Who is the Greatest Ever Manager?

I should have probably asked the question who is the greatest manager to manage in Britain!

We will never have a definitive answer as it down to individual opinion on which variables you think are the most important. My objective is to put forward many of the major aspects of both managers careers rather than just foist an argument on who I believe to be the best and allow you to add or assess the factors as you so wish in your assessment. To do this I have tried to give background information to certain points to help the reader.

We will examine Busby’s strengths and weaknesses then move on to Fergie’s. Busby managed just one club and all his career he managed in the top division. He took over United immediately after the 2nd World war had ended, there had been no top class football played in England for 6 years, all clubs struggled to get themselves organised and of course players were a long long way from being fit or having adequate diet. United were not one of the major forces in English football, far from it they weren’t even the major force in Manchester.

Furthermore Old Trafford had been bombed and had no option but to take up their neighbour’s generous approach to use Maine Road. Busby had strong beliefs on how football should be played and was an innovator, he famously played with a five man attack which brought the crowds flocking to watch them play and United managed to finish 2nd three times on the run and win the FA cup in 1948 for only the 2nd time in their history a thirty nine years after the first success.

Busby had arrived and got United noticed, however he wanted more much more and with the help of Jimmy Murphy the assistant manager and coach went looking for the brightest young talents throughout the British Isles. Duncan Edwards was amazingly snatched out of the hands of his home town club the great Wolverhampton Wanderers, Bobby Charlton from Newcastle, Liam Whelan Ireland and Mark Jones Barnsley. These are just a few of many examples. Furthermore Busby went against the tide of football thinking in the day and gave youth en masse its chance and while it would be a mistake to believe all were young and developed talent a sufficient number were to be recognised as the Busby Babes.

United won the title 1951/2 and in 1956/7 and 1957/8 as the babes were introduced to the first team. At this point nearly all football fans loved Manchester United they combined entertainment with winners and looked set to dominate the league for another decade or more. They had come very close to winning the domestic double but for a goalkeeping injury and no substitutes and looked as if they would be fighting it out with Real Madrid for the European Cup.

In but a few short years Busby had transformed United from a mediocre club that couldn’t even use it’s own ground to one of the most talked about and admired clubs in Europe and this looked to be just the start. Unfortunately Munich was to end much of this. United’s team was devastated; even some of the players who continued were never the same.

Once again Busby was determined to build another great team, his third but was determined as always to do so playing attractive cavalier football, it took many years to rebuild the club and not just the team, the effect of Munich on everyone at the club can never be underestimated, even the new players coming through were obviously on to a loser – “they are no Duncan Edwards” “there will never be another set of lads like the babes” made it all the more difficult for the next crop.

Busbies last great team started off by winning the FA Cup in 63 followed by 2 titles in 1964/5 1966/7 and the first English team to win the European Cup in 1968 after Busby had gone against the wishes of the governing body to enter United in the European Cup in 1956.

The Best Law and Charlton excited fans throughout the world, and Busby had once again re-enforced Manchester United as the biggest name in British football and one of the biggest in Europe. His legacy gave United their world-wide fan base and massive support throughout the British isles, London alone in the late 1960s had a 15,000 supporters club. These were also hardened fans and saw United through the bad times, which were to follow and keep the name of United in the headlines.

Other managers may have won more but to understand how great a manager he was you need to understand the point at which he started, the number of great teams he created, and what might have been had it not been for Munich. During his time at United while he had funds available he would not have spent more than most other clubs. There wasn’t a top 4 or even top 10 or 20 any club was capable of winning the title and did. Competition in other words was much stiffer and more difficult to win trophies. He had the ability to spot good players and get the players to want to play for him. Sir Matt Busby did not buy any players between 1953-57. Moreover he always wanted his sides to entertain. “Go out and enjoy yourselves” was his usual last words before the players left the dressing room. Busby was a top class manager for 20 years, all you need to do is think of all the number of top class decisions he had to make in that time.

Criticism of Busby has been made in several ways, because we were 3rd and unlikely to win the title before the Munich crash it has been argued that United would not have dominated either the English or European scene. Also it has been said that while he was an excellent judge of players his coaching and tactics were either weak on non existent and one of the reasons he never had a United team which dominated in the way Liverpool or Fergie’s teams did later on., especially with the likes of Best Charlton Law Crerand Stiles et al.

