The greatest managers

AP

Sir Alex Ferguson has every right to be eulogised as one of the outstanding club managers of all time, anywhere.

Having just won his 11th League Championship with Manchester United shortly before contesting the Final of the European Champions Cup in Rome, Sir Alex Ferguson has every right to be eulogised as one of the outstanding club managers of all time, anywhere. The very best? Here we move into more subjective territory. At the moment, one of his chief rivals for the crown, Arsene Wenger of Arsenal, is somewhat in the shadows, though the fact that Real Madrid are so eager to appo int him, now that Florentino Perez is returning as their President, is highly significant. But Arsenal under Wenger, despite their multiple triumphs in the past, their rejuvenation under his 13-year rule, have now gone four successive seasons without winning a major trophy. Even though they did come so close to beating Barcelona in that hectic and dramatic European Cup Final, most of which they were obliged to play with only 10 men.

There are, of course, other candidates, not least Guus Hiddink, who had just left Chelsea after a brief but highly productive spell as their temporary manager, to choruses at Stamford Bridge of, “We want you to stay!” Hiddink, of course, took South Korea — previously, as he recalled in his last Press Conference at The Bridge, endlessly unsuccessful in World Cups — to the semifinals of the competition in 2002. In 2006, he was in charge of an Australian team which punched impressively above its weight in the World Cup finals in Germany and was unlucky to be eliminated. Now he returns to Moscow to try to get the national team through to next year’s World Cup finals in South Africa.

Then there is Jose Mourinho, who modestly calls himself “The Special One,” who has just won the Italian Serie A title with Inter, at the first time of asking. He had much success previously with Chelsea, until he fell foul of the billionaire Russian owner, Roman Abramovich, but arguably his greatest achievement was to win the European Cup with Porto, a team he so skilfully rebuilt and tactically organised, far too strong on the occasion of the final for Monaco, beaten 3-0 in Gelsenkirchen. A team which fell away if not apart when he left it for Stamford Bridge. That was back in 2004 and in several cases, the question, “Where are they now?” arises. Carlos Alberto, for example, the swift left-winger who scored the opening goal. Dimitri Alenitchev, who came on a quarter of an hour from the end to score the third. And Deco, the little Brazilian creator, who got the middle goal, a player who arrived from Brazil as a virtual nonentity, but forged such a fine career in Portugal, where he was naturalised. Yet, this season, at Chelsea, the word must rather be “marginalised” since he ultimately lost his place after a deeply disappointing season.

And Ferguson? I still, perhaps perversely, believe that his finest achievement came not with Manchester United but before he joined them, at Aberdeen. With scant money to spend, and in a Scottish League ever dominated by the Glaswegian clubs Celtic and Rangers, he forged a splendid side which had the temerity to beat mighty Real Madrid in the Final of the European Cupwinners’ Cup, a competition which alas has disappeared, under the demands of the bloated so-called Champions Cup.

Ferguson began badly at Old Trafford where it looked for a time that he might even lose the job. He saved it by winning the Cupwinners’Cup again and thereafter his job was secure, even though it would be years before United at last regained a Championship which they were destined to dominate.

In previous European Cup finals, Fergie has surely had his luck. When United, in the breathless last throes of the Barcelona final versus Bayern Munich who’d beaten a tattoo on the United woodwork, scored twice to succeed, it was because Ferguson had so belatedly put on two decisive scoring subs in Sheringham and Solksjaer and jettisoned a mistaken formation which had Ryan Giggs, left-footed, on the right and an ineffectual Jesper Blomqvist on the left. In last season’s final in Moscow, United only just squeezed through against Chelsea, on penalties.

One remembers, too, how Fergie shrewdly, some would say cynically, mounted a war of nerves on the volatile Kevin Keegan, then managing a Newcastle team with a 12-point lead in the League. Keegan and his team disintegrated, United overhauled them and won the title. One also recalls a European Cup game at Juventus, when Fergie mistakenly deployed Eric Cantona as a lone striker, with such scant effect.

But then, didn’t Wenger do much the same in a Cardiff Cup Final against United, using alone, up front, an ageing, one-paced, Dennis Bergkamp, prevailing drearily on penalties? And didn’t he stick disastrously to a catastrophic £2.1 million centre-back, in Pascal Cygan?

As for Mourinho, his latest success with Inter cannot eradicate the memory of the team’s ignominious European Cup defeat by Manchester United at San Siro. While in the 2002 World Cup, only outrageous decisions by referees and a linesman enabled Hiddink’s South Korea to eliminate Italy and Spain, en route to the semifinals. Hiddink could hardly be impugned for all that, but something strange seemed to be happening.

Still, as Benjamin Disraeli said, “The defects of great men are the consolation of dunces.” Of the achievements of Ferguson, Wenger, Hiddink and Mourinho, there can be no gainsaying. Now Arsenal must hope Wenger, abused by noisy shareholders, will stay.