By Simon Hart
If the presence of teams from France and Portugal in next week's UEFA Champions League final represents a breath of fresh air, then the identity of the coaches who led AS Monaco FC and FC Porto this far suggests a wind of change is blowing through the continent.
Twice a Champions League winner as a player, Didier Deschamps could take the title as a coach at just 35. His opposite number in Gelsenkirchen is the 41-year-old José Mourinho. In the UEFA Cup final, Valencia CF were led by the 44-year-old Rafael Benítez and Olympique de Marseille by José Anigo, 12 months his junior.
While the young guns have been having fun, this has been an unhappy season for three of European football's old guard, Marcello Lippi, Ottmar Hitzfeld and Sir Alex Ferguson. Serial winners over the past decade, Lippi, 56, and Hitzfeld, 55, ended the season empty-handed and have now left their respective jobs at Juventus FC and FC Bayern München. Sir Alex's Manchester United FC side, meanwhile, may win Saturday's FA Cup final against Millwall FC but it will not disguise a disappointing 12 months at Old Trafford.
This begs the question whether we are witnessing the emergence of a new order. Belgian Raymond Goethals may have been 71 when his Marseille team won the 1992/93 Champions League but in the competition's short history, the average age of the winning coach is 51. Ferguson's intention may be to "plan ahead and rebuild a team that will be with us for a few years" but he will be 63 at the end of the year. Lippi, for his part, may never return to club management while Hitzfeld is planning a year away from the game.
According to UEFA technical director Andy Roxburgh, however, it is a coach's attitude, rather than his age, that is key. Consider Arsenal FC manager Arsène Wenger - now 54 - whose stock has never been higher. "I find that the real crème de la crème, whether they are young or older, are open-minded and always looking for an advantage," Roxburgh told uefa.com. "The minute you lose that, whatever your age, you are beaten."
Youth does not hold all the cards, Roxburgh added. Older coaches "have vast experience - they know all the moves and the details. The question mark is if they are still enthusiastic. Alex Ferguson is like that and Bobby Robson is the prime example of someone whose enthusiasm has never waned". He added: "There's dangers on both sides, of course. The danger for the young guy is he becomes too self-confident too early. With the older guy the problem is one of complacency."
What young coaches like Deschamps and Mourinho do bring, Roxburgh acknowledged, is a "spirit of adventure and an energy that is important". However, he warned against simplifying the argument - Deschamps and Mourinho may be young, but each has had contrasting formative experiences. "Mourinho has worked with Bobby Robson and Louis van Gaal and both had big influences on him. He's a very focused young guy and a very quick learner. In Deschamps' case, sometimes the great players don't make great coaches but he was a leader and the organiser on the pitch. From all the reports he's a quick learner, too."
The test for these two now is to sustain their success. "The danger is not to become a shooting star," Roxburgh concluded. "You appear, you burn bright but then you disappear." The evidence of this season suggests otherwise.
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