The Best Soccer Managers of all Time

The Best Soccer Managers of all Time

March 21, 2019

When it comes to judging the best managers of all time, it is simple enough to look at the number of trophies that a team or teams managed by one man has won, and add them up as a measure of absolute success. However, that does not take into account the budget or resources at their disposal, the relative strength of their respective leagues or the teams that they were playing against, and also whether they have left a legacy, whether it is in style of play or tactical innovations that have influenced other teams and managers.

Here is a suggestion for some men who might fit these criteria, which has been deliberately chosen from those who are no longer managing. The likes of Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho might well have strong claims to be included in this list, but their final achievements can only be assessed when they have retired from the game.

1. Sir Alex Ferguson

Sir Alex Ferguson would make most people’s pantheon of great managers. After a modestly successful playing career with a variety of Scottish clubs, including Rangers, he first began management with East Stirlingshire, before joining St. Mirren the following season. A largely unfashionable and struggling outfit at the time, he transformed them so that, within 3 years, they were league champions before he moved to Aberdeen.

During his tenure, the Dons succeeded in breaking the Old Firm hegemony of Scottish football, winning the Premiership three times and the Scottish Cup on four occasions, as well as beating Real Madrid to win the 1983 European Cup Winners Cup.

His period in Scotland would have been enough to earn him serious praise, but it is what happened after he moved to England with Manchester United in 1986 that really burnished his legend.

Success at United did not come easily or quickly. Famously Ferguson was on the verge of being sacked only for a goal from Mark Robins in a FA Cup tie at Nottingham Forest to save the day. United went to win the FA Cup that year, and then, what followed, was an unprecedented era of success as 13 Premier League titles, 6 FA Cups, and 4 League Cups were added to the United trophy cabinet, as well as two Champions League triumphs and a victory in the European Cup-Winners’ Cup. In 1999, United became the first, and so far, only English club to win the treble.

11 times Premier League manager of the year, Ferguson is famed for his ruthless and abrasive personality, and strong leadership. Not one to suffer fools gladly, he fell out with countless players and staff during his period as United manager, whilst he was famed for his bitter and often highly personal clashes with fellow managers like Arsène Wenger, Rafa Benitez, Kevin Keegan, and Jose Mourinho. No shrinking violet, referees were often the object of his wrath and he had a long string of disciplinary charges to his name.

He also invented “Fergie Time”, the minutes that were suddenly added to the end of a match if United were searching for an equalizer or late winner.

He retired in 2013 and became a director of the club.

2. Bob Paisley

Bob Paisley is Liverpool’s most successful manager, guiding them to 20 trophies in 9 years, including 3 European Cups, the UEFA Cup, 6 League titles and 6 League Cups.

A former miner he played amateur football with Bishop Auckland before joining Liverpool as a professional in 1940. After a war where he served in the “Desert Rats” and took part in the liberation of Italy, he returned to Liverpool and spent the rest of his playing career with them, before retiring in 1954. He then stayed with Liverpool, first as a physio, and then later as a coach, becoming number two to the legendary Bill Shankly. When Shankly retired in 1974, the Anfield side chose to appoint from within, establishing the “boot room” tradition and gave the job to Paisley.

Six times manager of the year, Paisley was softly spoken, and a shy and self-effacing man off the pitch. However, when it came to management, he could be ruthless when it came to team selection and had an unerring eye for weaknesses in the opposing team. He gave his teams clear and simple instructions, imparting titbits of knowledge about their opponents to give them an edge. Graeme Souness described him as the best judge of a player he had ever seen.

He retired in 1983 to be succeeded by Joe Fagan, who led Liverpool to a 4th European Cup triumph. Paisley became a director of the club and stayed in that role until forced to retire on the grounds of ill-health in 1992, stricken down with the early onset of the Alzheimer’s Disease which eventually contributed to his death.

