Historically, Scottish football has been dominated by the two Glasgow clubs, Celtic and Rangers. The battles between the so-called Old Firm have the added passion of a sectarian split between Catholic Celtic and Protestant Rangers. In the last decade, the fortunes of Rangers have declined. Under such circumstances leadership battles are as inevitable as the other on and off pitch struggles. In the most recent crisis at Rangers, chief coach Le Guen removed the on-field leadership from local hero Barry Ferguson, and was then himself fired. The episode echoes other football stories of a manager confronting what is seen as a damaging drinking culture among the players.
Rangers and Celtic divide
The wider rivalry between Glasgow Rangers and Glasgow Celtic has been a dominant theme in writings about Scottish culture, the Protestant Catholic divide, sectarianism, football violence and much more beside. One further episode can hardly shed a great deal of light on the nature of the historic divide. However, the episode can hardly be understood without reference to the wider historic perspective of what has been described as the World’s most passionate feud.
The current leadership battles at Rangers
The current leadership battles at Rangers have come to a head over the last two weeks. The story has been billed as a struggle between an authoritarian French coach, and a drinking culture. A BBC account of the Rangers leadership battles noted
‘On one side was an authoritarian French manager used to having the final word and working with clean-living, tee-total players .. On the other was a passionate Scottish captain who enjoyed talismanic status with the fans and liked to work hard and play hard’.
It is not hard to find parallels. The article mentioned two that involved high profile French coaches addressing alcohol problems on arriving to manage English clubs. A French football journalist who is very close to Le Guen told BBC Sport:
“He would have liked the players to stop drinking alcohol – it was a big problem for him. Arsene Wenger discovered the same problem when he arrived at Arsenal ..one of Gerard Houllier’s first acts at Liverpool was to ban alcohol on the team bus.”
An earlier story that has entered folklore has the young Alex Ferguson (not unknown for enjoying a drink himself) arriving at Manchester United and acting swiftly to deal with a drinking culture at the club.
Wenger and Ferguson succeeded gloriously. Houllier briefly survived at Liverpool but eventually departed the club with more regrets that recriminations, from fans and commentators.
Leadership battles against the prevailing culture
The stories illustrate a recurrent leadership challenge for football managers which they share with business leaders. In particular, they address the topic of transformational leadership . Arriving from the outside, the leader sees clearly the urgent need to confront a dysfunctional culture. The efforts may or may not be rewarded with success, but they have to be tried. For Le Guen, the struggle seems to have been in vain.
The parallel may also be made with transformational political leaders. A recent example would be Tony Blair’s efforts to rescue the British Labour movement from a culture that made it nearly unelectable, and the emergence of New Labour.