The trials of managing the beautiful game


Football managers face probably the toughest scrutiny of anybody operating at top level. When things go well, they are lauded and applauded. But when things go badly, they are often blamed for their team’s poor performance and publicly dragged through the mud, or worse.

Who’d be a football manager, eh?

With World Cup fever sweeping the nation, it’s a good opportunity to celebrate the best of British football managers and think about what made them so successful.

Gareth Southgate holds England’s hopes in his hands this time around and has chosen a largely inexperienced team. Whether or not his intuition pays off remains to be seen. But in a couple of weeks’ time, Southgate will know his place in England’s World Cup history, for good or ill.

Let’s look at three successful football managers from history and see what made them tick. All, by coincidence, received a knighthood for their efforts, so they must have done something right!

Sir Alex Ferguson

Whilst Alex Ferguson never oversaw any World Cup victories, he is often held up as the best of the best. A manager of Manchester United from 1986 until his retirement in 2013, ‘Fergie’ saw his team become top of the world, winning numerous trophies at home and overseas. His tenure was not totally free of controversy, but Ferguson left office with his first-rate reputation firmly intact and a wake of successors who failed to match up.

What was the source of Fergie’s magic? Paul Parker, ex Manchester United and England player – and now a close associate of Cegos in Singapore – has nothing but praise for his old boss.

“Managers now, who are dealing with top level players, have a 3 or 4-year life span with any one team, because players get to a point where they don't believe the manager can take them any further. It was different with Sir Alex Ferguson,” Paul told us recently.

“He evolved with every coach he had because that coach added something different, gave him new ideas. He changed his style to get Manchester United to another level and compete 100%. He was willing to adapt and wasn’t stuck in a way he thought he had to do it, because he knew he had to move on and he was still willing to learn.

“And that’s the big difference – you’re never too old to learn. An old dog can learn new tricks. He was a great manager for individuals and for the collective team. He knew everyone’s strengths and weaknesses and knew how to talk to you.”

Sir Alf Ramsey

Those of a certain age remember 1966 as a golden year for England, and the last time we won the World Cup title. Back then, Alf Ramsey was the manager praised for leading his lean and hungry team to victory. What did he do to inject some winning spirit into his team’s performance?

Ipswich Town legend Ray Crawford was interviewed in 2016 about his memories of working with Sir Alf.

“His knowledge and memory of football was incredible. He’d study and memorise everything,” said Ray.

“His philosophy was to get the best out of what he’d got. At Ipswich, we didn’t have many wide players so he played a system that didn’t have them. It worked for us and it worked for England too.

“He was always so immaculately dressed, so precise and so exact. He’d pick his words and speak them slowly. Everyone listened. Alf was a man of few words, but he kept you on your toes. He wasn’t brutal, but he got straight to the point. You would go into his office annoyed about something and leave thinking ‘what was I so angry about?”

Sir Bobby Robson

Bobby Robson led his 1990 England squad to the World Cup semi-finals and came within an inch of erasing the painful post-1966 blues. Whilst Germany had established a tradition back then of booting England out on penalties, Sir Bobby was still highly regarded for the way he took a cohesive and talented team so far in the tournament.

1990 squad member Paul Parker, who famously scored an own goal, remembers his manager as having a very human style of leadership and team management. Paul wrote a blog early this year about the 6 lessons he learned about being an authentic leader from Sir Bobby Robson, including honesty, loyalty and a winning mentality.

Whether you love football or loath it, there are many lessons to be learned from the most successful managers in what must surely be the most rigorous and demanding of circumstances.

Will Gareth Southgate deserve a place on this list by the 2018 tournament’s end? We’ll have to wait and see.

Cegos has a variety ofmanagement training programmeson offer, suitable for helping your people manage a winning team. Join us for our webinar – How to Build a Winning Team – on Tuesday 10h July, 2018.

How to build a winning team webinar