3. Herbert Chapman

Herbert Chapman is credited with being one of the game’s great innovators – the use of floodlights, numbered shirts, and the idea of European club competitions were all pioneered by him. A modest player himself, he began his managerial career with Northampton Town, before beginning to gain some success with Leeds City, before World War One broke out. On the resumption of peace, City was embroiled in a payments’ scandal which eventually led to them being dissolved and Chapman banned for life from football.

He successfully appealed, however, and went on to manage Huddersfield Town, by then better known for its rugby league as opposed to its football team. He transformed their fortunes, and he went on to win two league titles and a FA Cup with them in four years.

A move south then beckoned to Arsenal, at that time a modest London club who had not achieved anything in their 40-year history to date. However, within a decade they had become the dominant force in English football winning 5 League titles and 2 FA Cups in the years leading up to the Second World war.

Chapman’s great innovation was to use a change in the offside law that had just been announced to his advantage, with the number of players that an attacker needed between him and the goal line reduced from three to two. Known as the “WM Formation” Chapman’s tactical plan saw the centre-half revert from a roaming midfield position to a stopper role, with the full-backs pushed wide. With a strong defense and pacy wingers, Arsenal became known for the speed of their counter-attacking football.

Sadly, Chapman did not live to fully see the success of his labors, as he died aged just 55 after contracting pneumonia following a scouting trip. However, his successors at Arsenal garnered more league titles and FA Cups following his example. And, more than 85 years since he died, he is still commemorated by Arsenal with a bust and a statue of him outside the Emirates Stadium.

4. Ernst Happel
Austrian Ernest Happel must be regarded as one of the most successful coaches of all time for his feat in winning the European Cup with two different clubs and winning the domestic league title in four different countries – the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, and Austria. He also managed the Dutch national side to a World Cup final which, had a last minute shot from Rob Rensenbrink gone in, rather than hit the post, they would have won. Today his name lives on in Vienna in the form of the Ernst Happel Stadium, renamed in his honor after his untimely death from lung cancer aged 66.

Happel began his career with Rapid Wien, but as a young man was forcibly conscripted into the Hitler Youth. Kicked out for failing to confirm he was sent to the Eastern Front but never saw action. Arrested by the Americans in 1945, he escaped, eventually making his way back to Vienna where he resumed his position with Rapid. Apart from a brief spell in Paris, he played for Rapid for the rest of his career before retiring in 1959.

He began his managerial career with relative unfashionable Dutch club, ADO Haag, transforming them into domestic cup winners, before being appointed to lead Feyenoord. At a time when the Dutch game was dominated by Ajax and “total football”, Happel managed to upset the hegemony of the Amsterdam club and led Feyenoord to a league title, and triumph in the 1970 European Cup.

He left Feyenoord in 1973 and, after a brief sojourn in Spain with Sevilla, ended up in Belgium where he won several Belgium league titles. After his glorious failure with the Dutch national side, and two more years in Belgium, he moved on to Germany, and Hamburg, where again he led the side to unparalleled success, including two Bundesliga titles, the German Cup, and, in 1983, European Cup success. Finally, he returned to Austria and Swarovski Tirol, who won two league titles during his time in charge.

He was appointed national team coach in 1992, but the Austrian public was robbed of the chance of seeing what he could do with them by his sudden death.

  • 5. Rinus Michaels
  • Few coaches have made such an impact on the World and European game as Dutchman Rinus Michels who is credited with popularising the concept of “total football”, exemplified by the Ajax and Barcelona teams that he managed, as well as the Dutch national sides of the 1970s and 1980s.

    Based on the concept that any outfield player on a pitch can take over the position of any other player at any given time, it is a fluid tactic which can see the same man or woman alternate between attack, midfield, and defense during a match. It is particularly associated with Johann Cruyff who was Michels’ captain at Ajax and who followed him to Barcelona, where, as a player and later manager, he defined a style of football that is still woven into the Catalan club’s DNA.

    Total football was not a new idea by any means. A variant of it had been played by Ajax between the wars, and by the great Hungarian national side of the early 1950s. And, surprisingly, perhaps, Burnley had won the First Division in 1959 – 1960 playing a style of football where every player could play in every position.

