Maresca, Slot and the strange fascination around bald Premier League managers (2024)

Maybe, as so many things in football do, it comes back to Jose Mourinho.

In 2014, not long after their increasingly toxic rivalry in Spain had come to an end, Mourinho and Pep Guardiola apparently clashed at a UEFA conference over the grass length, of all things.

Perhaps because he had surface coverage on his mind, Mourinho said afterwards: “When you enjoy what you do, you don’t lose your hair, and Guardiola is bald. He doesn’t enjoy football.”


If you’re unfortunate enough to be a regular social media user, you’ll know that this gave rise to the meme of Guardiola being a ‘bald fraud’, which was rolled out every time he failed to win a game 5-0. Guardiola himself sort of acknowledged it in a press conference in 2019, referring to people calling him ‘Fraudiola’. It was remarkable to see that Guardiola was apparently aware of stuff people said about him on Twitter, but he did miss out the bald bit.

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Guardiola and Ten Hag ‘not enjoying’ football (Chris Brunskill/Fantasista/Getty Images)

This became a slightly curious topic of discussion again after the confirmation that Arne Slot would replace Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool and, to a slightly lesser extent, Enzo Maresca at Chelsea. Have a search around and you will find plenty of Liverpool fans sheepishly saying they will have to retire all their bald-related jokes now, previously aimed at Erik ten Hag and Guardiola. There’s also the conflation of Slot and Ten Hag: ‘Ho! Appointing a bald Dutchman! Worked out well for United didn’t it lol!’ You’ll also find people, however seriously, straightforwardly lamenting the appointment of a bald man at Anfield.

It’s all quite strange. Why do people feel the need to reference a manager’s hair, or otherwise?

The conflation of Ten Hag and Slot is pretty weird if you ignore everything above their eyebrows: they’re both Dutch and both won the Eredivisie, but that’s essentially where the similarities end. They have very different styles of football, different approaches to man-management and they could barely be less similar in terms of personality: Ten Hag is guarded, quite stiff and relatively humourless in public whereas Slot is more gregarious and outwardly charismatic. So the main similarity between the two is their lack of hair.

It’s reductive, but then again perhaps it’s foolish to overanalyse these things: after all, the internet in general and social media specifically are not areas known for nuance and thoughtful consideration of these things.


The easy explanation for all of this is it’s just football fans using whatever is in front of them as ‘banter’ fuel. If you’re overweight, that will be used against you. If you’ve got long hair, it will be that. But that’s also the justification for plenty of much more unpleasant things that emanate from the terraces.

The slightly more expansive answer is that society more generally shares this fascination with baldness.

When Larry David won an Emmy for writing on Seinfeld in 1993, he walked up to the stage and rather than kicking off his acceptance speech with the usual platitudes, said: “This is all very well and good, but I’m still bald.”

“Everything we read, from being a child, is about hair being associated with beauty and virility,” says Dr Sue McHale, senior lecturer in psychology at Sheffield Hallam University, who specialises in the psychology of hair loss.

“Right from fairy tales like Rapunzel with her lovely long hair and stories from the Bible like Samson and Delilah. It’s very hard, if you’ve got these stories coming from very early on, to revalue what you think about hair. It’s just there in society. It’s associated with virility, youth, beauty — all positive things, and baldness is just associated with all the opposite.

“With male pattern baldness, it’s perceived as an ageing thing, and less attractive, because we live in a society that is very youth-oriented. I guess football is even more so, because it’s dealing with young men who are active and athletic. Maybe baldness is equated with them being old and not up to the job.”

Losing one’s hair can be like losing a part of oneself, stripping away part of your identity and youth. It’s also about a lack of control in how you appear: most other things you can do something about relatively easily, but if you start losing your hair then there are essentially only a few things you can do: leave it and present yourself to the world as nature (if not yourself) intends; shave it all off and reclaim some sort of control; or take slightly more drastic, restorative action — the hairlines of, to pick just two examples, Antonio Conte and Rob Holding have been two of football’s greatest comebacks in the last 20 years.


