It might be felt to be strange that a County fan gives credence to Manchester United in his blog, but my Friend, Greg Gordon has some interesting musings as a Guest Post this Week:
“Football is all about opinions and that’s just one of the reasons that the great game captivates us. Even so I was surprised to read The Independent on Sunday’s Michael Calvin’s final column yesterday given over to the claim that the achievements of both Arsene Wenger at Arsenal and Brian Clough at Nottingham Forest should be held in higher regard than those of Sir Alex Ferguson at ‘Man United’.
Michael Calvin is a decent, even-minded judge and a writer I have endless time for. I have just reread his book, on scouts (a subject close to my heart as one of that number) and I would wholeheartedly recommend it as essential reading. But it seems that we have a profound disagreement when it comes to who should hold the accolade as the greatest manager in English football of our generation.
Many of the great modern British managers, including Clough, Wenger, Shankly, Paisley and Stein either enjoyed their success at one club or within a condensed period of time. In contrast, Sir Alex had success at every club (relative to the brief he was even a success at East Stirling) over 40 years as a manager and that sustained record of success, his adaptability and flexibility sets him apart from the rest of his peers in the British game. Even more crucially, and this point cannot be over-emphasised, Ferguson is the only manager to flourish in both the Bosman and pre-Bosman eras.
The significance of that challenge may be lost on younger fans, but the best analogy I can find to illustrate just how football’s ‘way of doing things’ and the balance of power between clubs and players was turned on its head almost overnight is to quote the example of the game-changing effect of the internet revolution on newspapers and old media. It was equally profound – a complete 360 degree turnaround.
So, let me digress with a bit of a history lesson.
Before Bosman (1995) clubs held players’ registrations for many, many years and as a result they could effectively keep a player captive for as long as they wanted (in practical terms) with one-sided contracts. Although Liverpool bucked the trend against the odds with Rafa Benitez’s 2005 Miracle of Istanbul , you could say with some justification that Ajax were the last ‘small’ team to win The Champions League in 1995. It is no coincidence that this has not happened since. And it is also no coincidence that all of Louis Van Gaal’s Ajax side broke up and moved on to lucrative deals elsewhere.
Pre-Bosman, in order to free an attached player to join another club then transfer fees would have to change hands or a club would have to agree to tear up a contract. But as clubs could rely on six and even 12 year contracts for young stars they could either build a team long term knowing their players were either tied into their club or that they could cash the players in for big fees at the most favourable time. For example, clubs like Aberdeen (under Sir Alex Ferguson) and Dundee United under Jim McLean, both in Scotland, were able to get to major European Finals with home-grown teams filled with players on long contracts.
Sides like Ipswich, Leeds United, Borussia Moenchengladbach, St Etienne, Ajax, Derby, Aston Villa and Nottingham Forest, even Liverpool, were all able to benefit from a long-term approach to team-building and player recruitment. Most of these teams needed only to replace three players per season and could rely on retaining a nucleus of experienced personnel built up over many campaigns to sustain their empires. Celtic won the European Cup in 1967 with a team of local players all resident in the West of Scotland. That will surely never happen again.
Overnight, Bosman, a judicial challenge to the football transfer rules taken by the Belgian midfielder Jean-Marc Bosman through the European Courts of Justice, swung the power from the clubs who had effectively held the players hostage, to the players who effectively now hold clubs hostage.
There are pros and cons of player power of course, but the primary outcome is that small clubs can no longer hold onto their stars when a Man Utd, Chelsea, Real Madrid, Man City, PSG or Bayern come calling. Especially so if the players are near the end of a current contract.
Arguably, Bosman has been counter-productive for the many (by destroying competition and the master team-building clubs’ influence). However, a top tier of elite players have never had it so good. You take your choice: progressive employee relations or more varied and exciting (but regressive) football clubs.
As well as adapting to Bosman, Sir Alex’s most successful era also straddled the transitional era of ‘working class boys’ to cosmopolitan superstar players, agents and international 24 hour media. Most of the other comparable big name managers of his era such as Brian Clough, Bob Paisley, Sir Bobby Robson, Jim McLean couldn’t really make that transition to a new world order of clubs as international brands with paying customers as opposed to loyal fans.
In a football sense, of course, Sir Alex is also a rarity because he has been able to flourish as a manager who can mix consistent and consistently applied old fashioned inter-personal values with the mental acuity to innovate and not just move with the times but shape them, creating a whole host of successes in wildly different circumstances and contexts. Good team-building managers build one good team in their career, maybe even two. However Sir Alex built four or five great teams at Man Utd alone, regardless of his successes with Aberdeen and St Mirren in Scotland and in Europe.
After that keynote FA Cup win v Crystal Palace (1990), The 1990s became Man United’s decade, winning five of the first seven EPL titles after the league was founded on the back of a blockbuster television deal. Ferguson’s 13 English Premier League titles, two Champions League crowns and five FA Cups, established the Manchester club as one of a handful of global heavyweights. Prior to that point United had been a faded giant in the shadow of their own illustrious Busby-era history. But the legacy doesn’t end with a list of titles.
There’s the player development: Ronaldo, Rooney, Beckham, Scholes, Neville et al and the establishment of an international scouting system and academy at Carrington, part of a long term infrastructural plan. Sir Alex Ferguson’s greatest contribution has been his creating the roadmap for every modern era boss – he is a manager from a different era who successfully reinvented himself again and again over a period of 40 years or so. Not just in England, but also in Scotland.
