Football managers and their kind – very few are winners

STEVE BRUCE has left the building and possibly the worst job he has ever endured. Hated by the Newcastle United fans, a servant to an owner who was equally disliked, and living on borrowed time after the club was taken over in somewhat controversial circumstances. It was probably a blessed relief for a man who is nothing more than an honest broker of a football manager. It was “mutual consent” and all that nonsense, a corporate phrase used to spare feelings and blushes, but what this catch-all term really meant was, “paid off, non-disclosure agreement signed and let’s say no more”.

Bruce lasted 97 games, which is below the average among current Premier League managers, which stands at 127. But take out Sean Dyche (401), Jürgen Klopp (330) and Pep Guardiola (301) and half of the Premier’s managers have been in charge for under 100 games.

Bruce had a win rate of 28.9%, a struggling team’s record, but Newcastle United have rarely been much better than underachievers. More illustrious names have struggled to bring success to the club – Rafa Benitez (42.47%), Chris Hughton (49.38%), Bobby Robson (46.67%) and Graeme Souness (44.83%), not to mention the first Kevin Keegan era (54.98%) have all done better, their records boosted, in some cases, by stints in the second tier. The bottom line is, many men have tried in vain to make Newcastle successful which leads one to assume the problem isn’t necessarily the managers, but elsewhere within the structure.

Very few managers win trophies, because very few teams win the big prizes, as evidenced in the records of current Premier bosses. Just five have won with their current sides: Mikkel Arteta (Arsenal), Thomas Tuchel (Chelsea), Brendan Rodgers (Leicester City), Klopp (Liverpool) and Guardiola (Manchester City). The last manager to win silverware with Manchester United was none other than José Mourinho, which also underlines the small universe of success managers circulate within.

In the past five seasons, there have been nine winning managers, of which four (Wenger, Conte, Sarri and Mourinho) are no longer plying their trade in the Premier League. Of the remaining five, Tuchel’s one victory with Chelsea was in European football. That leaves four domestic winners: Guardiola (eight prizes), Rodgers (one), Arteta (one) and Klopp (one). 

The chances of success are slim and getting slimmer as time passes due to the polarisation of big-time football. Guardiola’s record is outstanding whichever way you look at it. Since 2009, he has led his club to a league title in nine out of 12 seasons in which he has been working. In total, he has won 20 major trophies. His win rate at Manchester City is 72.64%. José Mourinho has also won 20, including eight league titles. These two coaches compare favourably with Sir Alex Ferguson, who won 34 across his time with Aberdeen and Manchester United. They both exceed the performance of Arséne Wenger, who won 14 overall, 10 of which were with Arsenal.

Ferguson and Wenger were unique in that they were employed by a single club for a very long time. They are both the most successful managers their respective clubs have ever had. Ferguson’s trophy haul dwarfs every one of his predecessors and successors – Matt Busby, for example, won eight trophies with United compared to Ferguson’s 25.

Similarly, at Arsenal, Wenger’s record is far more impressive than any of the men that came before him. Herbert Chapman, who contributed to the development of the modern game more than most, won just three prizes with Arsenal (two league titles in 1931 and 1933 and the FA Cup 1930). Chapman’s successors, George Allison, Tom Whittaker and later, Bertie Mee, all won three prizes apiece.

Chapman’s career was curtailed by his premature death, but his influence was actually far greater than his on-pitch success. Similarly, Bill Shankly’s record was not as comprehensive at Anfield as some people believe, although his legacy was effectively what became the modern Liverpool.

Shankly won six major trophies: three league titles, the FA Cup twice and the UEFA Cup. His successor, Bob Paisley, a more unassuming, humble figure, lifted 13 trophies, including six league titles, three Football League Cups, three European Cups and the UEFA Cup. Paisley’s win rate was 57.57%, compared to Shankly’s Liverpool figure of 51.98%. Kenny Dalglish, who took over as player-manager in the post-Paisley period and then had a second stint as manager, enjoyed a win rate of over 60% in his first spell and won five trophies, adding another in 2011-12. 

Managers have their time and often they coincide with the best of times for their respective clubs, such as Brian Clough at Forest, Bobby Robson at Ipswich, Don Revie at Leeds United and Graham Taylor at Watford. In the modern game, there is a reluctance to acknowledge that the good times eventually come to an end. Wenger at Arsenal had run his course long before he left, Mourinho is still trying to be very relevant when his best days may just be behind him. It is hard to imagine any top manager admitting he’s no longer up to the role – such as Bill Nicholson did when he left Spurs in 1974 or even Matt Busby when he stepped down for the first time. Brian Clough, genius though he was in his prime, should have passed the baton on earlier than 1993. Great managers generally know when their time is up, but human nature being what it is, they can often be in denial.

