Off the Crossbar: The power of loyalty

Earlier this week, amidst speculation that he would be leaving his Kentucky Wildcat program for the Bruins of UCLA, coach John Calipari signed a deal to keep him in Lexington for the entirety of his coaching career. In 2010, he took over the struggling but big-name Kentucky program that was without a Final Four appearance in over a decade. “Cal” had long voiced a desire to coach at one of the big “blue-blood” schools and took his chance leading the Wildcats to four of the last nine Final Fours.

His loyalty to Kentucky in signing the deal is admirable. It is no coincidence that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, a former Manchester United player himself, conjured up a similar turnaround when he took over as United boss earlier this yearSolskjaer was an inexperienced manager when United asked him to take over on an interim basis. His record wasn’t good: His first stint with Championship side Cardiff City ended in 8.5 months and he found himself back in his home country coaching the lowly FC Molde. He performed better in his second stint, scoring a three-year deal.

But what he lacked in experience, he made up for in passion for the club. Solskjaer embodies United through and through. He spent much of his career under the tutelage of legendary manager Sir Alex Ferguson and had two years of experience coaching the reserves side once his playing career ended in 2007. He is most famous for his last-gasp comeback winner against Bayern Munich in 1999 that solidified his place as a Manchester United legend. His words upon being named the full-time United boss last week: “This has been my ultimate dream.”

In a match against Liverpool, United’s archrivals, Solskjaer started 21-year-old Scott McTominay over other, more experienced options because he “[was] an academy kid who knows the importance of these games.” McTominay grew up playing for the United academy team and has progressed through the ranks. United’s recent improvement in results owes much to the improved play of academy graduates such as Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard and Paul Pogba.

Look at the Barcelona teams of 2007–2011, often considered one of the greatest of all time. They were coached by Josep “Pep” Guardiola, who joined Barcelona’s famed La Masia academy when he was 13 and stayed there for nearly 20 more years as a player. His teams were anchored by Lionel Messi, Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Busquets, graduates of the famed academy who personified the “Barcelona way.” Clearly, their success owed much not only to the quartet’s otherworldly talent but the blood of the club’s ethos and history running through their veins.

With the recent influx of money into the game, some clubs are using their academies less and less, opting to construct teams with more developed, experienced players from outside rather than developing their own.

Big teams also seem to throw money at the same group of four or five managers to lead their sides. Perhaps, after seeing the success enjoyed by Guardiola, Solskjaer and others, like Zinedine Zidane at Real Madrid, it’s time for more teams start to look to their former legendary players to manage their sides.