Greatest Ever British Manager Analysed

Busby and Ferguson

AUTHOR: – The Mancunian Red (Guest Blogger)

The question of who is the greatest manager to have managed in Britain has been a question which has been discussed but never properly analysed. It obviously has countless problems as it isn’t possible to compare many of the factors like for like. The criteria which I use to assess the managers obviously cannot be based purely on the number of trophies won, we also need to assess the resources and problems and longevity of success. I will begin with a brief explanation of the managers career then analyse some of the best and worst aspects of his career!

After much thought I narrowed the list to Clough, Busby, Fergie and Paisley. Leaving out the likes of Shankly, Herbert Chapman (the self proclaimed special one) and Sir Alf Ramsay was not easy and I will be happy to debate the pros and cons of my analysis should anyone desire. The case for Chapman is probably strongest and I should note I do feel at unease by his omission.

Sir Matt Busby

Busby managed just one club his entire career and that was 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.

Old Trafford had been bombed and had to take 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. This was ground breaking, teams in the past had never been created with so much emphasis on youth and inexperience.
Duncan Edwards was amazingly snatched out of the hands of his home town club the great Wolverhampton Wanderers, Bobby Charlton from Newcastle, Liam Whelan from Ireland and Mark Jones from 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 was to be recognised as the Busby Babes.

United won the title in 1951/52, 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 its 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.

Busby’s last great team started off by winning the FA Cup in 63 followed by 2 titles in 1964/5 and 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 era 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 10,000 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 we 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 he didn’t spend excessively. 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. Moreover he was ahead of his time in developing youth and taking United in to the European Cup against the wishes and recommendations of the governing body.

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 as much as some have predicted. Also it has been said that while he was an excellent judge of players, his coaching and tactics were either weak on nonexistent and one of the reasons he never had a United team which dominated in the way Liverpool or Fergie’s teams did later on. With the likes of Best, Charlton, Law, Crerand and Stiles et al United should have won much more.

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.

Trophies won :
• First Division (5): 1951–52, 1955–56, 1956–57, 1964–65, 1966–67
• FA Cup (2): 1947–48, 1962–63
• FA Charity Shield (5): 1952, 1956, 1957, 1965, 1967
• European Cup (1): 1967–68

Sir 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. He has succeeded at every level of football from the lower leagues of Scottish football to taking on and beating the Scottish giants before he moved South and took United to the title for the first time in 26 years and to dominate English football for a couple of decades. 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.

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. 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 Fergie’s 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 less than half of Fergie’s 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 Old Trafford 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 dominate Europe in the same way. Although it should be pointed out he was hampered with the non English players rule for several seasons and no club has managed to win back to back Champions League trophies. Moreover, does the Premiership and its lack of Christmas/New Year break make it more difficult to win the Champions League? The Premiership has always been easier to win compared to division one in the 50s, 60s, 70s and the spending under Fergie has been higher, even in real terms than all the other top managers discussed. Although it can be said Fergie has earned his transfer budged primarily through success.

In his early years he had to buy from the lower divisions and sell as well as make the big transfer, which was very similar to the likes of Liverpool, Arsenal, Newcastle et al. 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.

Trophies won :

St. Mirren
• Scottish First Division (1): 1976–77
• Scottish Premier Division (3): 1979–80, 1983–84, 1984–85
• Scottish Cup (4): 1981–82, 1982–83, 1983–84, 1985–86
• Scottish League Cup (1): 1985–86
• UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup (1): 1982–83
• UEFA Super Cup (1): 1983
Manchester United
• Premier League (11): 1992–93, 1993–94, 1995–96, 1996–97, 1998–99, 1999–2000, 2000–01, 2002–03, 2006–07, 2007–08, 2008–09
• FA Cup (5): 1989–90, 1993–94, 1995–96, 1998–99, 2003–04
• League Cup (4): 1991–92, 2005–06, 2008–09, 2009–10
• FA Charity/Community Shield (9): 1990*, 1993, 1994, 1996, 1997, 2003, 2007, 2008, 2010 (* shared)
• UEFA Champions League (2): 1998–99, 2007–08
• UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup (1): 1990–91
• UEFA Super Cup (1): 1991
• Intercontinental Cup (1): 1999
• FIFA Club World Cup (1): 2008

Brian Clough

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

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 to 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, Peter Taylor, and he never won any major trophy without him by his side (he won the League Cup but never the European Cup FA Cup or League). 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 and Ward are just some of the players that failed to produce the goods for him when he could have won more; he also failed at Brighton and Leeds.