More criticism has been labelled at the state in which he left United in, the players had grown old and the youth at the club was in a pretty poor state. From 1964-72 United bought only 3 players, Ian Ure, Alex Stepney and Willie Morgan, and one of those was bought by Wilf McGuinness – Ian Ure in his short stay as manager at the club. Also Busby only managed one club and in one division, his skills would almost certainly have been tested further and knowledge of the game if he would have managed other clubs and in other divisions with players perhaps less reluctant to join the club. Also players were in those days virtually owned by the club and had little power or say and had to toe the line or risk losing money that they just could not afford to lose. Motivating players in those days wasn’t a major issue. And lastly it should be pointed out Jimmy Murphy was by Busby’s side all the time he was a manager, Murphy’s influence is often vastly underestimated by fans and has been seen as an essential part of the Busby legend that should not be over looked. For example Clough never won a trophy without Taylor by his side, to underestimate Murphy’s role would be a mistake!

It should also be pointed out that while United were by no means the only club to do this, it is recognised that the club did offer large inducements to young players and their families to convince the player to sign for United. So while transfer money wasn’t a factor illegal inducements were.

Alex Ferguson

Alex Ferguson has enjoyed his first success as a manager with St Mirren (1974–78), taking the club from the Scottish second division to the Premier Division.

1980 Scottish Premier League – Winner
1982 Scottish League Cup – Winner
1982 Scottish F.A. Cup – Winner
1983 Scottish F.A. Cup – Winner
1983 European Cup Winners Cup – Winner
1984 Scottish F.A. Cup – Winner
1984 Scottish Premier League – Winner
1985 Scottish Premier League – Winner
1986 Scottish FA Cup – Winner
1990 F.A. Cup – Winner
1991 European Cup Winners Cup – Winner
1991 European Super Cup – Winner
1992 League Cup – Winner
1993 F.A. Premier League – Winner
1994 F.A. Premier League – Winner
1994 F.A. Cup – Winner
1996 F.A. Premier League – Winner
1996 F.A. Cup – Winner
1997 F.A. Premier League – Winner
1999 F.A. Premier League – Winner
1999 F.A. Cup – Winner
1999 European Champions League – Winner
1999 Intercontinental Cup – Winner
2000 F.A. Premier League – Winner
2001 F.A. Premier League – Winner
2003 F.A. Premier League – Winner
2004 F.A. Cup – Winner
2006 Carling cup – Winner

2007 F.A. Premier League – Winner

However to understand how great these achievements really are we need to examine his career in greater detail. He has succeeded at every level of football from the lower leagues of Scottish football to taking on the Scottish giants and succeeding, then he moved South and took United to the title for the first time in 26 years and to dominate English football for a decade or more. Not only has this meant he has had to get the best out of players at virtually every professional level he has done it over a time in World football where he would have had to change his style and knowledge considerably.

The modern day professional is a multi millionaire before many are out of their teens, when Fergie managed the player daren’t cross the line as he would lose his place in the side and win bonuses meant a lot and not to just the lower level pros.

In the 70s and 80s professional players who didn’t find work in the game often struggled to make a decent living, therefore motivation wasn’t as telling a factor as it has become today. Furthermore the game has changed so much, the top sides for many seasons only had to concern themselves with first team players and a couple of backups, but today great teams aren’t enough squad and squad rotation is critical, managing players who have to be left out is a skill in it’s own right as is buying these players and explaining the situation.

And of course football teams have changed so much in their make up for the majority of his career all he would have needed to know was Scottish footballers and then football changed. Managers today need to have an understanding of players from all over the world and of course a scouting network to match. How much easier must it have been when all you needed to judge was the best of British available? Then of course there is managing multi national players, rarely have we seen Fergie have problems that other managers have.

The list goes of the training methods, systems, diet etc these have changed radically in Fergies years of management and he has had to keep on top of these changes. Managers such as Paisley, Clough, Shankly who are true greats in their own right cannot compare to the numerous variables Fergie has had to contend with. Busby a brilliant manager never had to manage at all the different levels or adapt to the modern game. And we all know how unlucky he was with the great Munich side but still Busby only managed half of Fergies trophies at United alone.

Moreover Fergie had to contend with the problems of history and United’s glamour when he came to United. The glamour meant teams lifted their game when they played against us while the combination of history and glamour meant many big time players couldn’t cope with the OT stage Birtles Davenport Brazil et al. When Fergie has built great teams he has built them to last and not for the odd season or two. He had little money at any of his clubs in Scotland but at United he was given funds, although to understand his position you have to understand that much of Fergie’s money has been created by his success, which created the wealth.

