Firstly let me explain what I mean by a clique when it comes to amateur football. In my experience a clique is a group of usually three or more (normally quite gifted) players who form a team within a team in the dressing room. Typically there is a definite leader of the group who speaks out against the Manager or is the one giving other people the hardest time. Usually cliques form to mask the insecurities or inabilities of the people in them particularly the ring leader who I’ve always found to be the guy in the clique with the least ability.
I have had to deal with a couple of these groups forming in my time in management and on each occasion the pattern of behaviour is almost identical. At first the players concerned find their feet in the team and build a run of games in the starting eleven. This is when they start to feel comfortable and feel that they can express themselves more freely in the dressing room. They start to have a more vocal opinion on incidents and where changes can be made. You usually find that the ringleader in the group identifies those in the team that he can bring round to his way of thinking and begins to manipulate scenarios to his benefit. You see the same group of players sitting next to each other in the dressing room, sharing private jokes and laughing hard at each other as they slag off or try to humiliate other boys in the team. At training they always group together for drills and try to be on the same team in any small sided games. The emphasis at training is always on impressing the other boys in the clique and making a fool of those that are not. Match days are when the worst side comes out. This is when you start to see the group speaking out against the Manager, questioning formations or substitutions. They feel the need to butt in on team talks or to have private team talks with each other on the pitch. They always try to pass to each other and scream at team mates who do not pass to them, or have a go at the non-clique striker for not squaring to the clique striker. If a player from the clique is dropped for a game, members of his group get together to tell him that the manager is in the wrong and that he is a much better player than whoever has replaced him. They fill each other’s head full of nonsense and blow smoke up each other’s arses because none of them wants to be the guy to say “you had a mare last week, that’s why he dropped you.” Other players don’t speak out against them in the team because they would then be speaking out against the group. Maybe this is out of fear or maybe it’s for an easy life, who knows. I also found out that a select group of players were being asked to team nights out that had been arranged by the clique. This then became my job to deal with the issue and try and clear it out of my team to prevent other players becoming disillusioned and potentially moving on.
The first time this happened to me I found it difficult to stamp too much authority for fear of losing the whole group of players involved if I was too heavy handed. I let small issues go believing that it would be better for the good of the team to keep these boys playing for me and hope that it never escalated. I found that what I was doing was becoming more toxic for the team than the havoc wreaked by this group was causing. It got to the stage where I decided enough was enough. I began to randomly drop one or two of them from the squad with little or no reason. I praised the weaker members of the group regularly, especially the ones being bullied by the clique. I played boys that the clique considered to be inferior to them in their positions and I also made a big issue of their slightest mistake when they did play. Ultimately this led to an unhappy group of insecure footballers. By the end of the season we were all scunnered with each other and I never asked them back for another year. I felt that losing five players in one week could have killed our season therefore I decided to keep them on until the close season where I could find a large number of replacements in one go. From the moment of deciding to sort them out I used them and played them at their own game all the while sorting players for the next season to sign for me to play in their positions. I think even now if I got them together and explained what they had been doing to the team they would still deny that it ever happened but years later their team mates would be able to rhyme off the exact members of that clique without even thinking about it.
I learned so much from this experience and how to deal with it moving forward. It’s natural that in a team of 20 odd players some are friendlier with each other than others and associate with each other away from football but when patterns of behaviour appear that will have a detrimental effect on the morale of your squad then you have to step in and deal with it.
I have now put certain measures in place to try and prevent situations like this happening again. On game days I always hang my tops in number order on the pegs in the dressing room so that the players sit exactly where I want them to. I make training competitive in a positional sense, for example both of my right backs will partner up for drills and my centre half’s and strikers and so on. I make sure that there is no other voice after a team talk than the Captain of the team and I always nip any issue anyone has with me in the bud straight away and in full view of the rest of the team. These small details may seem insignificant but in my opinion they have been able to prevent situations like I have spoken of happening to my team again.
Keep in mind though if this ever happens to you that this does not only occur in amateur teams. A lot of professional sides have this issue and there has been evidence of it at Swansea, The England National team and this seasons Chelsea team whereby it ultimately cost Jose Mourinho his job. A blatant clique at Rangers known as Monster Munch Gate also cost Paul le Guen his job when the Captain, Barry Ferguson (clique leader) led others in the group including Kris Boyd, Charlie Adam, Allan McGregor and several others in a player revolt whereby Le Guen suffered the same fate as the former Chelsea Manager. Player power and bad apple cliques can be a problem at any football club at any level. Don’t let it be yours.
Be the boss