Following in the footsteps of giants – the challenge of succeeding Sir Alex Ferguson

No manager has been as successful as Manchester United’s retiring supremo – which, history suggests, will make living with his legacy that much tougher for his successor

By Graham Lister

So often in football, a manager leaves his post clutching a P45, sacked by an impatient or frustrated board for not delivering success. In such circumstances, the bar is set relatively low for the new man coming in to replace him: simply do better than the underachieving predecessor. But when the outgoing manager has been successful, the task for whoever follows him is more complicated.

And when the outgoing man has been as ridiculously successful as Sir Alex Ferguson, able to point not only to a haul of 38 trophies in 26 years, but also to the transformation of a provincial club into a global brand – an internationally-powerful football institution whose appeal steadily multiplies, generating unprecedented turnover and raising sky-high expectations among the faithful – then the challenge facing his successor is beyond daunting.

Ominously too, although nobody in English football has previously had to follow in the footsteps of such a serial over-achiever as Sir Alex, history shows that top managers can cast in their wake shadows long enough to sap the confidence, thwart the ambitions and trigger the inhibitions of the men who come next, however well-qualified and motivated those men may be.

David Moyes is expected to be confirmed as Manchester United’s choice to succeed Sir Alex. Favoured by his outgoing compatriot, Moyes is widely admired for his work and longevity at Everton, and is thought likely to bring the required stability and long-term thinking to Old Trafford as well as an emphasis on nurturing youth, buying wisely and encouraging attacking football. He will need all those attributes and more to ensure the relentless accumulation of silverware at Old Trafford does not falter.

He will also need the force of character and self-belief not to be cowed by the legacy Sir Alex bequeaths him.

Older United fans will remember with a chill how the succession was mishandled when Sir Matt Busby relinquished team affairs and moved upstairs in 1969. One of his erstwhile ‘Babes’, Wilf McGuinness, who was only 31 at the time, found it impossible to move out of Busby’s shadow. McGuinness lasted only 18 months before United felt compelled to relieve him of his onerous duties and recall Busby to the hot-seat. And when the legendary Scot – whose record of five league championships, two FA Cups and one European Cup in 23 years only Ferguson has eclipsed – stepped aside again, the previously successful Frank O’Farrell was unable to impose himself on United, whose post-Busby decline merely accelerated.

Relegation and a return to the top-flight as Second Division champions followed under Tommy Docherty, whose 1977 FA Cup win, along with those of Ron Atkinson in 1983 and 1985, were the summit of United’s achievement between the managerial reigns of Sir Matt and Sir Alex.

Some 30 miles westbound along the M62 at Anfield, Bill Shankly had arguably assumed Busby’s mantle as the most popular manager in football during 15 years with Liverpool that thrust the Reds from Second Division obscurity into the trophy-winning limelight. He did so with a winning mixture of tactical acumen, granite toughness and biting wit and was so much the embodiment of his club that when he dropped the bombshell of his retirement in the summer of 1974 people wondered whether Liverpool could ever be the same. In one sense they weren’t; and to this day Shanks remains revered on the Kop and on Merseyside generally.

But he had prepared for his succession well from the famous Anfield boot room, and his unassuming lieutenant Bob Paisley stepped up to the plate without breaking stride and proceeded to compile a record of success that outshone even Shankly’s. In fact Liverpool’s dominance continued through two subsequent internal appointments in Joe Fagan and Kenny Dalglish, though the habitual title triumphs dried up after 1990.

Despite the success of Paisley, however, the shadow of Shankly posed Liverpool an unfortunate problem. Shankly quickly realised he’d retired too soon and tried to maintain his involvement with the club. He would turn up for the team’s training sessions at Melwood, only reluctantly giving that up when he felt his presence was resented. And relations between himself and Liverpool grew strained to the extent that he said he felt more welcome at Everton and Manchester United than at the club he had helped build. But as far as Liverpool were concerned, they felt they had to move on; Shankly was a great figure, but an overpowering one, and it was Paisley’s team now.