His achievements in Scotland with Aberdeen (who smashed the stranglehold of Rangers and Celtic and also became a force in Europe (beating Real Madrid in Gothenburg to win the Cup Winners Cup) stands comparison with his success at Man Utd. Equally, his work at St Mirren created the backdrop for success there and also a conveyor belt of top coaches, international players and also competition in Europe – again an incredible achievement in a provincial town like Paisley.
Tactically SAF was far more adroit thanis also widely appreciated – a master team builder who adapted his systems to the players at his disposal and also the players available in the transfer market (he was a master long-term planner). See: Teams of the Decade #3: Manchester United 2006-09
As well as his team-building problem-solving ability that led to United playing all sorts of shapes and styles, SAF’s use of set pieces (dating back to Aberdeen v Bayern Munich) and game-changing substitutions was superb – and led to one of the great football comebacks of all-time in the Champions League Final of 1999.
His teams always played to win, to pass the ball, to impose their football, to play a Scottish attacking style. His teams were aggressive, dominant and resilient, never giving up, regardless of the game situation. This was a brand of football that was local and global in tone – a refraction of Real Madrid and the 1960 European Cup Final at Hampden, of The Old Firm in Glasgow, of his mentor Jock Stein and The Lisbon Lions, of the Scottish scout John Barr of Leeds United who visited him at Love Street as a young manager at St Mirren and told him all about Don Revie’s innovations at Elland Road. This shaped his view that the manager should control every aspect of club culture – something notably held in common with Arsene Wenger and Brian Clough.
Though the philosophy remained the same, Sir Alex’s teams were tactically very versatile in terms of shape. Sir Alex Ferguson has used a variety of formations – 4-3-3, 4-4-2, 4-5-1, 4-2-3-1, 4-4-1-1 – and even a 4-6-0 against Greenock Morton at Cappielow while manager of Aberdeen around 1985. That probably 27 years or so ahead of that formation gaining prominence with Spain in 2012 and over a decade ahead of Romania’s use of the same formation in 1994. Luciano Spalletti used the 4-6-0 in 2006 with Roma before Ferguson again revisited the formation in 2007-8, winning the Premiership and Champions League.
I certainly wouldn’t argue against any claim that Brian Clough achieved great things, largely by force of personality and excellent staff recruitment such as Peter Taylor and the super scout Alan Hill, amongst them.
The format of the old European Cup and First Division certainly helped Clough’s cause, as well as the pre-eminence of English clubs generally. But these achievements belong to another time and the restructuring of the European Cup tournament, the formation of The Premiership and the Bosman judgement effectively cooked Clough’s goose. Clubs like Nottingham Forest, Celtic, Aston Villa, Steaua Bucharest and arguably even Liverpool are unlikely to ever win a Champions League again now – barring some unforeseen change in circumstances.
Wenger came into football in England unheralded in 1996,with a blank slate and some exciting of the moment ideas that upped the bar for everything in the newly formed Premiership.
Training players ‘like marines’, finding cheap and hidden gems in the transfer market, winning games idealistically through a philosophy based on beautiful football and the domination of possession have been his calling card – but also Wenger’s undoing.
Determined to repeat this once winning formula, the Frenchman has never quite adapted to the changing landscape since the break-up of his Invincibles side around 2004-5, that also coincided with the arrival of Mourinho in England.
By positioning himself as Wenger’s alter ego, almost, Jose Mourinho has been able to chip away at Wenger’s sacred cows by successfully demonstrating that ‘doing the opposite’ to Wenger in football terms, was an approach better suited to the pressures of football since 2004. This sustained attack reached its apotheosis as Mourinho pronounced Wenger to be ‘a specialist in failure’ in February 2014.
So, in contrast, Mourinho talked up a next level sports science approach focussing on rest as the basis of preventing injuries. He has revelled, at least until recently, in demonstrating a common touch with players that doesn’t appear to come easy for Wenger. Mourinho’s well-funded clubs have all eschewed the pursuit of hidden players others hadn’t also uncovered. They’ve all simply paid the sums needed to be paid to succeed in the transfer market. Lastly by winning games pragmatically, and often quite cynically, through football based on transitions and controlling space when without possession, Mourinho in large part, lived up to his Special One billing for ten years.
There is no doubt that Wenger, Clough and Mourinho have been football visionaries whose place in history is assured. But visionaries, like Mourinho, like Clough, like Wenger, in football terms, tend to be mediocre 10 years after their peak of success.
Clough tailed off dramatically, with his well documented problems and Wenger and Mourinho at this juncture, are more likely to embrace the dying of the light with a whimper rather than a bang.
To address the issue of a ‘mere’ two Champions League trophies as a failure for Ferguson it is worth making a plea of mitigation. The fact is, it is always easier for the likes of Bayern, Real Madrid and Barcelona for example to dominate the Champions League because the contexts they play in are far less competitive than the blood and guts Premiership where every game is up and at ‘em for 90 minutes and the fans demand blood, sweat and tears above all.
And of course, United came up against ‘the best team ever’ in Barcelona, during the Messi era. And there is no shame in being bested by that particular team.
I’ve known players and staff who have worked with Clough and also had dealings with Sir Alex Ferguson over the years. My impression, backed up by my own experience is that Sir Alex’s achievements are of a higher rank. Firstly because his trophies were harder to win than Clough’s and secondly because of his overall imprint upon the game during the last 40 years.
As for Arsene Wenger, I think Sir Alex has just achieved far more, for longer and created more great teams at Man United and in Scotland than the great Arsenal boss.
As good as Clough was and Wenger is, they are both managers who couldn’t really move with the times and reinvent themselves. Both have failed to recreate their ideas and teams teams anew over a sustained period. Sir Alex Ferguson did both of these things better than any other rival and that is what makes his contribution so telling and his claim to be the greatest British manager of our era, so compelling.”