And you can’t really blame them, when baldness is so frequently a go-to pejorative, carrying with it plenty of frankly weird assumptions, conclusions and projections.

To the point where we have to ask if it really is just ‘banter’, a light-hearted jibe that everyone should just take in the merry spirit it is (possibly) intended. “I would be among the first to argue that it’s a form of prejudice,” says Dr McHale. “One of the problems we have in society is that we are very much focused on looks and external factors — it’s certainly got worse since the age of social media, and anything we can do to ameliorate those prejudices is a step in the right direction.”

You don’t just hear it from internet cranks, social media banter merchants and irascible former Chelsea managers, either. The Chilean midfielder Arturo Vidal — very nearly bald himself, save for that thin strip of mohawk on his head — seemed to claim in a 2023 interview that bald managers were inherently tricky to deal with.

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Vidal (left) with Sampaoli (Claudio Reyes/AFP via Getty Images)

Speaking not long after Cristiano Ronaldo left Manchester United after being eased out by Ten Hag, Vidal said: “That coach intervened badly. How can you get rid of Cristiano Ronaldo? That’s how these guys are. That’s why sometimes the coaches who arrive leave a tremendous mess. Terrible. I don’t know what they are thinking. Getting rid of Cristiano? He was their goalscorer and he gets rid of him. The baldies are very difficult, that’s how they function.”

The context here is that Vidal had recently been managed by the very bald Jorge Sampaoli at Flamengo, with whom he had a tricky relationship: in response to his limited playing time at the Brazilian club, Vidal claimed that it wasn’t because of injury, more that he “got stuck with a loser coach who did not know how to appreciate his players”.

Maybe that’s just a guy with a grudge, but references to your lack of hair must hurt when you’re the subject of them, even if they’re meant in jest.

Or perhaps not. Former Crystal Palace manager Alan Smith was the subject of the long-running chant from the Selhurst Park stands: ‘He’s got no hair but we don’t care.’ It’s a ditty directed at plenty of others down the years, including Steve Stone in his Nottingham Forest days and Martin Jol while he was at Spurs.


“It never really bothered me,” Smith says. “I took it as a nice bit of banter and quite affectionate. Out of all the things I did, it wasn’t one of the things that was uppermost in my mind. I always took it that it was meant in a good-natured way. I’d hate to be so thin-skinned (to let it bother me).

“There’s so much going on in the game, you can’t pay attention too much to something like that. Anyway, I’ve heard my wife sing it, so it can’t be that bad.”

The solution could be to become synonymous with a particular type of headgear. “I never experienced abuse like that for being bald,” says Tony Pulis, manager of 10 different clubs over a 28-year career. “My cap must have protected me. But it wouldn’t have bothered me at all — I’ve had much worse than that.”

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Pulis says his cap was a secret weapon against bald terrace banter (Nick Potts/PA Images via Getty Images)

It should probably go without saying, but baldness does not prevent a manager from being successful. Guardiola has just won his sixth Premier League title. Sean Dyche and Pulis will go down as Premier League stalwarts and excellent at their own particular style of management. Since the turn of the century, 10 Champions Leagues have been won by bald(ing) managers.

It also doesn’t seem to dissuade clubs from appointing bald managers. Slot’s appointment means the entire Premier League north-west is hair-free, with him, Ten Hag, Guardiola and Dyche. Throw in Maresca and four of the Premier League’s ‘big six’ managers are bald. Mikel Arteta and Ange Postecoglou are now in a hairy minority.

Slot and Maresca will have heard all the jokes. You would be surprised if any of it genuinely gets to them. And it goes without saying that their success or popularity will not be governed by their lack of hair.

That said, they will probably be glad Mourinho isn’t around anymore.

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Nick Miller is a football writer for the Athletic and the Totally Football Show. He previously worked as a freelancer for the Guardian, ESPN and Eurosport, plus anyone else who would have him.

Maresca, Slot and the strange fascination around bald Premier League managers (2024)
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