Trophies won :

Derby County
• First Division: 1971–72
• Second Division: 1968–69
• Watney Cup: 1970
Leeds United
• FA Charity Shield: 1974
Nottingham Forest
• First Division: 1977–78
• League Cup: 1977–78, 1978–79, 1988–89, 1989–90
• European Cup: 1978–79, 1979–80
• FA Charity Shield: 1978
• European Super Cup: 1979
• League Championship: 1978–79
• FA Cup: 1990–91
• League Cup: 1979–80, 1991–92
• European Super Cup: 1980
• Intercontinental Cup: 1980

Bob Paisley

We now turn to Bob Paisley, who managed Liverpool from 1974 to 1983

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. One of the most interesting ‘tit bits’ I come across researching this article was that Paisley could work out just watching a player training if he was on the verge of being injured.

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.

Trophies Won:

• First Division
• Champions: 1975–76, 1976–77, 1978–79, 1979–80, 1981–82, 1982–83
• Runners-up: 1974–75, 1977–78
• European Cup
• Winners: 1977, 1978, 1981
• UEFA Cup
• Winners: 1976
• FA Cup
• Runners-up: 1977
• Football League Cup
• Winners: 1981, 1982, 1983
• Runners-up: 1978
• European Super Cup
• Winners: 1977
• Runners-up: 1978
• FA Charity Shield
• Winners: 1976, 1979, 1980, 1982
• Shared: 1977

Based on success at different levels, longevity, the changing game, and continued success it is difficult to see beyond Fergie.

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21 Comments on Greatest Ever British Manager Analysed

  1. Could have included Shankly in there mate.

    But I’d still go with Sir Alex,keeps building teams, keeps shutting up doubters and sets the standard, if he wins nothing, he’s still up there competing, and is competing with big spenders in the league and Europe.

  2. Comment by Baldrick — May 5, 2011 @ 4:40 am
    Convince me Bill Shankly is the best

  3. Comment by Matt — May 5, 2011 @ 4:33 am

    I did originally but his achievements were similar but not as good as Clough, I would have been repeating many of the factors that I did with Clough but Clough’s record was more impressive to my mind.

    If records were similar I compared the two managers and selected the best.

  4. Nice one Mancunian Red, great read.
    Personally I think it’s a case of trying to quantify the unquantifyable.
    All managers had fantastic careers but the conditions under which they worked are all different.

    If I had to choose it may sound a little biased but I think you have to go with SAF, his methods & personality may not be liked by many outside of OT but not only has he had success & forged a dynesty under similar conditions to the afore mentioned peers but has evolved with the modern era and is still competing toe to toe with managers like Morhnio & Capello who have consistantly won trophies in their managerial careers.
    I have to admit SAF apart I liked Cloughie alot.
    I’m suprised Jock Stein has not had a small mention as he was an inspiration to some of the above too.

  5. Comment by 3times — May 5, 2011 @ 6:10 am

    Cheers I think you can always assess factors for example many people talk about Clough doing it with a small club – true but he spent bigger than United and the likes of Shilton chose Forest over United as we wouldn’t match his wages.

    I will one day do an analysis of foreign managers and assess how well Fergie compares.

    I did think seriously about adding Stein his achievements were fantastic and may be I will add him should I do a review.

  6. Comment by Mancunian Red
    I think doing foreign managers will be easier as there are a number of modern day coaches who have Champs league an national titles to their name. People like Jose, Sven, Capello all spring to mind.