Criticism of Fergie can be labelled in several ways, he has made poor buys at times such as Veron ,Taibi, Kleberson, Forlan, Djemba Djemba et al. And in his time at United while he has dominated the English scene he has failed to add to his 99 Champions League win, although it should be pointed out he was hampered with the non British players rule for several seasons and no other English team has won the premiership and the Champions League, it seems competing in the premiership run in does not help the chances of lifting the European trophy. Moreover Ferguson has had considerable funds, much of it to be fair created by his own success, and many clubs could have taken advantage of the wealth entering the premiership but for their lack of success. In his early years he had to buy from the lower divisions and sell as well as make the big transfer no different to most other clubs. And the likes of Liverpool Newcastle Blackburn and in recent times Chelsea has out spent United. However unlike Busby’s day the number of clubs capable of winning the premiership was only a fraction compared to today’s football. However it could again be argued that this was because Busby’s United never dominated football. No matter what Ferguson has achieved though at United the club was also one of the biggest in the world due to Busby’s efforts.

Brian Clough

We now turn our attentions to Clough a career in management that began in 1965 to 1993.

His record as a manager: –
Hartlepool: October 1965 – May 1967.
Derby County: June 1967 – October 1973.
1968-69: Div 2 Champions; 1971-72: League Champions; 1972-73: European Cup semi-finalists.
Brighton And Hove Albion: November 1973 – July 1974;
Leeds Utd: 44 days in 1974.
Nottingham Forest: January 1975 – May 1993.
1976-77: Div 2 promotion; 1977-78: League Champions, League Cup winners; 1978-79: European Cup, League Cup, League runners-up; 1979-80: European Cup, European Super Cup, World Club finalists, League Cup finalists; 1980-81: European Super Cup finalists, World Club finalists; 1988-89: League Cup winners,: League Cup winners; 1990-91:

To win the league with two different clubs is a remarkable feat, to do it with two teams that were in the second division when he first took over is a remarkable achievement and unsurpassed in English football.

Neither Derby nor Forest were recognised as large clubs, United, Liverpool, City, Arsenal, Leeds, Everton, Spurs, Villa, Newcastle and Sunderland to name but a few were much bigger clubs. Not only did he conquer the English league but managed two also conquer Europe winning the European cup twice with Forest. Although never winning the FA cup he won the league cup. His teams always played wonderful attractive football and respected referees.

Unfortunately towards the end of his career he like Busby lost the plot to an even greater degree and Forest were relegated. He had fallen out with his great partner and friend a number of years earlier Taylor and he never won any trophy without him by his side. Clough failed at Leeds and Brighton, although some say he was never given a chance many argued that he should have been given the England job.

Clough’s reign at Derby was ended with a dispute with directors and chairman, which resulted in him being replaced he predicted that Derby could carry on for a few years without him but then it would fall apart. His prediction was true Derby won the league again under the new management but shortly afterwards fell into a demise which to be truthful they have never fully come out of. It is probably slightly unfair to say that the manager who replaced Clough had no impact; he did after all manage the team when they won it. Clough’s style although obviously extremely successful at times has to be questioned, he failed to hold down a top job with a big club lasting only 44 days with Leeds and he was never given the England job which brings in to question his style. Clough although at times extremely successful has not managed it continuously over many years to match some of his compatriots.

Clough did remarkable things with Taylor at Derby and Forest but he could of and should have won a lot more trophies with the money at Forest. He created the wealth but failed to buy well with the results, Fashanu Hartford Wallace Ward and many other players failed to produce the goods for him when he could have won more, he also failed at Brighton and Leeds.

Bob Paisley

We now turn to Bob Paisley managed Liverpool from 1974 to 1983
1975-76 – League Champions, UEFA Cup
1976-77 – League Champions, European Cup,
1977-78 – European Cup, European Super Cup,
1978-79 – League Champions
1979-80 – League Champions
1980-81 – European Cup, League Cup
1981-82 – League Champions, League Cup
1982-83 – League Champions, League Cup

In many ways Paisley is the most successful manager, three European Cups, 6 League championships and 2 league cups. The FA cup always eluded him but in just 9 years of management what an achievement. He has won more European Cups than any manager in Britain; he did so when the only means to qualify was to win either the league or the European cup unlike today when you can finish 4th and still qualify. In 1999 united would not have been able to win the European cup and the treble had those rules still have been in place.

While it is true that Paisley’s efforts have to be put into context of what Bill Shankly had achieved previously, it would be a major mistake to give undue credit to Shanks at the expense of Paisley: Shankly turned Liverpool from an average second division side into the best team in England and one of the best in Europe. He joined in 1959 and got them promoted and won the league in 1964, 1966 and 1973, the FA Cup in 1965, and 1974, and the UEFA Cup in 1973.

He also left the club in the excellent shape, Paisley had been Liverpool coach under Shankly for numerous years and had never been manager before or after he resigned the Liverpool job. He himself left the club in a fantastic condition for Fagan and then Dalglish to carry on both the Liverpool way and their success, which was orchestrated by Shankly such as the world renowned boot room and training and fitness regimes.