Steve Bruce has said that he may never work again and it is likely that his recent experiences may deter him from stepping back into the firing line. Clubs do not have patience anymore, they are unwilling to build something over time and want instant gratification. It is often forgotten that Sir Alex Ferguson went from 1986 to 1990 before winning his first cup with Manchester United and then another three before clinching the league title.  In today’s football, he would never have that kind of luxury. 

Likewise, a club like Chelsea would not allow two seasons to pass without silverware. One barren campaign, maybe, but after that, no way. Chelsea went from 1971 to 1997 without a major honour. The exception to this contemporary rule was Arsenal and Arséne Wenger, who went from 2005 to 2014 without needing to break out the silver polish. In hindsight, Arsenal may regret allowing a stagnating system to prevail, but post-Wenger has hardly been a happy time at the Emirates Stadium.

As Newcastle United search for a new manager, they will not only be looking for someone with a track record, but also a figure that can match their lofty ambitions. They will want to make a statement, and not one as anodyne as the message accompanying the departure of Steve Bruce. Success can be measured in many ways, but the new owners will interpret it quite simply as, “trophies, please”.

Busby, Shankly and Stein – the three kings bearing gifts and wisdom

FOOTBALL films invariably disappoint, but the documentary about three legends, Matt Busby, Bill Shankly and Jock Stein, is a chapter from the rich history of the game that reminds us it has not always been about corporatisation and hubris. Three humble men in many ways, confident of their own ability but very clear about to whom they were accountable.

Three Kings is about three giant men, whose power was built on the public respect for their abilities, their ethos and the fact they cared. All Scots from working class, mining backgrounds, these three men created the modern post-war game long before the likes of Wenger, Ferguson and Mourinho. They were the forerunners.

Shankly has always come across as slightly boyish and a little naïve, but here was a man as hard as granite, who identified with the fans on the terraces. There was no divide between capital and labour with Shankly – he worked for the people of Liverpool – “it’s you who pays our wages” – and he created a communion between the players, the supporters and those that ran the club. Liverpool under Shankly were not pioneers of a style of play, but they perfected a machine-like efficiency that fed-off the passion of the manager and the locals. 

Shankly’s record was overtaken by his successor, Bob Paisley – Shanks won six major honours with Liverpool to Paisley’s 13, but the cultural impact of Shankly was greater than anyone who took the role after him. Likewise, Kevin Keegan was never the player that Kenny Dalglish was, but Keegan is credited with kick-starting a revolution. Did Shankly retire too early? There’s no doubt he regretted leaving Anfield when he did, a strange move given he had just won the FA Cup for the second time. Given he was a football man through and through, whose life had been devoted to the sport, it was no surprise that he found himself lacking purpose in retirement. 

Similarly, Sir Matt Busby’s record at Manchester United was overwhelmed by Sir Alex Ferguson’s trophy-winning habits – eight versus 25. But Busby’s contribution was transformational in that he nurtured the concept of developing players, “polishing oiur diamonds”, and built a string of good teams. All teams built from within became “babes” after Busby’s creation of a near 100% home-grown side in the 1950s. They were the “Busby Babes”, many of whom died in the Munich air crash of 1958. While Shankly was more about the dynamic between him and the fans, Busby was like a father figure to his players. 

While Shankly’s departure clearly didn’t prohibit Paisley in 1974, Busby’s retirement, initially in 1969, left a gap that prevented his successors from fulfilling their potential. Nobody wanted to admit it, but Busby’s huge presence was a problem for Manchester United – certainly for Wilf McGuinness and Frank O’Farrell.

Celtic’s Jock Stein will forever be known as “the big man”, an imposing figure who could match Busby for presence – little wonder that when the United job became available, the club wanted Stein to take charge. At the time, Celtic were every bit as big as United, and certainly more successful. Stein was another manager who respected the role of the people in creating a club. “Without the fans, football is nothing,” he would say.

Stein’s record at Celtic was incredible, 10 league titles, nine Scottish Cup wins, six league cup victories and of course, the European Cup in 1967. Shankly loved Stein and said he had become immortal by winning the European Cup in Lisbon against an Inter Milan side he had no love for. “Jock has the blood of [Robert] Bruce,” he claimed. Stein died in 1985, suffering a heart attack at the World Cup qualifier between Scotland and Wales. He had left Celtic in 1978 – with a win rate of 70% – becoming full-time Scotland manager. 

Busby, Shankly and Stein all have statues in memory of their monumental contribution to football and to the people at their respective clubs. Much-loved figures, their achievements in terms of silverware may have been bettered by others, but no matter how many prizes future managers of Liverpool, Manchester United and Celtic win, their legends will live on. Three Kings is a fitting tribute to these decent, principled men who, to quote the inscription on Shankly’s statue, “made people happy”.

@GameofthePeople