  7. Comment by 3times — May 5, 2011 @ 7:17 am

    But my knowledge of all the achievements and their weaknesses are something as yet I don’t know enough about to do a comprehensive analysis as I’ve done for the above 🙂

  8. I think Sir Matt is the best manager on this list he was ahead of his he time, he was one of the first managers to don a tracksuit and train his players in the way he wanted them to play. He also built the club up from ruins twice as you have pointed out and also it must have been the hardest thing in the world for him to go back to work after Munich so for these reason’s I would say Busby is the Greastest.

  9. Comment by Emacca — May 5, 2011 @ 10:20 am

    You make some thoughtful points and I agree creating United as the major force in British football is very significant. And without Busby would there have been a Fergie or our great fan base. I agree that is why he comes 2nd on my list I think managing at all different levels, in different countries and dominating football in England and to a degree Europe and to go through the major changes in the game – Fergie edges it for me. Also when I think of Busby I think of Murphy and Busby – Fergie has had loads of assistants by his side – would Busby have been the same without Murphy I doubt it. Also Busby didn’t do tactics, Murphy did tactics.

    But an excellent reply thank you!

  10. I voted for Sir Alex Ferguson.

    I am shocked at the exclusion of Bill Shankly.He was the man who rebuilt Liverpool.Shankly took charge of Liverpool when they were bottom of the Second Division but soon established them as one of the major forces in the English game.Because of him Liverpool could enjoy further success under Bob Paisley.Shankly has got to be there.

  11. Comment by Ashwin Venkat — May 6, 2011 @ 1:08 am

    But Clough did all that and did it with two clubs and won 2 European Cups as well as two division one titles with Forest and Derby I cannot see how Shanks beats Clough. So I left Shanks out.

    I agree that Shanks’s record could be described as better than Paisley’s BUT Paisley’s is different from the rest and had to be discussed. Shanks a truly great manager but sorry imo he doesn’t beat Clough and has similar attributes over his career.

  12. Superb article, really enjoyed thinking about what you’ve said can you tell me why you excuded Herbert Champan as I don’t know much about him.

    Also being a bit academic could you give more reasons why you think one so called reason is more important to another?

    Really do enjoy your stuff

  13. Which variable do you think or rate as the most important and then the next and the next.

    Best article on the web, original, analytical, thoughtful and thought provoking.

  14. Thank you so much for your kind remarks I will get back to you I promise and try my best to answer your points but at the moment I am really tired.

  15. Great article, didn’t vote as I find it impossible to choose between such great managers – would certainly be interested in similar work regarding foreign managers.

  16. Sorry to late getting back to you.

    Comment by Ricky — May 7, 2011 @ 2:40 am

    I think the most important variable is building a winning club and keeping it at the top for a long time. Especially so if you do it with different clubs. Then you need to assess what factors they have that make it easier or more difficult. For example Jose took over after they finished 2nd and semi final semi finalist and they had spent over 100 million and he had another 100 million to spend when he took over the club. City also have millions to spend but have a monkey on their back because they haven’t won for so long.

    Also critical factors are how competitive is the league. for Fergie to overturn the Glasgow giants at Aberdeen I think that is as good as any of his achievements at United.

    Moreover I think length of a career and number of successful years. Paisley is probably the most successful manager in terms of winning trophies over such a short period and having so little failure. People I think unfairly try to put it at Shanks’s door but Shanks never won a European Cup and Paisley if my memory is correct – I should really check but I don’t think he won the title in his first season in charge he had to make numerous changed to genuinely make Liverpool the best. Including buying Nicol, Whelan, Dalglish, Rush, Lawrenson et al. He started off with a good base but really improved it big time. He was in charge for 9 yrs so he rebuiult Liverpool many many times and left them in great shape.

    So its looking at the main reasons and assessing the points and factors within the main point.

    If you want me to explain more I’m happy to do so – sorry for being late

  17. Comment by Carl Williams — May 6, 2011 @ 10:45 am

    Herbert Chapman loses out purely and probably unfairly because he is pre first world war. He was reported to be involved in a n illegal payments scandal and was banned but on appeal it was lifted. He won two titles back to back with Huddersfield and then moved to Arsenal and won 3 on the run
    The game wasn’t as developed in those days but Chapman was ahead of his time, with training, tactics and it could be genuinely argued he had more effect on other managers and clubs than any other. He revolutionized the game as he was copied.

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