I telephoned Sir Alex Ferguson the other day in my capacity as a fellow member of the hip replacement club. The great man is still in recovery mode following his recent surgery and it was good to chat with my former adversary, the recently-retired most successful manager in the history of British football. My conversation with Sir Alex got me thinking that we are almost certainly never going to see his like again, him and that other outstanding trio of British managers, Bill Shankly, Bob Paisley and Brian Clough. You see, these four men, collectively winners of a mind-blowing 67 major trophies, would probably have neither the opportunity, nor the inclination, to go into football management in the modern “qualifications” dominated system.
These legends were not only dyed-in-the-wool football men, they were also natural-born leaders, whose phenomenal achievements owed more to their instinctive man-management skills and hunger and desire for success than to anything you could read in a coaching manual. Indeed, when Shankly started his revolution at Liverpool in 1959, I’m not sure if there were any coaching manuals! Now, to get a job bossing a Premier League club, a candidate must endure two or three years’ university course-type study en route to attaining his UEFA Pro Licence, the Holy Grail prerequisite as stipulated by football’s governing body in Europe. You must have your UEFA B Licence, then your A License and, finally, your Pro Licence, achieved after an estimated 240 hours of studying. I ask myself, would Shanks, Paisley, Cloughie and Fergie put themselves through that if they were starting out now? The answer, I’m pretty sure, would be no. That being so, imagine all that managerial quality, all of those titles and trophies, being lost to the game. It is a fascinating thought.
Shankly, for example, founder of the famous boot room culture at Liverpool, used to tell his assistants at the end of the season: “Go to Lilleshall, do the coaching courses, take it all in – then get back here and forget it.” Of course, he wouldn’t have meant that, literally, but implicit in his message was the belief that you can’t be coached to get the best out of footballers. That comes from within, from a man’s instinctive ability to identify a player’s strengths and weaknesses and to maximise those strengths. You need charisma, you must command respect and you MUST be able to judge a player.
Nowadays, you MUST have the UEFA Pro Licence.
Shankly, fuelled by his sheer will and love and understanding of the game, transformed Liverpool from a run-of-the-mill club, wallowing in the old Second Division, into the pre-eminent force in English football throughout the 1960′s and 70′s, leading the club to three First Division titles, one UEFA Cup and two FA Cup wins. His successor, Paisley, the former trainer whose tasks included running on to the pitch with bucket and sponge, was a man whose outward, quiet persona concealed an inner ruthlessness. Soft-spoken Paisley had an ‘everybody’s favourite uncle’ image, but he was known as ‘Rats’ at Anfield because he had been one of Field Marshall Montgomery’s Desert Rats in World War Two. A player of modest ability, Bob developed into one of the managerial giants, taking over the reins from Shankly and scooping an incredible three European Cups, six League titles, three League Cups, a UEFA Cup and a Super Cup in nine years. Bob took Kenny Dalglish, arguably Liverpool’s greatest player, and that supremely elegant forward John Barnes to Anfield.
How do you begin to explain the genius that was Clough, like Paisley a son of the North East of England, and the man who worked football miracles by elevating “second city” clubs Derby County and Nottingham Forest to the top of the English game and, in Forest’s case, staggeringly, to the top in Europe. Clough went on FA courses but, I am reliably informed, he was not remotely a stand-out coach, probably only paying lip service to the Establishment. Clough’s feats with Derby and Forest, who won the European Cup in successive seasons, will go down in the annals as one of the greatest achievements in British football. You can be sure that none of his success was down to anything he learned on a coaching course and that all of it was due to his innate ability to command respect and get the very best out of players, so many of whom, in his Forest team, in particular, were guys he picked off the scrapheap. Clough, aided and abetted by assistant Peter Taylor, brought in bad boys like Larry Lloyd and Kenny Burns, rejects like Ian Bowyer and Colin Barrett, free transfers like supposedly over-the-hill full-back Frank Clark and turned them into world-beaters, members of a team who did not answer back to referees and who went to fortresses like Anfield and Old Trafford and won, when nobody else could. Clough also knew when to invest, buying Peter Shilton, the best keeper in the world at the time, and making Trevor Francis Britain’s first £1million player – then putting him on the bench on his debut! If that wasn’t an example of how to bring a player down to earth, to show him who is boss, then I don’t know what it was. Clough turned John Robertson, the cigarette-smoking, whiskey-loving, chubby winger into one of the most feared forwards in Europe. He made Peter Withe, a free transfer from Southport, into an England centre-forward. I don’t know how he did all these remarkable things, but I do know he didn’t get his inspiration from coaching manuals.
And then there is arguably the daddy of them all, Ferguson, the tough guy from Govan, Glasgow, who became the first of several candidates to be capable of stepping into Sir Matt Busby’s shoes at Old Trafford and who went on to emulate – and even surpass – the legend. It is difficult to separate Shankly, Paisley, Clough and Ferguson in terms of their accomplishments, but perhaps what sets Ferguson apart is his success in embracing the advent of the twin eras of sports science and the multi-millionaire superstar player. That and the fact that he built so many all-conquering teams. Ferguson, already an icon in Scotland where he pushed Aberdeen above previously all-dominant Celtic and Rangers, took over a sleeping giant when he became United boss in 1986 and he transformed the club into a raging monster that gobbled up silverware like no other club had, not even Liverpool. Indeed, this most driven of men stated that his mission was to break Liverpool’s stranglehold on English football. Ferguson retired in May having notched his 13th Premier League title – 13th! His unrivalled 38 major trophy haul also includes three Scottish Premier League wins, four Scottish Cups, one Scottish League Cup, two Cup-Winners’ Cups, two Super Cups, five FA Cups, four League Cups, two Champions Leagues and two World Club Cups.
He did all of that and recently said that one of the best decisions he ever made was, while at Aberdeen, to stop taking coaching and instead to observe from the sidelines, thus being in a better position to assess his players’ form, mental attitude and fitness levels. Clough, whose unique approach included rarely bothering to attend training, once said: “Players lose you games, not tactics. There’s too much crap talked about tactics by people who barely know how to win a game of dominoes.” Ferguson had the nerve – and, believe me you need it, especially at that level – to rebuild teams, the confidence to set standards and the determination never to concede control. Those strictly adhered to rules were the bedrock upon which this remarkable man ran United, so successfully, for an unprecedented 26 years. For the modern, top-level, fully-licensed manager three or four years in the job is akin to a marathon stint.
As I say, we will never see the likes of Messrs Shankly, Paisley, Clough and Ferguson again. And more’s the pity.