    What Michels did was to re-work the idea, and use the position of Cruyff almost as false number 9, nominally a center-forward but with a license to roam around the pitch, with his teammates switching around him.

    His methods reaped immediate rewards at Ajax whom he joined as head coach in 1965. The won the Eredivisie title four times in five years, and the Dutch Cup three times. They also won the European Cup for the first time in their history (and followed that up with more victories in the two years after he left for Spain.

    With Barcelona he won La Liga and was then appointed as Dutch manager, steering them to the final of the 1974 World Cup Final where they narrowly lost to West Germany. 14 years later, back at the national helm, he managed his country to the only senior tournament they have won to this day, the 1998 European Championships.

    He died in 2005 but is fondly remembered to this day.

    6. Sir Matt Busby

    Sir Matt Busby is remarkable because he not only built one brilliant team but because, after it was tragically destroyed in a plane crash that almost claimed his own life, had the courage and fortitude to build another one.

    Born into a Scottish mining background, Busby began his career playing part-time football whilst working down the pit before moving south to join Manchester City. He played for City for 8 years and then moved to rivals Liverpool before the Second World War intervened. He was appointed United manager in 1945 and soon transformed them into a major force, finishing runners-up in the league four times between 1947 and 1951, before finally winning it in 1952.

    However, with the team aging, he made the fateful decision not to bring in new players but to rely instead on young players, blooding a range of exciting teenagers into the team like David Pegg, Liam Whelan, Bobby Charlton, and Duncan Edwards, reckoned by contemporaries as the finest England player of the era.

    Two more league titles were won, but just as the “Busby Babes” looked set to dominate English and even European football, disaster struck as their plane crashed in Munich on the way back from a European Cup tie in Zagreb. Eight players died in the crash, including Edwards, whilst others were so badly injured they never played again. As for Busby, he was so badly injured that he was given the Last Rites twice.

    However, he recovered and set about rebuilding the team around the survivors of Munich such as Charlton, Bill Foulkes and Harry Gregg, supplemented by the arrival of Denis Law and the emerging brilliance of George Best.  They won the FA Cup in 1963 and then the League twice, in 1963 and 1967, before Busby’s ultimate triumph came when the European Cup was won in 1968.

    He retired at the end of the following season, and, after a brief return to management, he became a director and later president of the club. He died in 1994.

    7. Udo Lattek

    Not every great player was once a great player. Udo Lattek is a case in point. A journeyman who played part-time whilst training to be a teacher, his career ended early when he joined the coaching staff of the 1966 German World Cup squad. Five years later he was appointed Bayern Munich manager, despite no relevant managerial experience. He had the raw materials to work within the shape of players like Gerd Müller, Franz Beckenbauer, and Sepp Maier, and, by combining them with emerging talent like Paul Breitner and Uli Hoeness, forged them into a side that won three Bundesliga titles in a row, and Bayern’s first ever European Cup.

    Dismissed after a poor start to the 1974 -75 season, he moved to Borussia Möncheongladbach, where he won two more league titles and the UEFA Cup. An unremarkable 2 years at Borussia Dortmund was followed by a spell with Barcelona, with whom he won the UEFA Cup, before answering the call of Bayern again. His second spell in Munich was almost as successful as his first, yielding 4 more league titles, and the German Cup twice.

    He later became a TV commentator and journalist before succumbing to the twin effects of dementia and Parkinson’s disease and dying in 2015.

    8. Brian Clough

    Brian Clough was one of the most colorful and outspoken characters of his day. A once-promising forward whose career was cut short by a serious anterior cruciate ligament injury, he first went into management with Hartlepool United in the old English fourth division back in 1965, appointing an old friend, Peter Taylor, as his assistant.

    Two years later, the duo moved to Derby County, then languishing in the depths of the second division, and, within two years, guided them to promotion. In their first season in the top league they finished 4th, and two years later, won their first-ever league title. The next year they reached the European Cup semi-final before Clough resigned after an argument with the Derby chairman.

