Is Sir Alex the best?

Recent worldwide votes might have conferred the best manager title to the former Manchester United chief, Alex Ferguson, but Brian Glanville questions the wisdom of the voters.

In a recent global poll, World Soccer magazine placed Alex Ferguson, so recently retired as Manchester United’s manager, top of the list of the greatest managers of all time. With a huge 49 votes, he was followed by my own choice as best of them all, Holland’s Rinus Michels, with 46 votes. Thereafter there was a steep fall in votes. Jose Mourinho, winner of the European Champions League with Porto, Inter but not with Real Madrid, scored 21 votes, but only Helenio Herrera, that giant egoist, Pep Guardiola ex-Barcelona and now manager of Bayern Munich, Italy’s Arrigo Sacchi, though his path to the 1994 World Cup final was a hazardous and uneven one, Valeriy Lobanovskyi, innovative head at Dynamo Kiev, and Liverpool’s Bob Paisley achieved double figures.

Did Ferguson merit such huge support? It’s clear that the euphoria, the flattery, that followed his retirement, with Manchester United, champions of the Premiership again, is a major factor in his favour. He had just won the Premier League for the 13th time, the European Champions League twice, the FA Cup five times, while not to be forgotten was his phenomenal achievement when managing unfashionable Aberdeen in beating Real Madrid in the final of the European Cupwinners Cup, when the competition seriously mattered.

Yet, you do wonder about the criteria in these selections. Some managers are clearly judged, as was Ferguson, on their club records, others with what they performed in the higher realm of international football. And here it just be said, Alex Ferguson failed. Put in charge of the Scotland team which contested the World Cup finals in Mexico in 1986, he and his team fell at the first hurdle, playing football that seldom rose above the mediocre. There was much controversy over the fact that Ferguson left Alan Hansen, the elegant Liverpool centre back, now a BBC TV pundit, out of his squad. One assumed the reason was that Hansen, with his almost casual style, was prone to give the opposition second chances.

Did this lead to the crucial withdrawal from the squad of Kenny Dalglish, then Hansen’s team-mate at Liverpool? He had been in exuberant form and was expected to become one of the stars of the tournament. He blamed injury, but there were those who suggested that it was Hansen’s exclusion which determined his decision.

By almost bizarre contrast, Ferguson’s predecessor as Manchester United’s, first post World War II manager, Matt Busby, gained just a single vote. Yet, this was the manager who in 1946 took over a United team that didn’t even have a home ground, Old Trafford having been badly bombed in the War, and for years were obliged to share the Maine Road Stadium of their historic rivals, Manchester City. Yet in no time at all, Busby, one of the first of the so-called tracksuit managers, which meant he got out on to the training pit to work with his players, had built a team which sparked with young talent. The so called ‘Busby Babes’, whom he took into the European Cup against bitter opposition from the Football League, whose notoriously insular secretary Alan Hardaker had brow beaten and years later with Busby recovering from the shocking injuries he suffered in United’s February 1958 air crash at Munich airport, Hardaker took petty revenge. UEFA generously wanted to allow United to compete in the European Cup as a token of sympathy. But Hardaker fought the generous decision through one committee after another, until at last he got his way and United didn’t compete.

As for Busby, he would slowly recover his health and ten years after the Munich disaster at Wembley, he was in charge of the Manchester United team which became the first English side ever to win the European Cup, beating Benfica after extra-time in a thrilling Final. One vote?

Two votes were all that were accorded to Jock Stein, who the previous year had managed Celtic, the first ever British team to win the European Cup, beating Herrera’s Inter in Lisbon. This was an astonishing achievement by a team wholly made up of players born in and around Glasgow. Players, who enabled Stein’s Celtic to dominate Scottish football, for many years, at the expense of their eternal rivals, and former monopolists, Rangers.

There is no place on this list for George Raynor, yet the little Yorkshire-man surely worked wonders with Sweden, a remarkable coach who would travel the country looking for talent and training it. Raynor was an astute tactician. He won a dazzling Olympic football tournament in 1948 at Wembley, with a team full of major stars, who promptly for the most part went off to turn professional in Italy and Spain. Yet he still managed to forge together a team which reached the World Cup finals in Brazil in 1950.

Eight years later when he was able to recall veteran figures such as Gunnar Gren, Gunnar Nordahl and Nils Liedholm, he got his team to the World Cup final in Stockholm. And two weeks before Ferenc Puskas and his brilliant Hungarians came to Wembley to smash England’s unbeaten record against foreign teams at home, Raynor took his Swedes, still without their former stars, to Budapest, worked out what England never did, how to combat the deep-lying centre forward Nandor Hidegkuti and forced a 2-2 draw. True, at club level in England, Raynor was insignificant, but surely his Swedish record merits some kind of recognition.

Ninth equal with Herbert Chapman, the architect of Arsenal’s huge successes between the two World Wars, we find Bela Guttmann, who I had come to know quite well. Not least in Rome when he had just been sacked by Milan though they were then top of the Campionato. He would take over Lisbon’s Benfica, launch the remarkable right-footed goal scorer Eusebio, and win two European Cups in a row.

I’d have thought both he and Chapman deserved more votes then they got. And only two votes for Alf Ramsey, the only manager to win a World Cup with England and probably the last one ever? Previously the manager of an Ipswich Town team which he brought up from third division obscurity to winner of the League Championship. Still as the Romans said there’s no accounting for taste.