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Friday, 4 November 2011

Sir Furious ... 25 and counting.

When football chat turns to the topic of who is the best manager of all time, we don’t always consider the factors that would allow us to tackle this question with a degree of scientific rigour and objectivity. Some of us will talk about the manager that we like the best, or the one we think did the best at the club or country that we support. Football is a competitive sport, so how else should we judge football managers, if not by results? And, when we try to judge, those results should be viewed in some kind of context, with consideration given to the circumstances under which they were achieved. We can argue until the cows come home about which managers we like the best, but the 'best' -by any objective measure- is the person that comes out on top most often.

So … here are five reasons why Sir Alex Ferguson is the best manager of all time.

1. He’s had unprecedented success with an unfashionable club.

Most professional leagues are dominated by a handful of powerful clubs, so anyone who can buck their local trend deserves to be considered an exceptional talent. Perhaps you’d have to live in Scotland to appreciate the scale of what Ferguson achieved at Aberdeen in the early eighties. To break into the Celtic-Rangers duopoly was a monumental achievement; to win a European trophy is simply off the scale. It can be argued that Brian Clough, in terms of over-achieving at unfashionable clubs, has a better record than Ferguson. His feats at Nottingham Forest and, to a lesser extent, Derby, were remarkable, but Clough doesn’t score in the other categories.

2. He’s had success over a sustained period.

Ferguson won promotion with St. Mirren in the mid-seventies and won his first league title with Aberdeen in 1980. 31 years later, he's still winning. Old-timers might mention Bill Struth at Rangers, who managed for 34 years, amassing ten league titles, ten Scottish Cup, two League Cups and various other Glasgow Cups and Merchant Charity Cups. With all due respect, some of these trophies don’t carry a whole lot of weight in historical terms and Struth’s Rangers (like Jock Stein’s all-conquering Celtic in the 60s and 70s) competed in a relatively weak league that is dominated by two teams.

3. He’s had success with different clubs, in different leagues.

Some managers have great success at one club, but fail to replicate that success elsewhere; Don Revie, for instance, was outstanding at Leeds, but did little of note away from Elland Road. It takes truly exceptional talent to achieve great success in more than one job and Ferguson has been a league champion and a European trophy winner with two teams in two countries. Mourinho has succeeded in Portugal, England and Spain, while Huddink, Robson, Trappatoni and Eriksson (and probably a few others) all have very impressive CVs, but none of them score as convincingly in the other categories.

4. He has successfully built a number of winning teams over a prolonged period.

He is now on his fifth or sixth successful team at Man. Utd. Bob Paisley scores highly for his work at Liverpool, as does Jock Stein at Celtic, but again, not to the extent of Sir Furious. Bill Shankly resigned immediately after Liverpool had dismantled Newcastle in an FA Cup final, so Paisley inherited a side that was already very successful. He clearly took the club to another level, but his team-building achievements occurred within the span of a single decade. Jock Stein worked at a club with massive domestic advantages, playing –to all intents and purposes– in a two-team league, wherein any achievements by the old firm have to be viewed in the context of an extremely lop-sided domestic set-up.

5. He’s won the trophies

Nothing in the modern era compares with the haul achieved by Ferguson. He has won twelve league titles at Man. Utd, three at Aberdeen, four major European trophies and god knows how many FA Cups and League Cups. It's a frightening total.
Some have suggested that for a club of Manchester United’s stature to have won the Champions League ‘only’ twice is a tad disappointing. Bob Paisley, after all, won three European Cups in five seasons and, since it is the major trophy in club football, there is a case for saying that he was more successful. But the European Cup in those days (much as it might be difficult for fans of Liverpool, Nottingham Forest, Aston Villa and Celtic to concede) was a knock-out tournament in which two successful rounds (perhaps against part-time Scandinavian or mediocre Eastern European opposition) took you to the quarter-finals. The European Cup was an easier tournament to be successful in than the current Champions League. That’s why teams like Malmo, Bruges and Partizan Belgrade could make it to the final. That’s why teams like Nottingham Forest, Aston Villa and Steau Bucharest could win it.

It has been claimed that Ferguson was lucky to survive at Manchester United after his first three seasons appeared to lack any obvious signs of progress. He inherited what was, in effect, a glamorous social club that played occasional games of football. He recognised quickly that Ron Atkinson had left behind a talented squad, but knew that he’d have to dismantle not only the team, but the whole culture of the club. That was always going to take time and, if the progress at first appeared to be relatively slow, it now seems clear that Ferguson was far too driven and talented not to have succeeded, one way or another.

Some critics have said that he would never have been as successful if he had ended up at, say, a Portsmouth or a Leicester, but all you have to do is look at Aberdeen's record 'pre' and 'post' Ferguson. You don’t need to analyse much more than that. Saying that Alex Ferguson wouldn't have been successful away from Manchester United is a bit like saying Roger Federer would never have won the British Open if he had taken up golf instead of tennis. It's entirely hypothetical and pretty close to being pointless. So here's another hypothesis: Had he left Aberdeen for Wolves or Tottenham when he had opportunities in the mid-eighties, he would have been successful with them and would eventually have moved on, because Alex Ferguson was born to manage Manchester United.

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