Greatest Managers

Managers face different demands

August 8, 2013
By Miguel Delaney

It wasn't exactly the most complimentary way to greet the man who had just completed the greatest managerial feat the European Cup has seen.

Bob Paisley third European Cup
GettyImagesBob Paisley poses with his third European Cup. The former Liverpool boss remains the only manager to win the trophy three times.

Yet as Bob Paisley entered the Parisian press room after his Liverpool side beat Real Madrid 1-0 in 1981, a German journalist asked how he could square their status as European champions with finishing just fifth in the English league. For his part, the Anfield boss had a few questions of his own. Paisley admonished Phil Thompson and Alan Hansen for repeatedly deviating from instruction and venturing too far forward.

Such a refusal to overly revel in any victory perhaps goes some way to explaining the consistency that brought Paisley's Liverpool repeated European Cups in the first place, as well as why the depth of such an achievement was not fully appreciated beyond Anfield until later.

It was only when the era of teams like Ajax and Liverpool racking up successive victories had passed and the competition began a 23-year spell without even seeing the trophy retained that Paisley's feat came to be seen as the managerial gold standard.

Jose Mourinho has repeatedly talked about his ambition to match it, while it is the one big personal goal that Pep Guardiola can aim for at Bayern Munich beyond helping the club retain the trophy. That Champions League record was also the one charge held against Sir Alex Ferguson in all the justifiable praise sent his way in retirement, with the former Manchester United boss reportedly revealing that not winning a third was his single great regret.

That issue does raise the question of how definitive such achievements are in attempting to decide the greatest managers ever.

It is no surprise that the European Cup has come to be seen as the true single barometer of brilliance. While the international tournaments are too infrequent and the domestic leagues lack that external dimension, the sheer wealth of the Champions League has seen it develop as the highest possible level of the sport. Bill Shankly was saying as far back as 1967 that it instantly bestowed "immortality" on Celtic's winning boss Jock Stein, while Arsene Wenger has apparently stated in private that it is the one "gaping hole in his CV." Many managers define their career by it.

At the same time, a few European Cup-winning managers define the other side of the competition. Both Dettmar Cramer and Luis Carniglia lifted it twice without doing much else in their career, while the likes of Tony Barton, Joe Fagan and Roberto Di Matteo were effectively one-season wonders.

What these victories illustrate is that, for the all the vaunted levels of the Champions League, it is still a cup competition prone to the unpredictable nuances of knockout football. Some coach and team may simply find themselves in the right place at an opportune time, when the single bounce of a ball can immediately alter collective perceptions of an entire career.

As such, it remains impossible to detach even the most illustrious European Cup win from the context surrounding it. Former Liverpool captain Ron Yeats has previously provided a perceptive quote when describing the difference between Shankly's record in Europe and that of the Paisley-managed outfit that followed.

"Unfortunately for our team, we went to the semifinal of the European Cup and the final of the Cup Winners Cup without winning it. The team after us won everything, but they had learned from us. You learn from team's mistakes," he said. "In the beginning, we used to be gung-ho. I can remember the away tactics: 'Go at them! Get a goal. Get two goals!' We did this at times and it would come off, but sometimes it wouldn't."

Arrigo Sacchi
PA PhotosArrigo Sacchi was the last man to win back-to-back European Cups, in 1989 and 1990.

One of Paisley's most notable masterstrokes was realising that more patience was required on the continent, that the game had changed. At the same time, it is equally important to recognise the change between the old European Cup and modern Champions League when it comes to comparing the records of Paisley and Helenio Herrera with modern coaches like Mourinho, Guardiola and Ferguson. Their records cut to the heart of the differences between the two incarnations of the same competition.

While the old European Cup was so much harder to qualify for since it allowed only champions, it was undeniably easier to win once involved. The absence of seeding could open up great swathes of the draw, and major sides often had forgiving routes to the latter stages. In 1985-86, Emerich Jenei's Steaua Bucharest found their way to the trophy by getting past Vejle, Budapest Honved, Kuusysi, Anderlecht and, finally, Barcelona. As a consequence, it was more conducive to champions that had developed dynasties in their own countries -- such as Real Madrid and Benfica -- as well as those who were in it from winning the previous year's competition. This undeniably goes a long way to explaining why so many teams racked up repeat victories in the first 25 years of the competition. In that period, only five winners -- Milan 1963 and 1969, Celtic 1967, Manchester United 1968 and Feyenoord 1970 -- failed to at least retain it.

At the same time, these clubs did not have the safety net of the modern group stages. Paisley was prevented from completing an unprecedented three in a row because Liverpool were unfortunate enough to be caught cold in the 1978-79 opening round by Brian Clough's Nottingham Forest, who went on to win and retain the trophy themselves.

Around that point, the UEFA Cup was even seen as an equal competition in terms of quality -- if not prestige -- simply because it involved more higher-placed teams. That is no longer the case, given how the second-tier tournament has been cannibalised. It has all conspired to essentially invert the old European Cup. The modern Champions League is easier to qualify for but harder to win, while the safety nets of the earlier stages have bottlenecked quality toward the latter rounds.

Given the minimal differences in ability between sides that now reach the last eight, the effect of those knockout nuances become much more pronounced. You only have to consider the contest that launched Mourinho's career. As much as he had proved himself in taking FC Porto to Manchester United's level and beyond, he still required a fortunate offside decision and a last-minute goalkeeping error to progress from that last-16 tie at Old Trafford in 2003-04. In contrast, Mourinho still points to the decisions that went against his Chelsea and Real Madrid teams in the 2004-05 and 2010-11 semifinals. Guardiola, meanwhile, might have already matched Paisley's record had it not been for the variety of vagaries that went against Barca in 2009-10 -- from a volcano to another offside decision.

Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola
GettyImagesJose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola could, and should, beat Paisley's three-trophy haul.

None of this is to minimise or maximise the reputations of specific managers, merely to point how the certainties of their careers are based on awfully fragile individual moments. The supposed solidity of the basic numbers does anything but tell the whole story.

The apparent dawning of the era of the superclub may further change perceptions. With the manner in which football economics have become as bottlenecked as the Champions League, only 10-12 clubs have a consistent chance of winning the competition and regularly reach those latter stages. It is also notable that Mourinho has spent his career jumping around them, having served his dues in Portugal, while Guardiola selected an institution as lavishly equipped as Bayern after Barcelona.

As a consequence of both that and their inherent abilities, it seems inevitable that the duo will at least match, and probably break, Paisley's record over the next few years.

Should they do so, though, the reaction will likely be much less questioning than what Paisley encountered.

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