The Manager is Fired, Long Live the Manager: Characteristics of Managers in the SPFL

Before we were unsure of whether or not Mark Warburton had actually resigned or not, the last controversy surrounding a Scottish football manager involved 30-year-old Ian Cathro and his MacBook. Pundits and players alike told the young Hearts manager that he did not have the experience required to lead an SPFL club. Kilmarnock striker Kris Boyd was one of the most adamant in saying that Cathro was not up to snuff, seemingly based on one interaction at a coaching license course both were enrolled in. Boyd held this opinion despite Cathro’s time at Valencia and Newcastle United.

Cathro 3

There have been plenty of pieces both for and against Cathro all making similar laptop jokes (and my twitter account is as guilty as any on this count), but the point that struck me in reading these articles was the discussion of Cathro’s lack of experience. As if the experience of working as an assistant manager in Spain and England, as well as a coach at Dundee United, didn’t count

But rather than put out another 1,000 words on whether Cathro is experienced enough or not, I was curious to find out what type of experience the typical SPFL manager came into their position’s with. So I looked at every manager for all of the SPFL Premiership clubs currently in the top flight for the past 15 years to see if there were any clear patterns.


If time coaching in Scotland, the English Championship and La Liga in Spain were not enough for the likes of Boyd, what exactly were they looking for? Boyd indicated that someone like Cathro could not command the respect of a SPFL dressing room, since he had no experience of being in one.

Looking at the managers for the SPFL clubs the past 15 years, 93% of them had previously played professionally before heading into coaching. In addition, 75% of them had played at some level in Scotland.

The idea that a manager needs to have played professionally is, quite frankly, a bemusing one. You only need to look at the likes of Brendan Rodgers to see that an illustrious playing career has no effect on the success of a manager. Rodgers was involved in playing football until he was 20, but then a knee injury cut his career short before he had the chance to make any senior professional appearances. Yet despite this lack of playing experience no one seems to question if Rodgers can “motivate the lads”.

Manager Graph


The next most common characteristic SPFL managers have is their nationality. Now, it is not surprising that 73% of managers in Scotland’s top flight are Scottish. However, 89% of all the managers for the clubs in the top flight have been Scottish, English or Northern Irish. There are certainly some differences in styles of play and philosophies between these 79 managers, but for the most part they are not bringing many innovations or different philosophies to Scottish football. This was one of the most bemusing parts of the whole Cathro sideshow. Ian Cathro is Scottish! Yet for some reason, those opposed to his appointment at Hearts saw him as an “outsider”.

There was a sideshow element to what exactly was going on at Ibrox with Mark Warburton’s “resignation”, but like every previous time a manager left a club in Scotland, the bookies soon released the odds for who will become the next manager of Rangers. Unsurprisingly, the list included many of the same names that appear every time there is a managerial opening in Scotland.

Looking at the data for the last 15 years, another pre-requisite of becoming an SPFL manager seems to be having managed in the league before. 61% of managers appointed had previous experience in charge of a SPFL club, 67% had some other form of coaching experience in Scotland and 63% had managed somewhere else in the UK before taking charge in the SPFL.

Yet again, these numbers suggest that clubs are emphasizing experience in Scotland over new ideas and innovations. With Scottish football – from the national team to European club competitions – seemingly in a rut, perhaps it is time for clubs to start taking a chance on a manager with new ideas rather than the same names that always pop up?

Over the past 15 years, managers at the SPFL Premiership clubs have been in charge at their clubs on average for 2.38 years. Turnover is high for managers in all leagues across the globe, that is just the (perhaps inefficient) reactionary way of life in football. But with Scottish football falling behind in Europe, why don’t more clubs try something different than a Scottish former pro footballer who has managed and been sacked by another SPFL club?

The two biggest clubs in Scotland, Celtic and Rangers, both employed a manager from outside of Scotland and most would say their time managing in Scotland saw “mixed results”. Paul LeGuen had won the French league and brought Lyon to the quarterfinals of the Champions League before he took over at Rangers. However, he struggled to get results domestically with Rangers and clashed with club captain Barry Ferguson. LeGuen supposedly tried to bring different training methods to Rangers that Ferguson did not agree with and the Frenchman only was in charge at Ibrox for 31 matches.


