The sight of the bright red cheeks of Sir Alex Ferguson intensely chewing gum on the sideline at Old Trafford is set to become a memory after the great Scot announced the end of his 27 years in charge of Manchester United.
The curtains may be about to close on a managerial career that boasted 49 trophies, but the debate about whether he was the greatest ever is set to begin in bars, cafes, restaurants and around office water coolers.
It’s hard to find a better football coach by the numbers. Ten-time manager of the year, 13-time English Premier League champion, two-time European champion and a coach that has reared more winning players than Bart Cummings has horses. Few football coaches challenge those feats, although perhaps some of Australia’s greats from other codes come close.
In 2010, Harry Kewell spruiked for one coach to make the transition to Australian football. It wasn’t any of his former bosses in the English Premier League, but rugby league great Wayne Bennett. “The way he manages people and deals with sportsmen, surely he’d be worth a look at for football,” Kewell said.
Much like Ferguson, Bennett will be remembered as the man that transformed one club into the powerhouse of their competition. His 21 years at the helm of Brisbane Broncos delivered six premierships and turned the Queensland club into the most consistent performers in the NRL for two decades. While Bennett’s trophy cabinet may not be overflowing to the extent of Ferguson’s, his achievements with the Broncos – and later with St George – are perhaps equally astonishing due to the constraints presented by the NRL salary cap.
While former Collingwood and Brisbane Lions boss Leigh Matthews boasts one of the most enviable win-loss records in AFL, it’s Kevin Sheedy who is perhaps the closest Australian to replicating the longevity of Ferguson. The charismatic Aussie rules guru led Essendon’s Bombers from 1981 until 2007 and guided the club to four flags across three generations of players. Sheedy won back-to-back titles in 1984 and ’85 and tasted grand final success again in 1993. He had to endure another lengthy break between titles before he returned Essendon to the podium in 2000.
From football to stumps, John Buchanan’s eight-year career with Cricket Australia delivered some of the nation’s best success across all formats. A former teacher, Buchanan was renowned for his versatility with his man-management style and his adaptability lead to results such as a whitewash in the Ashes and two ICC World Cups. Upon his own retirement, Michael Hussey attributed much of his personal success to the style of Buchanan’s coaching.
“I felt he knew what to say to you according to your personality. He knew how to motivate the different players according to what made them tick. He understood personalities, and to me he was very positive, reinforcing and encouraging all the time.” Mike Hussey told ESPN.
Ferguson’s legacy at Manchester United and the dynasty he established separates his career from many other great football managers.
Unlike Jose Mourinho, Marcelo Lippi, Fabio Capello and other iconic coaches, Ferguson did not depart Old Trafford after his first few champagne showers, nor did he subside to the mounting pressure during the difficult spells.
The 71 year-old Scot’s long and successful era with United draws parallels to that of former Real Madrid boss Miguel Munoz. The Spaniard won three European Cups with Real Madrid in the 1950s as a player and became the first person to win the continent’s greatest prize as a player and a coach when he lifted the cup in 1960, just two years after his retirement.
His 14-year spell as Madrid’s manager is widely seen as the platform for their legacy as one of the most successful clubs of any sport. Munoz went on to win another European Cup in 1966, won La Liga nine times as well as three Copa del Rey titles. He had stints with Sevilla, Las Palmas and Granada before taking charge of the Spanish national team but never lived up to the success he earned at Madrid. His win-loss ratio was dragged down in the latter stages of his career but still equalled that which Ferguson earned at Manchester United.
A name that may not be familiar with many sports fans in Australia but is often brought up when discussing Ferguson is Valeryi Lobanovskyi.
The Ukrainian held a 21-year tutelage of Dynamo Kyiv across two stints and guided the Soviet Union team for 15 years before its collapse. In his first season in charge of Dynamo, he won the 1974 Soviet league and cup double and went on to win 31 more trophies. He became the first coach to guide a Soviet club to a continental title when he won the 1975 UEFA Cup Winners Cup. Given he was aided by the two-horse race that became the Ukrainian top-tier following the Soviet collapse, his achievements could not live up to Ferguson’s.
In what will be the Scot’s 1500th and last game as a coach, many will reflect on a white banner that was held up at Old Trafford in 1989. “3 years of excuses and we’re still crap, ta-ra Fergie.” Twenty-four years, 38 pieces of silver, a bronze statue and knighting later, that fan will not just farewell his club’s greatest ever manager, but perhaps one of the best of all sports.
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