Another level

By: League Managers Association

Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink has managed in all three tiers of the English Football League and won the League Two title with Burton Albion. Now manager of Northampton Town, he faces one of his biggest challenges.

There are some sports clubs and teams that, like a particular course intake or the staff of a high-flying business, seem to breed a disproportionate number of success stories. Whether because of incredible leadership or a powerful snowball effect, whereby someone’s drive and ambition spreads through the group, the reasons aren’t always clear.

Out of the Chelsea football team of the 2000-01 season, seven players went on to manage at clubs in England and Spain and another five have worked as elite level coaches. Even taking into account the fact that the age and experience of the squad was relatively high, it’s a figure that surprises even its members.

Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink can see it now, the potential that team mates such as Gustavo Poyet, Gianfranco Zola and Robbie Di Matteo had to lead and manage, but at the time he was so focused on scoring goals that it barely crossed his mind.

AN INSPIRED MOVE

Hasselbaink’s interest in moving to the dugout came only after he had called time on his highly successful 18-year career as a striker, playing for clubs in the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and England. One of his most successful periods in the Premier League was with Chelsea, playing under Gianluca Vialli and Claudio Ranieri, and it was at the London club that his interest in a career in coaching was first able to grow roots.

“While studying for my A and B Licences, Chelsea allowed me to get some experience coaching the Under 17s,” says Hasselbaink, who also coached at the Nike Academy. “Then, in 2011, Steve McClaren invited me to become his first team coach at Nottingham Forest.”

This time with McClaren, who he describes as a “brilliant coach”, was particularly important to Hasselbaink because he gained in experience and developed his own style – but, he says, he learned something from all of the coaches and managers he worked with and played under. “Watching people like Van Gaal, Frank Rijkaard and Claudio Ranieri as a player, and then later working with coaches such as Sean O’Driscoll and Steve Cotterill, you take a lot from that,” he says. “Everyone has their own way of doing things and you don’t want to copy it, but instead you want to be a sponge, to learn as much as possible from the experience, take ideas and inspiration and then do it your own way.”

If Hasselbaink and his Chelsea team mates had expected any kind of advantage in coaching from their years in elite football, they may have been disappointed. As he discovered, successful management requires a whole new skill set. “Yes, you know about football, you know what the rules are, but now you’re a teacher,” he says. “You have to see the psychological side of the game, motivate the players and help them believe in themselves and in you. There are so many sides to the job.”

SCALING THE LEAGUE

Hasselbaink’s first opportunity to manage came when, after working in McClaren’s coaching staff at the City Ground for several years, he was appointed to lead Royal Antwerp, a club that had just been relegated to the Belgian Second Division. After a confident start, including making a number of important signings, Hasselbaink achieved an impressive seventh-place finish in the 2013-14 season before moving to League Two side Burton Albion.

A great start, which saw him nominated for League Two Manager of the Month, turned into an incredible season, culminating in the League Two title and promotion to League One for the first time in the Burton’s history. He was also nominated for the LMA League Two Manager of the Year award. Hasselbaink credits at least some of that success to the environment of stability and calm that he found at the club, and having achieved so much in such a short space of time, he looks back on the experience with great pride.

It meant that when the opportunity to manage at Championship side Queens Park Rangers came knocking, he was faced with a tough choice. “It was a difficult decision, but I felt I had to do it, because I didn’t know if such an opportunity would ever come again,” he says. “It felt like the right thing to do.”

Despite being unable to repeat the level of success that he’d seen at Burton with his new side, Hasselbaink has no regrets about making the move. “My time with Burton was magnificent, but I know that if I’d stayed there I   would never have learned what I learned at QPR in the Championship, I would never have seen and experienced what I did there,” he says. “I believe you have to take positives from every stage in your career and I’m sure I became a better manager from that experience.”

He is also proud to have left the Staffordshire club with solid foundations, upon which current manager Nigel Clough was able to build and achieve a second promotion, this time to the Championship. “I’m very happy for both the club and the manager,” says Hasselbaink.

FLEXING HIS STYLE

Having, by this point in his career, managed in three tiers of the EFL, and played at the very highest level, including in international and European competitions, Hasselbaink has experienced the full gamut of players and challenges.

“Everything is quicker, the higher up you go,” he says. “So mistakes are punished quicker, and players are fitter and faster. Teams are also more organised and harder to break down and the expectations of the crowds are higher.” And for a manager, he adds, that’s great. “That’s the challenge, because you want to compete at the highest level, so your standards have to be high and you have to prepare better.”

Working with the players, though, is similarly challenging whether you’re in League One or the Championship, he says. “It’s not the level that makes a difference, it’s the fact that every player is unique. While you might be able to go into things in a little more depth with players in the higher levels, you’re working with so many cultures that you have to understand each individual player’s needs and break down your messages so that they can understand it. You have to be flexible. That’s where the manager’s full skill set comes to the fore.”

From his experiences as a player, Hasselbaink has seen first-hand just the kinds of cultural differences that can exist from one league to the next and just how useful it can be as a manager to be aware of them. “If you work in Holland, for example, everything is about the attack,” he says. “People want to see good football, but they also give managers more time. If you work in Belgium, meanwhile, the majority of play is defensive and there’s a lot of counter-attack, but managers aren’t given so much time to get results.

“Then, of course, there is England, where the game has become driven by results, and there are both attacking and defensive teams,” he adds. “The kick and rush is fast leaving the game as more and more clubs are focusing on trying to develop and educate their players.”

The average tenure of managers, though, is getting shorter, and Hasselbaink considers with frustration the often conflicting demands on clubs and their managers.

“This is still the best country to work in, but we have to take a reality check and ask what is most important to us,” he says. “If we want to get our sides promoted then we can’t necessarily develop and sell our players. The objective has to be more realistic, because you can’t have it both ways.”

LOOKING FOR A LIFT

Appointed as manager of League One side Northampton Town in September 2017, Hasselbaink is now settled into his new surroundings and implementing his plans to reboot the struggling club.

“When I came to Northampton we had no points, but I made a good start and we’re working hard to get out of the bottom four and then stay out,” he says.

Needless to say, rebuilding the side’s self-confidence was high on Hasselbaink’s priority list in his first 60 days. “We’ve done this, in part, by giving the players more responsibility and boosting their belief that they are better than where they are at the moment,” he says. “We also want them to feel appreciated as individuals and to be able to express themselves. That’s essential. There’s plenty of discipline here, but we want them to put their own gravy on top of that, because we have some very talented players. We need everyone to be able to express themselves as individuals while still playing in a way that gets results for the team.”

That play, he explains, involves being a more solid side that’s harder to break down. “We’re working really hard on our shape and putting as much pressure on the opposition half as possible to take the load off our defence,” he says.

After a tough spell, the side is gaining in confidence and team spirit, and the players, like their manager, are determined to keep improving. “Everybody knows what they have to do and we’re going to keep on growing.”

Currently completing the LMA Diploma in Football Management while managing at Northampton, Hasselbaink has his work cut out this season to fulfil his ambitions on and off the pitch. “It’s very hard to find the time,” he admits, having started the course before his appointment in September, “but it’s important because I want to improve my knowledge as much as I can for the job.

“That knowledge comes not only from the course itself, but also from being surrounded by other people, people who have different ideas and perspectives and different ways of doing things. I want to be the best I can be and in the future to go as high as I can as a manager, to challenge myself. There are few better ways to do that.”