Sunday, 6 November 2011

Britain's Greatest Footballing Manager - Sir Alex Ferguson (closely followed by Brian Clough)

Today is my father's 75th birthday. He wasn't much of a football fan but he did take me to Villa Park on my first trip to that footballing mecca of my life back in the autumn of 1995 when I was 13.

So he wouldn't have had much interest in the fact that his birthday coincided with a remarkable date in footballing history and to my amazement, I only realised it myself in recent days. For on my father's 50th birthday on November 6th 1986, Alex Ferguson became manager of Manchester United. Little could the footballing world have realised what a momentous moment that day would turn out to be in the world of British football. Little, no doubt, could my father have cared!

An Old Trafford Legend
Back in December I blogged here on Sir Alex's feat of overtaking Sir Matt Busby as the longest-serving manager in the history of that famous old club that since 1910 has played its home matches at Old Trafford.

Now, we stand at an incredible landmark in what is an incredible career. 25 years as manager at any club in the current 'hire 'em and fire 'em' climate is incredible enough but to have lasted that length of time at the helm of one of the world's biggest clubs and with all of the pressure that goes with that hot-seat makes it even more so.

His Honours List is just mind-boggling. 12 Premiership titles, 5 FA Cups, 4 League Cups, 2 Champions League titles, 1 European Cup Winners Cup title and a win each in the UEFA Super Cup, the Intercontinental Cup and the FIFA World Club Cup speak volumes in themselves. But it is longevity and his ability to re-build teams from within the club during that time to ensure that they remain at the pinacle of English football and the ability of those new teams to maintain that high standard is what marks him out for me as an extraordinary and unique individual within his profession.

The Competition?
Because let's not beat about the bush here, in my mind, Sir Alex Ferguson is the best British footballing manager of all-time. A big call? Absolutely and many will of course disagree. But as an Aston Villa fan that could grind many an axe with old Fergie (see the 1992/93 Premiership season and the 2010 Carling Cup final as examples), I am nevertheless first and foremost a historian and this historian can look back and realise that when he has long gone, Sir Alex Ferguson will be rightly considered a genius.

Ferguson - Paisley - Clough - Shankly
Scousers the world over will scream the name Bob Paisley and for good reason - 6 league titles, 3 league cups, 3 European Cups, 1 UEFA Cup and 1 European Super Cup stand the test of time at Anfield.

Bill Shankly also has a stellar record at that same club - 3 league titles, 2 FA Cups and a UEFA Cup.

Then what about 'Ol Big 'ead? Well, Brian Clough deserves his place in the pantheon without question. Indeed, I would arguably place his achievements above those of Paisley and Shankly. Why? Because he managed to win the league championship with unfancied clubs in the shape of Derby County in 1972 and Nottingham Forest in 1978 having brought both up from the second division - something that today would be nigh-on impossible to achieve. He then went on and matched Paisley's feat of back-to-back European Cup victories of 1977 and 1978 with those of his own in 1979 and 1980. A truly remarkable though tortured charcater.

The names of Don Revie, Jock Stein, Bill Nicholson and Stan Cullis will also be mentioned and again for good reason. But like with Paisley and Shankly, they could only work their alchemy at a single club.

This for me is why Ferguson sits atop the pile. Why? Well, because for me his genius lies, similarly as it does with Clough, in the fact that he managed to prove his greatness at not just one, but two clubs.

Clough did what he did at two unfashionable clubs. Unfortunately however, although his longevity at the latter was of an impessive standard, the footballing results weren't - 4 League Cups were the sum total of his final 10 years at the City Ground with his final season ending in the ignominy of relegation in 1993. It was a sad way for a genius who could turn the ordinary into the exceptional, to end a controversial but glittering career.

Sir Alex Ferguson is the best of this illustrious bunch not because of what he has done at Manchester United, but because he did all that he has done there having done the same at Aberdeen before that.

Ferguson winning the European Cup Winners Cup
with Aberdeen
To say that he led the team from Pittodrie to 3 Scottish league titles, 4 Scottish FA Cups, a Scottish League Cup and a European Cup Winners Cup as well as the UEFA Super Cup is just playing with statistics. What he did, and what no man has done since, is smash the Old Firm stranglehold in Scottish football to bits. No team since his final league title win at Aberdeen in 1985 outside of Glasgow has been able to match that feat. That is a 26 year hold on the Scottish title by either Rangers of Celtic and the saddest thing is that that shows no sign of changing any time soon.

His back-to-back title wins with Aberdeen in 1984 and 1985 in addition is only the second time in the history of a Scottish  league that dates back to 1890 in which a club outside of the Old Firm duo has won outright back-to-back titles. The other was Hibernian in 1951 and 1952. That fact in itself is absolute madness but demonstrates just what a genius this man is that he could break that iron-like grip in a way that had hardly ever been done before and has not been done since.

In total, Sir Alex Ferguson has won 48 trophies as a manager, making him the most successful British football manager in history. But as my comments above testify, the sheer number isn't what makes him the best - it is his longevity, his proven track record with 2 different clubs in two different countries and an ability to reinvent a team to stay at the summit time after time after time that makes him the stand-out manager in the history of British football.

As a neutral footballing fan of Aston Villa support, I can make this argument without being blindly biased towards one club or another as most who make arguments in this debate inevitably are.

Sir Alex's Long Shadow - The Sir Alex Ferguson Stand
To mark his 25th anniversary, it was a wonderful touch by the club to honour the moment by re-naming the club's old North Stand in his honour. It is a fitting tribute which, like his incredible achievements, will last the test of time.

It will however, as will those achievements over these past 25 years, cast a long shadow over the club and that of his successor. When will Sir Alex leave the dugout? Who knows. He probably has a good 5 years left in him and I'm sure he'd like to match the one record that he yet holds - that of Bob Paisley's 3 European Cup victories. But whenever he does, as was the case when Sir Matt Busby retired after 24 years at the helm, it will take a giant of a character to fill his shoes.

Looking up from the dugout at that name looking back down at him, whoever it may be, probably won't help!

1 comment:

  1. Well done Cole, a very good read!
    I would say the Greatest manager of all time though, not just in Britain! The amount of foreign managers, some who've never managed in England or Scotland, talk of his genius and legend. They refer to him as "The Godfather". All managers, maybe apart from the arrogant Benitez, talk of how at any time of day they can phone Sir Alex, esentially a rival, and seek and recieve advice.
    He gets a lot of bad press from the British media, but sadly in this country thats the sign of success. Being a Man Utd fan I hero worship the man, but I feel his Genius and Legend will only be fully recognised when he's gone!
    We turn 30 next year Cole, and only 4 years of our lifetimes has Sir Alex not managed United, a staggering stat!

    I dont envy the next manager of United, they'll be on a hiding to nothing, all i can hope for is that our great club afford the next manager the time they gave Busby and Ferguson because Man Utd above all have showed what patience can do!