A mere week before Shankly’s resignation, Don Revie had left Leeds United to become England manager. Revie had lifted Leeds from the depths of Division Two to the pinnacle of English football, with major successes at home and in Europe. Before him, the Yorkshire club had won no honours and were going nowhere. Under him they became the most feared team in the land, though respect was given only grudgingly because of the perceived ruthlessness of their professionalism. Revie’s Leeds were good enough to have won twice as many trophies as they did, but often stumbled at the final hurdle when the manager’s own insecurities seemed to transmit to his players.  

Nevertheless, ‘The Don’ was indeed the head of the family at Elland Road, and his departure left a void that the club have never filled. A succession of managers – Brian Clough, Jimmy Armfield, Jock Stein, Jimmy Adamson, Allan Clarke, Eddie Gray, Billy Bremner – tried and failed to emulate Revie’s success before Howard Wilkinson led them to promotion and then the last pre-Premier League title. That, and a brief, exciting spell under David O’Leary proved to be islands in a sea of post-Revie disappointment for Leeds fans, who still pine nostalgically for the Revie era.

That summer of 1974 also saw the resignation of another of the game’s iconic managers – Bill Nicholson at Tottenham. His Double-winning Spurs side of 1960-61 is rightly remembered as one of English football’s best, and he also brought two further FA Cups, the European Cup Winners’ Cup, Uefa Cup and two League Cups to White Hart Lane. He set the benchmark for success at Tottenham, and 18 managers since have been unable to match his achievements. Only Keith Burkinshaw (two FA Cups and the UEFA Cup) has come close.

The rise to prominence of Tottenham’s north London rivals Arsenal dates from their appointment of Herbert Chapman as manager in 1925. The visionary Chapman steered them to their first honours and literally put them on the map – of the London Underground. His premature death in 1934 did not halt Arsenal’s dominance in the 1930s as director George Allison took over, though he entrusted team affairs largely to former players Tom Whittaker and Joe Shaw. The trophies continued to accumulate, including after the war when Whittaker became manager in his own right.

But after Whittaker’s death in 1956, managers like Jack Crayston, George Swindin and Billy Wright all struggled to restore the Gunners to their former glories, with Chapman and his achievements now seen as a millstone around their necks and those of their players. It was inescapable too: the imposing bust of Chapman in Highbury’s famed marble entrance hall was a daily reminder to Arsenal managers of what was expected.

Billy Wright’s own boss during his playing days at Wolverhampton Wanderers was Stan Cullis, a forthright, hard-as-nails character who had taken over at Molineux in 1948 and became the youngest manager to win the FA Cup a year later, aged 31. He then led Wolves to three League titles and missed out on a hat-trick of championships only by a single point in 1960, winning the FA Cup again as compensation. When Wolves beat the multi-talented Hungarian side Honved in a prestigious floodlit friendly in 1954, Cullis’s claim that his team were now “champions of the world” helped hasten the birth of the European Cup.

But results later dipped and Wolves sacked Cullis in 1964. Nearly 50 years later they have come nowhere near replicating the success he’d brought them. Their current plight – two successive relegations – merely underlines the length of the shadow under which sacked Dean Saunders and 19 other Wolves managers since Cullis have toiled.

It’s been a similar story at Nottingham Forest since Brian Clough retired in 1993. That golden era in their history – Clough delivered their only League title, four League Cups and two European Cups – has proved impossible to emulate for the 14 men who’ve tried.

Interestingly, most of these iconic managerial figures have been enshrined by their clubs for posterity beyond the record books – in steel, concrete, bronze and tarmac. There are the Shankly Gates and a statue at Anfield, the Revie Stand and statue at Elland Road, Bill Nicholson Way and a bust at White Hart Lane, the famous bust and a new statue of Herbert Chapman at the Emirates Stadium, the Stan Cullis Stand at Molineux and the Brian Clough Stand at the City Ground, as well as a Clough statue in the centre of Nottingham and the renaming of the A52 between Nottingham & Derby as Brian Clough Way.

Then at the Theatre of Dreams there is Sir Matt Busby Way and a statue, as well of course as the Sir Alex Ferguson Stand and another statue. If David Moyes gets the job, he (and those who come after him as Manchester United managers) need only look dead ahead from the Old Trafford dugout to be reminded of his predecessor’s legacy and the standards he set.

Every trophy Sir Alex won may have been for the greater glory of United, but it also made the challenge that bit tougher for his successor. Because following in the footsteps of giants can be a thankless task…

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