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English Football Managers in 21st Century Europe

Map of Europe with borders (via Wikipedia)

I've always been a big advocate of British players moving to other leagues across Europe, and if that means La Liga, Serie A or the Bundesliga, then even better. It can often be an opportunity for footballers to make themselves better, to branch out and learn new cultures, tactics and styles, all of which could contribute to their international set-up. In recent years this has become a growing trend, with some major English players having actually made their names abroad, see Jadon Sancho, Fikayo Tomori and Jude Bellingham for example. However, for English football managers, the chance to stand out on the continent has sadly been much rarer...

 

 

Let's start with an uncomfortable statistic before we even look at managers operating abroad, how English managers perform in UEFA competitions. Do you know the last time an Englishman managed a football team to lift the Champions League, Europa League or the third competition (once the European Cup Winners' Cup and now the Europa Conference League)? Well, if you said Bobby Robson with Barcelona, for the Cup Winners' Cup in 1997, you get a gold star.

 

As for the Europa League/UEFA Cup, you'll have to go back to Keith Burkinshaw in 1984 and his final game in charge of Tottenham, when his team defeated Anderlecht on penalties after a 2-2 draw stretched across a nervy two-legged final. In the very same year you'll also find the last English manager to win the Champions League/European Cup. Joe Fagan guided Liverpool to a remarkable fourth triumph in just eight years, in fact, at that time, Fagan was the fourth different Englishman to win the competition in the past eight years, concluding an unprecedented period of dominance when English clubs clinched the trophy seven times!

 

This purple patch included Bob Paisley becoming the first manager to win the competition three times, and the great Brian Clough breaking these wins up with his own two successes at Nottingham Forest. Tony Barton was the final man to make up this sequence, when he guided Aston Villa to the trophy in 1982. Little did anyone know how abruptly, and tragically, this era would come to an end in 1985.

 

Almost exactly a year since defeating Roma in the 1984 final, Joe Fagan took the red side of Merseyside out for yet another European Cup final, where once again the opponents were Italian. Liverpool versus Juventus was set to take place at the Heysel Stadium in Brussels, Belgium. As it transpired, this showpiece final would forever be marred by the events that occurred before kick-off, when thirty-nine Juve fans died in a crush instigated by those in the Liverpool end.

 

In a hugely controversial move, the authorities strongly advised that the match still go ahead in an effort to quell any further trouble, a decision that seems unfathomable today. Juventus eventually left with the trophy, after a Michel Platini penalty secured a 1-0 win, but the club will always look back on that night through a prism of grief. As for Liverpool and English clubs the ramifications would be long lasting, with UEFA handing down an indefinite ban across all club competitions in Europe. As it turned out, the ban ended after five years with Liverpool serving an extra year on top of that.

 

One of the results of the ban was the willingness of some of the top English managers of the day to move to European clubs, as well as a number of high profile players. Howard Kendall had achieved tremendous success with Everton and won the 1985 Cup Winners' Cup with the Toffees but, after securing a 2nd league title with them in 1987, he left for a two year stint at Athletic Bilbao. Terry Venables had already made the move overseas a year prior to Heysel, striving for the post of Barcelona manager in part because of a lack of top tier opportunities at home, and he made the most of his position. Winning Barca a first La Liga title in eleven years, in 1985, gave him a crack at the European Cup. His team made it all the way to the 1986 final but then lost in a penalty shoot-out to Steaua Bucharest.

 

After leaving England fans wanting more in the wake of the 1990 World Cup, Bobby Robson had decided that his immediate future lay in Europe and he began a nomadic journey across PSV Eindhoven, Sporting Lisbon and Porto before his aforementioned time with Barcelona. Possibly the greatest football manager that England have ever exported, he won silverware at every club aside from Sporting (who greatly regretted his sacking after he went to Porto), before his spiritual return home to Newcastle Utd, via another short stint at PSV following Barca.

 

When English clubs were allowed back into Europe, they appeared set to immediately re-establish their European dominance when Manchester United won the Cup Winners' Cup in 1991, a Mark Hughes brace enough to keep Barcelona at bay. Of course this was at the point that the future Sir Alex Ferguson was getting the Red Devils to sing to his tune and another Scot, George Graham, would win the same competition in 1994 as his last hurrah in charge of Arsenal. Skip forward to 1998 and Chelsea would win the penultimate edition of the tournament before UEFA disbanded it, their man in charge at the time was the late Gianlucca Vialli.

 

However, with the then UEFA Cup and Champions League, glory would be harder to come by for English clubs, let alone English managers. It wasn't until Liverpool and their cup treble of 2001, under Gérard Houllier, that the UEFA Cup found a way back to England. Strangely enough, it was THE treble of Manchester United in 1999 that finally saw an English club getting their hands back onto the top prize of the now Champions League.

 

Now we know that no English manager has won the Europa League/UEFA Cup or the Champions League/European Cup since the awful events of Heysel, but have any managed to get close to it either?

