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Lessons in leadership with Sir Alex

Or… ‘what the Church can teach Manchester United about choosing their leaders’

And so Easter Sunday passed this year with a hostile crowd and a vaunted leader sacrificed, but it wasn’t at Calvary and it may take a lot longer than three days to sort out (h/t David Keen). The inevitable finally took place as David Moyes was sacked as manager of Manchester United.

Regular readers will know that I’m not a fan of Manchester United so I have no football axe to grind here.

A comparison of Moyes & Ferguson's first 30 games in charge.

I am tempted to write about the fact that he wasn’t given enough time (see the photo right for all you need to know about the need to be patient).

I’m also tempted to write about how Moyes was set-up to fail because he inherited an ageing squad well past its best. A squad that had been propped up last year by world-class players in the twilight of their careers (Scholes & Giggs, and to a certain degree also Van Persie). Fergie hadn’t left him very much.

But what I’d like to write about is how I could see all this coming a mile off because it looked very, very familiar to me from the world of the Church. Specifically, what happens when one Vicar leaves and their replacement is chosen. So, here are a couple of quick lessons on what the Church could have taught Manchester United.

The Vicar has no voice in choosing their replacement

When a Vicar leaves a parish (whether by retirement or by moving on to a new role), they have absolutely no say in who replaces them. Once they have left, there is always an ‘interregnum‘ (space between two reigns) and then the people of the parish are asked what they would like to see in their new leader. The comments of people like the Bishop and other overseers are also fed in, in case they are aware of some strategic things that may not be known at local level. But the one person who gets absolutely no say in the matter is the outgoing Vicar.

What does this guard against? Well, firstly, it’s very hard to be objective about your parishes when you leave. You may be tempted to try and justify your work or even cover up mistakes or failures. You may not have a good sense of what they need now, and (of course) it’s hard to be honest about your weaknesses and allow space for a new leader who may be gifted in those areas. There is also that temptation in human beings to choose their successor by finding someone not quite as good as we are, so that it makes us look all the better when they fail.

What you definitely don’t want is for the outgoing Vicar to choose a carbon-copy of themselves as their pre-anointed successor. That pays no attention to the way in which the parish has changed and grown in the intervening years since that outgoing Vicar was first appointed. The people have changed, society has changed, the local culture will have grown and evolved. You need an appointment now that reflects the Church as it is, now how it used to be.

It also means the new Vicar has slightly more freedom to be his own man or woman. If you’ve been chosen to be a carbon-copy of the last leader, what chance do you have to be yourself? If you divert from their well-established model, people aren’t going to like it and you’re going to get unnecessary flack.

The outgoing Vicar is not seen or heard from again

Now this is a tricky bit because it doesn’t always work out this way. But there is an unwritten rule amongst Clergy that you never, ever go back and that when you leave a Parish, you very definitely stay out of the new Vicar’s way. For many Clergy keeping this unwritten rule is easy. Their new parish or retirement residence may be some considerable distance away from the old parish. Indeed, there is an unwritten understanding that (if you are retiring) you put some serious geographical distance between you and the parish in which you served (although there are sometimes very good reasons for wanting to be more local).

Why? Because anytime you turn up, it has the potential to undermine the new Vicar. They may be very talented, very strong as a leader. They may not mind your presence at all (although they might). But if anyone has a grievance or a problem with the new leadership, seeing the old Vicar in the congregation can be an opportunity for the aggrieved to stick the boot in. If a new initiative is announced, some may look at the old Vicar and see if he or she is in agreement. It never works. It always undermines.

Now, of course the Church makes mistakes. There’s plenty of bad decisions out there with the wrong people in the wrong places. But these ways of doing things in Church circles are used because, over the years, considerable wisdom has built up through countless situations. Many, many times we’ve learnt that its far better to move on and not look back. It’s the new Vicar’s ship now, not yours. You need to butt out for the good of their leadership, for the good of the community you led and also for your own good too. Move on.


So perhaps you can see why I thought this was always doomed. One working-class Glaswegian with red hair anoints another working-class Glaswegian with red hair. It seems that the fans, the players, the Board don’t have much of a chance to comment or consider what Man United need in the 21st century. The Board give Sir Alex far too much latitude in making the choice. The old Manager joins the board and goes to watch every game. Every time a goal is conceded, the television cameras don’t cut to the new manager, they cut to the old one.

Sir Alex, if you truly care about Manchester United, you need to disappear. Don’t get involved in the choice of the next manager. Don’t comment on who you would like to see replace David Moyes. Become a sleeping member of the Board (or better still resign your membership). Don’t turn up to games and very definitely don’t comment publicly on anything to do with the club. Only then can you give the new Manager a fighting chance to lead.

It’s been emotional (Olympics, part 2)

A photo of Vinny Jones from Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels

On the 20th February 1982, my dad and I travelled to White Hart Lane for the very first time. I was eight years old. We watched Tottenham Hotspur beat Manchester City 2-0. My hero Glenn Hoddle scored both goals and a young blistering Scottish talent, Alistair Dick, made his debut as a 16 year old.

I had watched Spurs famous 1981 Cup Final win the year before and been mesmerised by Read more

The World Cup and the Church

A photo of Bobby Moore, England captain in 1966

On a personal level, I am about to embark on my once-every-four-years month-long trial of both tortuous nervousness, mixed with moments of sheer joy and hope, culminating in bleak disappointment and despair. Yes, the FIFA World Cup is here again.

As regular readers will know, I’m a football fan. In fact, for once, I have more reason to be cheerful about football than usual given that my beloved Tottenham Hotspur have actually managed to achieve something and qualified for the Champions League next season.

Even more important to me, however, than Spurs’ impending European adventure is the hope that I will one day live to see England win their second World Cup. I wasn’t around for the first one and the thought that I might never see my compatriots lift the most-hallowed trophy in football fills me with dread. So I will be watching the games, an anxious knot in my stomach, knowing that the chances of failure are more real than the chances of success. I’ll be watching knowing that if we foul it up, it’s another four years until we get another chance. However, I will also be watching hoping and praying that England actually play to their potential and beyond and conquer the world.

All that aside, however, this World Cup represents the first opportunity for me to actually influence church activity during the tournament. I’m intrigued and fascinated by the way our nation changes once every couple of years for a month or so. England flags appear everywhere, people actually talk to each other in the street, enormous crowds gather to share good-natured community, the stock-market goes up and generally the feel-good factor is enormous. It’s also, I think, a great opportunity for the Church to engage with our nation, to share a common passion and to show that some of us at least are actually normal people… just people who happen to believe and trust in God. Read more

Why football will eat itself…

Bored by the Big 4 t-shirt

Amongst the various news stories that interested me last week was the one in which Culture Secretary, Andy Burnham MP, called upon the English Premier League and, in particular, the ‘big four’ of Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal to spread their wealth a little more evenly in order to create a more competitive environment.

As always when things like this get raised in this country, most football fans complained and cried foul (as did the Premier league teams and particularly the big four). Many commentators drew attention to the fact that Andy Burnham is an Everton fan. Everton have had a good year and currently lie in sixth place (with two games to go). They will be in Europe next year but not in the top four spots and not in the Champions League. So, of course, say the naysayers, Burnham is only saying all this because he’s jealous and his team isn’t good enough.


Burnham has put his finger on an important issue that is rumbling like a troublesome appendix under the skin of all the gloss and the glitter of the Premiership. Read more