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How Much Does ‘Championship Experience’ Matter When Hiring A Manager?

We delved into the numbers behind managerial appointments in the second tier over the last five years.

West Bromwich Albion v Middlesbrough - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Adam Fradgley/West Bromwich Albion FC via Getty Images

Reading are, supposedly, on the hunt for a new manager. The premise of hiring Paul Ince as interim boss after sacking Veljko Paunovic was for the former England captain to hold the fort while the club look for a more permanent appointment.

Putting someone in caretaker charge for a couple of months to allow for ample time to be given to getting the next appointment right is not uncommon. It’s a strategy that was also employed by Manchester United, so it must be effective, right? One can only hope that Ince has not partaken in some kind of unofficial audition for the job full-time and that a managerial search IS actually taking place behind the scenes.

When the hunt for a new manager is ongoing, the same phrase always seems to pop up: ‘Get someone in who knows the Championship’. This has always interested me, mainly because I’ve never seen any evidence that there is any correlation between Championship experience and success in the division. That’s not to say it is a myth, but I wanted to look at the numbers before drawing any conclusions.

AFC Bournemouth v Reading - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Robin Jones - AFC Bournemouth/AFC Bournemouth via Getty Images

I decided to investigate by looking at all of the managerial appointments in the Championship since the start of the 2017-18 season and comparing two key statistics: how many games they had managed in the second tier before being hired and what their points-per-game record was during their time in charge. I also chucked nationality into the mix, because there’s nothing like a bit of xenophobia when picking your dream appointment.

The aim was to find out the answers to a few questions: how much does ‘Championship experience’ matter when hiring a new manager? Are British bosses better than those from abroad? Can a first-time manager be successful?

As ever, data can only tell you so much, so a couple of disclaimers before we delve into the analysis:

  • There will always be factors that impact a manager’s points-per-game record other than experience in the Championship or nationality. The numbers do not account for the playing squad at each boss’s disposal, the club’s finances, off-field structure etc. Comparing managers in a wide range of club situations across five years hopefully balances this out as much as possible.
  • Similarly, a manager with no previous Championship games under his belt is not necessarily inexperienced, or even inexperienced in English football. Those with zero second-tier matches upon their appointment include veteran bosses outside of England (eg Marcelo Bielsa), those who have spent their careers in the Premier League and have dropped down (eg Martin O’Neill) and young, up-and-coming managers from the lower divisions getting their first shot at this level (eg Danny Cowley). The phrase ‘doesn’t know the Championship’ is being taken very literally here.

Championship experience

Let’s take a look at all 81 managerial appointments in the Championship since the start of 2017-18. A figure worth bearing in mind throughout this piece is that the average points per game of all appointments is 1.33.

Click here for interactive visualisation.

As you can see, it’s pretty cramped on the Y axis, with 42 bosses being given a job in the second tier without any previous experience in the division. Those include the two managers who have ended up being the most successful (Xisco Munoz at Watford and Nuno Espirito Santo at Wolves) and the two who have proved to be the worst (Paul Hurst at Ipswich and Markus Schopp at Barnsley). A special mention to Neil Warnock, who is out on his own as always.

If we group all the managers into sections based on their previous experience, we can get some more coherent analysis.

Click here for interactive visualisation.

The standout conclusion here is that Championship experience is not the be all and end all. Managers who have taken charge of more than 200 games in the division end up with an average points per game of just 1.18 (just over 54 points across a 46-game season). In comparison, those who have never managed in the second tier before average 1.36 points per game (just under 63 points across a 46-game season). The most successful coach in the 200+ category is Tony Pulis at Middlesbrough, but his ppg of 1.63 would only rank him 10th in the list of managers with zero previous games.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the numbers show that clubs should be looking for managers who fall into the 50-99 category, right in the middle of the two extremes. That’s managers with one or two previous seasons in the Championship, but not someone who is considered - for want of a better phrase - a ‘dinosaur’. Included in this group are some of the success stories of this season - Steve Cooper at Nottingham Forest, Paul Heckingbottom at Sheffield United and Chris Wilder at Middlesbrough - along with the likes of Mark Warburton at QPR and Alex Neil at Preston.


First-time bosses

A quick mention for coaches who have been handed their first-ever senior managerial jobs by Championship clubs in the last five years. There have been nine of those, including Mark Bowen at Reading. First-time bosses earn 1.35 ppg on average, a figure which is marginally above the overall ppg average of 1.33. So giving coaches their first managerial roles is neither an overwhelmingly good nor an overwhelmingly bad idea.

First-time bosses have been among the most successful in the Championship since 2017-18 (Steve Cooper at Swansea, Frank Lampard at Derby) and among the least successful (Graeme Jones at Luton, Jonathan Woodgate at Middlesbrough).


Nationality

Of the 81 managerial appointments in the last five years, 54 have been coaches from the UK and Ireland. The other 27 have all been European, except for Argentine deity Marcelo Bielsa.

The numbers show that it’s officially time to leave your prejudices at the door, as foreign appointments actually perform better in the Championship than coaches hired from the UK and Ireland.

Interestingly, there have only been four instances of a club hiring a foreign boss who has managed in the Championship before: Aitor Karanka at Nottingham Forest and Birmingham, Slavisa Jokanovic at Sheffield United and Valerien Ismael at West Brom.

Between when the second tier became the Championship in 2004 and the end of the 2015-16 season, Karanka and Jokanovic were two of just three foreign bosses (along with Roberto Di Matteo) to win promotion to the Premier League. The other 33 were from the UK and Ireland. That is slightly deceiving as there were very few managers in the division to begin with, but it goes some way to suggesting where the idea the ‘British is best’ mentality comes from.

There’s not really enough evidence to suggest exactly which country a new manager should come from, but of the nations to have had at least three coaching appointments in the Championship, France come out on top. That’s mostly down to Valerien Ismael’s superb work at Barnsley in 2020/21 and his play-off-achieving form at West Brom this season. Portuguese bosses Marco Silva and Nuno Espirito have both won promotion in recent years, but are let down by compatriots Jose Gomes and Jose Morais.

So there we have it. Dai Yongge, if you’re reading this, please appoint a foreign manager with around 75 games’ worth of experience in the Championship. Simple.