with Jim Cassell. To The Manchester International Festival and The Executive Centre at Manchester Business School for the opportunity to discuss identification of talent with Jim and other distinguished panellists from industry, academia and government.

Conversations with a city supporter 24 hours before takeover

September 2, 2008

You may remember Eric the blue from an earlier post. He was my sole window into the happenings at Manchester City Football Club. This year, by the way, he will be joined by Dominic who will offer another seasoned ticket-holder’s views.

It so happened that I bumped into Eric on Sunday, when all was relatively calm in the world of Manchester City. If you count as calm the situation of a club having an owner Thaksin Shinawatrafacing rather nasty criminal charges in Thailand.

“I think he’s in for the long term” I offered. Not meaning a prison sentence. I thought maybe Thaksin would prefer Manchester to non-optional accomodation at the pleasure of the Thai military.

“Maybe” said Eric, sounding less than convinced.

“Hughes has bought some good players” I added.

“Maybe”, said Eric, still less than enthusiastic.

“It could be worse. It’s worse for Gordon Brown, and the mayor of New Orleans”. (Hurricane Gustav was about to reach the gulf, and mayor Nagin had ordered a full evacuation of New Orleans).

I could have mentioned that it was getting worse for Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej of Thailand as well.

Can’t remember if Eric thought it was maybe better to be Mark Hughes or Mayor Ray Nagin

A new day dawns

A new day dawns. Sean Wright-Philips had returned to City from Chelsea, and had a happy debut scoring two goals at Sunderland
Overnight, the main football stories were around two big signings that were still hanging in the balance. Tottenham were holding out for last minute concessions from Manchester United over the sale of Dimitar Berbatov. Likewise Real Madrid over Robinho’s move to Chelsea. In organizational terms these were big deals by big players. The transfer window sets up conditions for last-minute barrow-boy stuff. The media plays its part in creating and distributing information in various lucrative ways. The information is utterly dubious for the most part.

Oh, Happy Day

Twenty fours later and Man city’s sporting destiny was turned upside-down. A well-concealed deal had been brokered. Thaksin had flogged the club (barring a little matter of due diligence) to Abu Dhabi United Group (ADUG) which would see the seriously wealthy Arab company taking a majority stake in the club.

Thaksin has cut a deal to become honorary chairman of the club and retain a minority shareholding. Dr Sulaiman Al-Fahim of ADUG intends to turn City into a top-four Premiership club within three seasons.

We must be dreaming

The dream lives on. Hardly had the news of the takeover been announced, when Chelsea confirm they were close to signing the unsettled Robinho from Real Madrid.

Could it get better?

Yes it could. Hours later the news that Tottenham had been approached by City and accepted a deal for Berbatov. First wealth beyond reason. Then some of it immediately put to wondrous use, and screwing-up United’s plans as bonus.

The hoardings outside newsagents in Manchester read City: We are the richest club in the world

Dreams end at midnight

This one almost did. 1am Greenwich Mean Time to be precise, the deadline ending the summer transfer window. But despite the earlier news, what was this? Berbatov in defiance of the deal claimed by City and Tottenham was undergoing a medical at Old Trafford. With minutes to spare, news reports confirmed he had signed for …United.

The Dream Lives on

But cometh the dawn and the dream mostly lives on. The news Hoardings still say City is the richest club in the world. And Robinho was coming. For a British league transfer record fee of over £34 million.

Leadership lessons

Might the delaying tactics of Tottenham (towards Manchester United) and Real Madrid (towards Chelsea) be because both clubs were aware of the takeover plans at Manchester City?

Give me time to think. I need a new deadline on this one …