- Managers 50-41
- Managers 40-31
- Managers 30-21
- Managers 20-11
- Managers 10-1
- How it works
- Numbers breakdown: the best represented countries and decades
- The managers who missed out and why
- The full list
Alex Ferguson looked on, realising a big lesson was needed here. He had been sitting in the Carrington canteen, chatting away to an old friend but keeping a vigilant eye on the Manchester United youngsters lining up for lunch.
As underage forward Robbie Brady opened his mouth to order, he was suddenly cut off by someone cutting in. Cristiano Ronaldo, just in the door and having just received the 2008 Ballon D’Or, presumed the place in the queue to go with his new prize.
He presumed correctly. Brady stood off.
As the hungry lad walked off, tray in his hands a few moments later than he expected, Ferguson called the young Irishman over.
“Why did you let him in there?”
“Well, you know… it’s Ronaldo boss.”
“You’re here to try take his place son. Don’t let me see you do that again.”
It’s only a little vignette but still one that tells a whole lot about why Ferguson has won what he’s won.
Interestingly, the solitary manager in history who can claim a better record than Ferguson in continental football would have advocated a different approach. He would have nodded approvingly.
Bob Paisley, the only coach to have won three European Cups, once explained of his attitude to the up-and-coming: “The sort of lad I’m looking for here is a kid who’ll try to nutmeg Kevin Keegan in a training match, but then step aside in the corridor.”
Helenio Herrera never illustrated such an encouragement of promising youth. Possibly because he never stuck around at a club long enough to take advantage. Probably because of the fear that he might eventually be upstaged.
This, after all, was the man who attempted to suggest a degree of divinity in his own origin.
“My father was a carpenter. Like Jesus. My mother illiterate, but with extraordinary intelligence.”
Intelligence that she passed on to him… was the unsaid inference.
Also unlike Ferguson and Paisley, who for all their own differing flaws always shared a degree of modesty about their management, Herrera expounded an arrogance that would have made Jose Mourinho raise his eyebrows. If no-one else was going to say it, he was.
“I hate it when they ask about being fortunate, I don’t believe in good luck. When someone has won so much, can it be fortunate? I’ve won more than any other manager in the world. My case is unprecedented.”
And unethical? Far less frivolous stories reveal the dark side which ultimately allowed Herrera’s genius see light. The worst example was the player he effectively trained to death. At Roma in 1969, Herrera knew the forward Giuliano Taccola had a heart murmur after an extended stay in hospital.
Still, on a windswept morning in Cagliari, the authoritarian Herrera insisted Taccola prepare on a beach with the rest of the squad. The player collapsed and then died hours later.
Ernst Happel, the first manager to win two European Cups at two different clubs, at least showed a similar disregard for his own health. At Hamburg in 1986, he opened a letter from his doctor. On distractedly scanning it until he got to the word ‘cancer’, Happel crumpled up the letter and threw it away to get back to team affairs. When a concerned journalist later asked him about it, the always irritable Happel immediately interrupted.
“Ah get lost! If I’ve got cancer, well then I’ve got cancer. What the hell?”
What the hell indeed.
The point of all these anecdotes, however, is that they reveal wildly different personalities. Wildly different personalities with often wildly different approaches to winning football matches.
Because personality, essentially, is what football management is all about. Imposing it. Adapting it. And ultimately using it to persuade, provoke or push a squad of players to be better than they previously were.
In effect, it’s about using your will to get the very best from the resources you’ve been given. Individual over the collective.
There is no right or wrong way to it. Merely what works at a specific time and place. Whatever this sample few did certainly worked – and in Ferguson’s case continues to work. But, despite their different ethics and approaches to football, they all share one common claim. To be among the greatest of all time.
How, then, to separate them?
Because, basically, it’s impossible to measure Ferguson’s man-management. Likewise Herrera’s psychology; Brian Clough’s alchemy; Guus Hiddink’s organisation; Tele Santana’s aesthetics and Rinus Michels’s tactical influence. All of those abilities are unquantifiable.
In that sense, too, this list is most certainly not a measurement of the most influential coaches. After all, what good is influence if another manager comes along and adapts your innovation to beat you with it and win more football matches? (And, in any case, Football Pantheon will be finalising a list of the most influential football figures later this year.)
Because, ultimately, winning is highly quantifiable. The most elementary indicator of great management is rather easy to add up: trophies. The greatest have all racked them up and in the top-ranking competitions. This formed the first main strand of our formula.
Nevertheless, trophies barely tell the full tale. There are many examples, even from this list, of coaches who merely facilitated victories at well-placed clubs rather than fire them. Take, from someone outside our 50, the curious case of Dettmar Cramer. With two European Cups on his Bayern Munich CV, you would presume his place on the pantheon would surpass even Stein’s.
Rather, Cramer never reproduced such records, effectively proving he lived off the work of Udo Lattek and Zlatko Cajkovski at Munich. He may have secured the competition’s last three-in-a-row and become one of just nine managers to retain the competition but, as one Bayern player allegedly said of his reign, “with our squad, any fool could have”.
All of which illustrates that the most prestigious trophies are really elevators to greatness rather than indicators of it. Just as important, then, is the work that managers have done beforehand, the work that got them there. Improvement. This, however, is also quantifiable since it is also all about numbers: league positions. It’s easy to compare where a club tended to finish in the time before a manager took over and where they finished under him. With points attributed to positions, this formed the second main strand of our formula.
Ultimately, the very job description – manager – indicates that the profession is all about efficient use of resources. How best you maximise what you’re given. As such, all of the trophies and league positions were offset against the money spent, or resources available, in that given year. This formed the third main strand of our formula.
It is hoped that by combining these strands we have struck a balance between the various types of manager too. Because different cultures bring distinct definitions. Broadly, there are three:
The first is the team-builder: a mostly British phenomenon derived from the amount of power a new breed of manager wrested from club directors from the ’30s on. The most obvious are Matt Busby, Bill Shankly, Don Revie and to a lesser extent Jock Stein and Valeri Lobanovskiy. In lifting clubs to lasting heights, these ‘football men’ – as they grandly became known – also shared qualities with the second type…
The overachievers. These are managers who took the earthiest of teams and temporarily lifted them to the stratosphere. By translating their talents between different teams across different times, however, the likes of Clough weren’t too far removed – either – from the Fabio Capellos.
These are the nomads who imitated the overachievers to a more acute degree. They stayed a team for no more than a few years and transformed them from mere challengers to champions. The innovative Bela Guttman was the original. Jose Mourino the latest. And, in encapsulating what made them so effective, Guttman explained “a coach is like a lion tamer. He dominates the animals, in whose cage he performs his show, as long as he deals with them with self-confidence and without fear. But the moment the first hint of fear appears in his eyes, he is lost.”
Really, not losing it is the key. The managers who stayed truly effective for the most sustained period of time in their careers – whether at a single team or several – are the highest in this list.
As ever, we don’t claim it ends any debates. Instead, we want to start them. But the very best managers have never tended to wait in line – either for their say or their fill.