However Paisley took Liverpool into unknown territory, his team ruled both British and European football simultaneously under his charge. And unlike the other managers had no dry spells to speak of, only the odd year. However his limited experience only 9 years at the top level, managing just one club, which was perhaps the richest club in England at the time, being able to break the transfer record and bring in the likes of Dalglish for 440,000, his lack of experience and therefore success at lower level leaves question marks as to whether he could have built clubs up from comparatively poor starting points such as Fergie at Aberdeen, St Mirren and to a lesser degree united, and Busby both after his appointment and again in 1958, and Clough at Derby and Forest.

I leave it up to you to decide but in my opinion Fergie just edges it over Busby! I should say that my only reservation to this list is Herbert Chapman whose career had it been after the 2nd world war would have been in this list and very close to the top at worst. I should also say Sir Alf Ramsey and Shankly deserve special mentions as great managers too.

6 Comments on Who is the Greatest Ever Manager?

  1. Good article – undecided whether I was going to post here or 606.

    Might be worth a mention that another factor in Fergie’s “failure” in Europe is due to the fact that from 1997 they started allowing 2nd, 3rd and eventually 4th placed teams in the competition.

    While this is not necessarily a bad thing and we have ourselves benefitted (financially, anyway, as well as 99) from entering when not winning the league, it is almost a completely different competition to pre-1993. Some may say that we won it without winning the league – fair enough, but by the same token, as holders, we were eliminated by Real Madrid, who hadn’t won the league for 3 years.

    I would argue the point that had the rules stayed to one team per country entering the CL then United were without question the team best equipped.

    Would Wenger have had so much patience from his board without the CL cashpot? After disastrous campaigns in 2000 and 2001 would Wenger have been able to convince Dein and co of his vision?

    Would Chelsea have had so much investment from Abramovich in 2003 had they not got into the CL in 4th place in the last minute of the season?

    Would Liverpool still be relatively big?

    It’s a maybe for the Wenger questions, certainly not for the Chelsea/Liverpool situation.

    It’s my belief that had the CL format stayed as champions only (or even top 2) we’d certainly have passed Liverpools league title record and maybe have matched their European Cup record too.

    The fact of the matter is we haven’t – but this is not down to a lack of managerial ability from Ferguson. Our Sir has built an empire built on Busby’s vision and re-introduced the swaggering arrogance of the late 60’s to our side. He has consistently outthought supposedly “better” managers and continues to rise above them in achievement.

    Managers can really only be fairly judged in their respective eras and the quality of competition. By that token then it’s almost impossible to give a definitive “who’s best” answer – Busby for rebuilding a club, Paisley for concentrated success, Clough for making European Champions out of a relatively small club, or Ferguson for (again) rebuilding a club and transforming it in the way he has.

    They were all in different eras – all their respective achievements were greater than their contemporaries but no greater or worse than comparables from different eras.

    Bit long winded but it is a subject that needs a lot of dialogue!

  2. Good article there. To say who is the best is a bit subjective for me. You might say that Fergie could never have achieved anything at United if Busby hadn’t built the club in the first place. But then does that make Busby the better manager?

    There was a statistic published that showed that Mourhino had the best trophy to season ratio of any manager in the English game. Does statistics then show him to be the best manager?

    All very interesting to start the debate.

  3. Paul at United on fire

    I think you need to look at other factors besides just trophies, trophies are important but longevity and managing and succeeding at different levels and the resources available the competition etc, which is some of the factors I have attempted to include in the analysis.

  4. I totally agree with that. Except that winning trophies is an important part of greatness, but I’d put in factors like creating more than one great side (busby and fergie win there; mourhino doesn’t, wenger does) winning the european cup (yes, mourhino, busby, fergie, sorry wenger but no).

    I like you comment about Herbert Chapman, winning 3 titles in a row with two different clubs is some achievement. 3 in a row seems to be incredibly hard

  5. Paul at United on fire

    i think he had left Huddersfield before they won their 3rd title for arsenal

    I agree Herbert Chapman’s record was superb, and introduced a number of innovative improvements to football.

    However I do think that football pre war and post war was a different ball game, I think the fact he was one of the first managers to pick his team rather than a board helped considerably and subsequently made life more difficult for others. managers as such were very different in those days more secretaries with board members acting as managers do today. In that sense i think the competition and knowledge and skills required of football post world war two is very different.

  6. The best read I’ve ever read, absolutely superb, well researched, incredible detail, it must have took you ages to write.

    Thanks so much for writing it, I will let other football fans know about it.

    In fact I cannot think of a better read on the web

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