    The pair had a brief spell at Brighton before Clough was, infamously, appointed as manager of the reigning league champions, Leeds United. His 44 days in charge later spawned a book and a film – “The Damned United” – which chronicled how Clough and the Leeds team failed to connect on any level.

    It was what happened next that earned him legend status. Reunited with Taylor, he took over at Nottingham Forest, languishing in the lower depths of division two. Earning promotion at the first attempt, they then surprised everybody by winning the First Division title in their first season back, a major achievement for a provincial side. Better still was to follow. The next season they won the European Cup for the first time, beating defending champions Liverpool on the way, and then repeated that feat a year later.

    On the domestic front, the side won 4 League Cups and reached the FA Cup Final.

    Called the “greatest manager England never had”, he was interviewed several times for the top job, but his abrasive character and blunt-talking worked against him.

    His later career was marked by a bitter split with Taylor and an increasing battle with alcoholism that hastened his departure from Forest and an untimely end to his life aged just 68. However, he should be remembered for what he achieved with a side that was distinctly average when he took them over but which, within a few short years, became the best in Europe.

    9. Helenio Herrera

    Helenio Herrera Gavilán was an Argentine-born footballer who became a naturalized Frenchman. Described with epithets like “The Saviour” and “The Magician” at the height of his powers in the 1950s and 1960s he was considered a great innovator, and ahead of his time with his insistence on diet and fitness, and early use of sports psychology. He became famous for pioneering initiatives like “bed-checks” whereby members of his coaching staff would visit players’ houses days before a big match to ensure that they were getting enough rest. His team talks, meanwhile were the stuff of legend, with some of his best-known quotes surviving to this day.

    In fact, so revolutionary were his methods that he was accused of doping his players, with some calling him the “pharmacy cup coach”.

    Herrera became famous for playing the Catenaccio (Chain) system in Italy with its emphasis on a predominantly 5 – 3 – 2 formation, although he refuted suggestions that it was all about defensive solidity, pointing out that full-backs were free to press-up and join in the attack.

    After a modest playing career I French football, Herrera began coaching locally, until moving to Spain with Real Valladolid. A year later he moved to Atlético Madrid, where he first enjoyed success, winning two league titles and the cup. A relatively fallow period in his career ensued, taking in sojourns with Malaga, Deportivo de la Coruña, Sevilla and Belenenses, before he was appointed manager by Barcelona, rewarding their faith with two league titles and two Copa del Reys, and also won the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup (the forerunner of the Europa League) twice.

    That earned him the job at Inter Milan where he was to achieve his greatest triumphs, winning three Scudettos, and the European Cup twice. Brief spells followed as manager of both Spain and Italy, and he had brief roles back with Inter and Barcelona, but his career was cut short by ill-health, and he retired to live out his days in Venice.

    10. Giovanni Trapattoni

    Italian Giovanni Trapatonni enjoyed almost unparalleled success as both a player and a manager.  A defensive midfielder with AC Milan, he won two Serie A titles and two European Cups, before moving into management. After a spell with Milan, he moved to Juventus in 1976, and enjoyed a decade of spectacular achievements, becoming the first man to win all the UEFA Cup Competitions, as well as notching up six Scudetto titles for the Old Lady. He was renowned for his deep tactical knowledge and man management skills, which he then put to good stead when he moved to Inter, with whom he won another league title and the UEFA Cup.  A brief stint back at Juventus then ensued, with another UEFA Cup added to the trophy cabinet.

    Then it was on to Germany and another domestic league title with Bayern Munich, before a return to Italy and Fiorentina, and then a term with the Italian national side. That proved to be something of a blot on his CV – the team exited both the 2002 World Cup and Euro 2004 early. However, he restored his reputation by clinching the league in his one season in Portugal with Benfica, and then took his last job in league football with Red Bull Salzburg, a spell yielding two more league titles.

    He then took over as manager of the Republic of Ireland and might have steered them to the 2010 World Cup Finals had it not been for the infamous Thierry Henry handball incident.

    Trapattoni now manages the Vatican City national football team which is largely an honorary role.




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