This weekend, Sir Alex Ferguson will surpass Sir Matt Busby’s record as the longest serving manager in Manchester United history. He’ll go on to serve his full quarter century next year, and eventually retire (or die in office) as the greatest manager of modern times.
However, Sir Alex did not have the opportunity to manage at the top level during British football management’s real golden age. He didn’t take over at Aberdeen until 1978, by which time the good years, for what they were worth, were all but over.
Consider this. Between 1967 and 1974, the following managers and management teams were active in the English and Scottish leagues, at the clubs which they are most famous for: Jock Stein at Celtic, Bill Shankly at Liverpool, Bill Nicholson at Spurs, Don Revie at Leeds, Clough and Taylor at Derby, Ron Greenwood at West Ham, and Bobby Robson at Ipswich.
What those men have in common are trophies, memorable football, the passionate love of the fans and – all being dead now – the status of latterday saints and guardian angels, safeguarding the souls of their clubs. They have something else in common too. Look at this:
Jock Stein Celtic 1965-1978: Tenure 13 years
Bill Shankly Liverpool 1959-1974: Tenure 15 years
Herbert Chapman Huddersfield/Arsenal 1921-1934 : Tenure 13 years
Harry Catterick Everton 1961-1973: Tenure 12 years
Bill Nicholson Spurs 1958-1974: Tenure 16 years
Don Revie Leeds 1961-1974: Tenure 13 years
Clough and Taylor Derby/Notts Forest 1967-1982: Tenure 15 years
Mercer/Allison/Book Manchester City 1965-1980: Tenure 15 years
Joe Harvey Newcastle United 1962-1975: Tenure 13 years
Ron Greenwood West Ham 1961-1974: Tenure 13 years
Sir Bobby Robson Ipswich 1969-1982: Tenure 13 years
There are obvious caveats – Clough’s post-Taylor years saw success and overperformance from Forest, and Robson’s management career had almost three decades yet to run when he left Ipswich for the worst job in the world. I’m not sure what I’ve said about Manchester City makes complete sense. Bertie Mee – a war hero who spent a decade at Arsenal – should receive honorable mention. So should Sir Alf Ramsey, England manager for 11 years and a manager for 25 years until leaving Panathinaikos in 1980.
But other than that, isn’t it striking how similar in length are the careers of British football management’s golden age greats? Although there are variations, 14 years seems to be a benchmark figure. Why?
Natural Wastage: the job of football manager is famously ageing, and it might just be that 14 years is as long as most people can take. Chapman died at the end of his, and Jock Stein – victim of a serious car crash – was felt to be not the man he had been.
Footballing Followers: 14 years is also a good benchmark length for a playing career. The great managers acquire followers: John McGovern went with Clough wherever the manager led him. Revie left Leeds believing that his team were becoming old and that the Elland Road club could not afford the players to rebuild. Do the followers retire after 14 years? Is the effort to replace the familiar faces all too much?
Vanishing playing talent: it’s striking how many of these men chose 1974 in which to bow out. By that year, the wartime children, the greatest cohort of footballers in British history, were beginning to fade away. Derby’s first championship year was the most competitive in history, and, not coincidentally, the year in which most of that cohort were at their peak. Never again would so many clubs be realistic contenders. Did managers see a less talented future coming, as Sir Trevor Brooking does now?
The 1973 Oil Crisis: a better point of comparison for 2008-2011 than 1929, and an event that sideswiped so much of British life that we are still only beginning to realize just how extensive the damage was. What influence could it have had on British football management? Certainly, in financial terms, clubs would never be so secure again.
Pop Culture in Football: The big cultural change amongst players – think of it as the transformation from Jack Charlton into George Best – happened in the early seventies, famously bewildering Alf Ramsey. That, and the abolition of the maximum wage and retain-and-transfer, undoubtedly made team-building more difficult. Has a similar change come to pass more recently, with Bosman and the vast financial power now wielded by players? Do these cultural changes also occur every 14 years or so, making generation-straddling careers that much more difficult?
Clubs used to give managers enough time: It’s true that managerial tenure used to be longer than it is now, but football clubs have always been run by trigger-happy idiots. So I don’t buy this one.
Really, though, none of these explanations feel remotely satisfactory, which tells me that one of two things must be true. Either I’ve too small a sample of managers here for such generalizations to be made – or there are indeed factors that work towards creating a 14 year career length for great managers, but I’m missing them completely. What do you think?