 

In short, yes. Roy Hodgson is the first name that sticks out, as he has twice lost a European final, the first being when in charge of Inter Milan in the 1997 UEFA Cup and the second when he took Fulham on an improbable run in the 2010 Europa League. Both ended in cruel losses, in the case of Inter they drew 1-1 over two legs against Schalke 04 and capitulated in the penalty shootout, whereas Fulham went down 2-1 to Atlético Madrid after a winner from Diego Forlán in the 116th minute of extra-time.

 

The other name that needs mentioning is Steve McClaren. In 2006 he led Middlesboro on a gallivanting run through the UEFA Cup that saw major drama in each of their knock-out stages, with away goal victories over VfB Stuttgart and Roma followed by crazy comeback wins versus FC Basel and Steaua Bucharest. Sadly, their luck ran out in a one-sided final, where they lost 4-0 to a certain Sevilla who were recording the first of their record six wins*. However, McClaren did go on to achieve silverware of a different kind in Europe when he took the Bobby Robson route to leaving the job of England manager.

 

Arriving in the Netherlands, with an infamously comedic Dutch accent, Schteeeeve did end up restoring his reputation for a while when he managed FC Twente to their first (and still only) Eredevisie league title in his second season in charge. He's not achieved anywhere near this success since and now finds himself back (almost) where it all began, as the Manchester United assistant, but in Enschede he will always be remembered fondly.

 

As for the Champions League/European Cup, the record for English managers post-Heysel makes for grim reading. In fact, we've already covered the last Englishman to manage in the final of the most elite of all club competitions in football, and that man was El Tel in 1986. Yes, it's thirty-seven years and counting since an English manager came close to lifting the trophy, a far cry from that golden age that led up to Heysel when it was nearly impossible to release the grip their peers had on it.

 

The question then is what has caused this drought? Whilst it's clear that Heysel is a line in the sand for the success of English managers in European club competitions, it doesn't account for the change in fortunes. Instead, what has changed is the opportunity for English managers to even compete in these competitions, especially the Champions League, and this is something that has become more entrenched as the Premier League has aged. Whilst the Premier League has grown to become the most prominent and affluent of all leagues, the wealth and popularity of it has increasingly drawn more and more of the elite level players and managers from rival domestic leagues.

 

This argument has often been used in discussions about the lack of success for the England national team, in that there is a smaller pool of top-quality English players to select from. However, this is not a notion that I agree with. English players will always rise to the top if they're good enough, that's been clear to see within Manchester City and Liverpool squads over the last few years. And, as I mentioned in my opening paragraph, there are now plenty of examples of English players moving abroad to reach the top in their own way. The past five years are proof enough that the English national side are in a good place and can be genuinely considered as challengers for the major international honours.

 

That being said, although the best English players are more than capable of being stars at the best clubs (be that at home or on the continent), English managers are not as well revered. If we look at the top six clubs in English football, based upon all-time competitive honours, there's a definite trend when it comes to their managers:

 

Permanent English Managers at Top Six English Clubs Since 1985:

 

Liverpool= Roy Evans (1994-98) and Roy Hodgson (2010-11).

Manchester United= Ron Atkinson (1981-86).

Arsenal= Don Howe (1983-86).

Chelsea= John Hollins (1985-88), Bobby Campbell (1988-91), Ian Porterfield (1991-93, David Webb (1993), Glenn Hoddle (1993-96), Frank Lampard (2019-21), Graham Potter (2022-23).

Manchester City= Mel Machin (1987-89), Howard Kendall (1989-90), Peter Reid (1990-93), Brian Horton (1993-95), Alan Ball (1995-96), Steve Coppell (1996), Frank Clark (1996-98), Joe Royle (1998-2001), Kevin Keegan (2001-05), Stuart Pearce (2005-07).

Tottenham= David Pleat (1986-87), Terry Venables (1987-91), Gerry Francis (1994-97), Glenn Hoddle (2001-03), Harry Redknapp (2008-12), Tim Sherwood (2013-14).

 

The three most successful clubs in the history of English football have largely forgotten home-grown managers, and the affinity that Chelsea, Manchester City and Tottenham have had with English managers has mostly coincided with periods when they haven't been serious challengers for honours.

 

We only need to look at Graham Potter, and his short tenure at Chelsea this season, to understand where the general feeling is. For most football fans it was refreshing to see an Englishman being given the job at one of the top six clubs in the country, albeit it was unlikely to expect them to wish him well! However, putting all tribalism aside we can probably agree that it was unfortunate for all English managers that Todd Boehly was willing to abandon his Potter project so quickly, as it feeds into the narrative supported by my evidence.

 

Let me be clear though, I am not behind this narrative myself. I believe the biggest clubs experience cycles of failure but that they will always, inevitably find their way back to silverware. The lack of English managers at Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal may just be a self-fulfilling prophecy rather than a fair appraisal of their quality. The outlier in all of this is Eddie Howe. 

 

The controversy surrounding the Newcastle United ownership and wealth are not relevant to this conversation, rather it's the fact that a club looking to permanently break-up the top six conglomerate and compete for trophies are putting their faith in an Englishman, at least for now. It could just be that Howe is actually the man to re-install the faith in English managers at the pinnacle of football...

 

 

 

 


 

*Sevilla extended their record to seven wins a week after this article was written!

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