Managing Young Talent, a Footballing Tale

At a recent HR event we got talking with Sir Cary Cooper about work, about millennials, and about football.  He’s a passionate Manchester City fan, and had just seen his team progress in the Champions League, but he was also keen to talk to us about Leicester City’s remarkable season (which has kept on being remarkable).


The comparison in question was between Leicester City’s wunderkind, Riyad Mahrez and Manchester City’s junior superstar Raheem Sterling.  Whilst Stirling had reportedly cost Manchester City £49 million, Mahrez had gone to Leicester for a little under half a million.  You could buy 120 Riyad Mahrez’s (if such a commodity existed) for the price of one Raheem Sterling, yet at that point in the season, it was Mahrez that was tearing through defences, showing off some silky footwork and delivering as many assists as goals, whilst Sterling didn’t always make it into the Manchester City team and struggled to make an impact when he did.

What was so different, not just in the two players, but in the management styles and team cultures that seemed to stifle Sterling whilst Mahrez thrived?

One clear difference seemed to be expectation.

Both teams had different levels of expectation at the start of the season, Leicester to survive in the Premier League, Manchester to win it, and maybe the Champions League too.  Both players featured differently in those expectations, Sterling was seen as key to those wins, Mahrez as a nice to have, who had had a good little run at the end of the previous year.

As one of the most expensive players ever, fans, commentators and owners expected a lot from Sterling, perhaps far too much from someone so young.  Liverpool fans had been outraged when Sterling left, and shared that anger with him.  When Mahrez left Le Havre in France, fans shrugged.  Whilst they’d loved seeing the Algerian’s silky skills, mesmerising stepovers, nutmegs and Rabonas, they had grown frustrated with his showboating, failure to track back and inability to take throw-ins legally.

Raheem Sterling was expected to perform at a super human level, an expectation he could never live up to, whereas the pressure on Mahrez was low.

Mahrez could try things out and make mistakes, the manager ensured other players were deployed to cover the gaps he left.  Sterling had the expectation of his signing fee and wages weighing him down.


So what can that tell us about managing young talent?  In this example, as with many more mundane workplaces, young talent can transform a team, but only when the weight of expectation isn’t so high.  Reduce the pressure and talent can flourish.  It’s tempting to offer brilliant young people huge salaries and signing bonuses, but the stress of living up to that can be overwhelming, agreeing a path to success that manages expectations on both sides with a clear route to financial success can be more effective.

Oh, and don’t forget to let your talent have fun and express themselves at work, no matter what age they are.