Ronny Deila won the SPFL twice and the Scottish League Cup once in his time at Celtic. However, during his reign he seemed to have trouble getting SPFL veterans like Kris Commons, Charlie Mulgrew, and Scott Brown to buy into his methods. that was seen as quite uncommon in Scotland. When Celtic lost on penalties to Rangers in last season’s Scottish Cup semi-final, Deila’s time at Celtic effectively ended. Like LeGuen, Deila struggled to implement his ideas with veteran Scottish players and if the opinions of Kris Boyd are representative of most SPFL players, it is not hard to see why.

With Scottish football in the doldrums over the past years, it is time for attitudes to change. New ideas are needed at every level of Scottish football. SPFL clubs need to look outside the same type of manager in order for things to improve. Limiting your pool of management options to ex-pros from Scotland who have managed in the league before, as nearly 60% of managers at SPFL clubs have been in the past 15 years, means missing out on so many potential great managers.

It is time for more Scottish clubs to take chances when it comes to hiring a manager, rather than relying on the same candidates.


Many incorrectly associate the term “moneyball” with analytics. The book “Moneyball” was about the Oakland A’s baseball team finding inefficiencies in baseball to help level the financial playing field. This does not necessarily mean using analytics. However, make no mistake, hiring only Scottish ex-players as managers is a clear inefficiency. Clubs that are able to find talented coaches outside of these constrains will have a leg up on clubs that refuse to change in Scotland.


Matt is a Celtic supporter born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio and is a graduate of the University of Dayton (Go Flyers!). A few years ago, Matt learned about the burgeoning field of analytics in football. Excited with this new knowledge, he could not wait to apply this newfound wisdom to his beloved Celtic and the rest of Scottish football. However, he soon found that there was very little available when it came to these advanced stats for Scottish football. Taking matter into his own hands, Matt decided to track these various stats for Celtic. However, he soon realised he wanted to know how Celtic and it's players compared to their title rivals in Scotland. Then he wanted to compare every club in the SPFL Premiership. This slippery slope led to Matt tracking the stats for every club and player in the SPFL Premiership and Championship, as well as in depth blogs on specific topics in Scottish Football on his blog, The Backpass Rule ( He can also be found on twitter under @thebackpassrule

'The Manager is Fired, Long Live the Manager: Characteristics of Managers in the SPFL' have 3 comments

  1. March 11, 2017 @ 6:45 am Scot Innes

    Football Management is a results game Short or Long Term. Anyone, even Brendan Rogers could manage Celtic and win the league, their success is how they do in Europe! The most successful in recent times O’Neill and Lennon – suggest they are both in the more ‘traditional’ Managers mould that you are de-crying. Rodgers is ok at a certain level as he proved at Liverpool his tactics and team selection do not stack up v higher class opposition. As for the Hearts ‘experiment’ anyone with half a brain and a modicum of football knowledge can see that Cathro has no chance of success at a high profile senior club like Hearts. It has nothing to do with his nationality or that he never played football! It has everything to do with his personality and the drivel that comes out of his mouth. I don’t care what clubs he coached at, players will not respect someone of his demeanour and character. I have no time for Boyd and he was wrong to go public on his views before giving Cathro a chance however results and Cathro himself have proven Boyd right! The rest of your article proves nothing! The most successful teams at the mo, apart from Celtic, are managed by a Scottish ‘traditional’ type manager (Aberdeen) and dare I say it two Irishmen who are very much steeped in Scottish football culture! (St Johnstone and some other Edinburgh Team). The other ‘big’ club moved away from a more traditional appointment and look what happened there?
    I rest my case!


    • March 11, 2017 @ 2:07 pm Matt

      With all the successes the Scottish national team and club teams are having in Europe, I see your point about “traditional” managers in Scotland. Wait a minute…


  2. March 11, 2017 @ 7:50 pm Ronnie Hamilton

    One factor missing in this analysis – and I don’t have the answer – is the amount of foreign footballers in Scotland. Cathro has brought on a lot in January and can’t get consistency, yet. Rodgers has foreigners and he brings a reputation of quality manager. So how does that all fit together? Person ally Chris has the ability. I hope off camera he has the personality. Mourinho camera appearance is not great. But he wins trophies. I agree we need to think differently. I hope Cathro comes through for the sake of Scottish football.


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