Who are the 6 greatest ever English football managers?

Clough, Revie. Revie, Clough. And the rest.

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Believe it or not, there was a time when being an English football manager wasn’t something about which to be vaguely embarrassed. A time when people didn’t simply sigh deeply and say, “Ah well, he’s doing his best” as soon as they were asked to review the performances of their earnest head coach from Bermondsey, Birmingham or Burnley.

Over the past two decades, the most noteworthy bosses to emerge from the green and pleasant land were probably Alan Pardew, Sam Allardyce, Gareth Southgate, Roy Hodgson and Sean Dyche, so there hasn’t been much to shout about lately. Back in the day, though, even continental European clubs were interested in hearing what English managers had to say about football. Some of them went so far as to take the remarkable step of hiring Englishmen to lead their teams. No, really.

So, rather than bemoaning the contemporary state of affairs, we decided to look back at the six English gaffers who we feel comprise the pantheon of management in the country. Oh and before anyone mentions Herbert Chapman or Tom Watson, we’ve limited the timescale to post-1945.

Brian Clough

The subject of books, films, documentaries and articles galore, Ol’ Big’Ead is probably best known for his stellar time at Nottingham Forest, although some will also point to his much-discussed period at the “damned” Leeds United in 1974.

Upon taking over at Forest in 1975, the man from Middlesbrough sprung them from the old Second Division to the summit of continental competition within a handful of seasons. Clough’s Forest took their place among England’s (and eventually the continent’s) biggest names, thanks mainly to him. Not just for their exploits as back-to-back champions of Europe in 1979 and 1980, but also for the corresponding period of 15 years or so under Clough during which they rarely failed to compete with the elite of the domestic top flight, a competition they won in 1977-78.

Eventually, Clough oversaw Forest’s relegation from the fledgling Premier League in 1992-93. Bringing down the club he’d led out of mediocrity was his final act at the City Ground, but that unfortunate end shouldn’t distract from his exceptional career prior to that.

Oh, and there’s also the small matter of Clough taking Derby County out of the Second Division in 1969 and subsequently winning the First Division in 1971-72, a feat that set the whole train into motion. To promote a team to the top flight and win it within three years is good; to do so twice across two different clubs is something special.

Howard Kendall

As a player, Howard Kendall made 233 appearances for Everton, the final four of which came during a brief period as player-manager in 1981. He’d rejoined the club after a decent spell in the same role at Blackburn Rovers but soon hung up his boots to focus entirely on management. It was the beginning of a beautiful career in the dugout at Goodison Park.

In his early years, Kendall made some key signings in the form of Neville Southall, Peter Reid and Trevor Steven but was reportedly close to losing his job after a dreadful opening to the 1983-84 season. Then, Andy Gray (yes, that one) joined the club and things began to change, with the Toffees going on to win the FA Cup that year and also reach the League Cup final.

This was more than enough to keep Kendall in position and the following year brought a dominant league campaign during which Everton easily outgunned an excellent Liverpool side to win the title, as well as the Cup Winners’ Cup. They won the domestic top flight again in 1986-87 before Kendall departed to Bilbao to join Athletic in the aftermath of the post-Heysel ban on English clubs competing in Europe.

After getting sacked by Athletic, Kendall was heavily linked with the England job but that eventually went to Bobby Robson and the former Everton man pitched up at Man City. It wasn’t to be the last time Kendall would be touted for the national team role, but the stars never aligned and – despite a second spell at Goodison – he never again recaptured his mid-1980s success, with that league title in 1987 being the final trophy of his management career.

Everton FC coach Colin Harvey (left) with the team's manager Howard Kendall, circa 1985. (Photo by Ben Radford/Getty Images)

Bob Paisley

Not much needs to be said about Bob Paisley, really. There aren’t many of you reading this who don’t already know what he achieved as the successor to Bill Shankly at Anfield, but by way of a recap here are some of the highlights: six First Division titles, three European Cups, three League Cups, a UEFA Cup and a UEFA Super Cup.

No other entrant on this list can match those achievements in terms of titles won. If anyone were to make the case for Paisley as the greatest ever English manager, it would be difficult to argue against. His detractors (and there probably are some out there) will claim he merely continued the work of Shankly, but that trophy cabinet can’t be ignored.

Only Alex Ferguson has won more English top flight titles. No-one has won more European Cups/Champions Leagues (Zinedine Zidane and Carlo Ancelotti are level). Under Paisley, Liverpool became the most feared club team in world football, while big Bob’s crowning achievement was undoubtedly his posthumous Oscar-worthy cameo in a recent promotional video for an international banking group.

If you think you’ve found an English manager with a better resumé than that, let us know.

Alf Ramsey

A decade before Clough led Derby out of the lower leagues and won the top tier, Alf Ramsey did exactly the same thing with Ipswich Town. Ramsey took charge of Ipswich as a Third Division South team in 1955 and by 1962 they were champions of England with a team built around Ray Crawford, Ted Phillips and Jimmy Leadbetter.

It wasn’t long before the FA came calling and in 1963 Ramsey was appointed as England manager, replacing Walter Winterbottom, who at the time was the only man to have ever served in the role. Ramsey quickly set about changing things and demanded responsibility for squad selection; previously, a committee had selected players largely independent of Winterbottom, the nominal manager.

He named Bobby Moore as captain and the rest, pretty much, is history. Even now it seems incredible, but Ramsey remains the only man to have won an international tournament as England manager, 54 years after he did so in 1966.

Alf Ramsey

Don Revie

Clough and Revie, eh? A rivalry between two Teessiders that remains eternal within English football’s popular culture. In 1958, the two men could have ended up playing together for Middlesbrough but Revie chose instead to join Leeds and form a relationship that would go on to define the British game for decades.

Revie had pitched up at a Second Division side located deep in rugby league territory, but almost single-handedly transformed the whole club in a short period of time. He kept a close eye on the players’ personal lives and had a hand in most things at Elland Road, making sure to develop close relationships at every level of staff. His scouting and preparation were superb and it wasn’t long before this “holistic” approach brought dividends with a promotion to the First Division in 1963-64.

In an echo of Clough’s success at Derby and Ramsey’s at Ipswich, Revie led Leeds to league titles in 1968-69 and 1973-74, and also won the FA Cup in 1972. During his time at the club, Leeds were accused of brutality and negativity on the field. Which is probably accurate – but also unfair considering the English game as a whole was noted for its “physicality” at this time. Leeds may have been “dirty”, but there weren’t many in England who weren’t.

Regardless, Revie created one of the finest teams in the country and was rewarded for his work with the England job, which he took in 1974, replacing Ramsey. The man who stepped into Revie’s shoes at Leeds didn’t have such a good time and only lasted 44 days in the role. If you want to know more about him, just scroll up.

Bobby-Robson-Barcelona

Bobby Robson

Many will remember Bobby only for his late-career spell at Newcastle United that ultimately ended in player revolt and the sack, but to do so is to forget Robson’s status as perhaps the most iconic and successful English manager of the last 30 years.

Like Ramsey, Robson first made waves as a manager with Ipswich, taking over in 1969 and remaining in situ until 1982. Under the former England international, Ipswich became a serious force in the First Division and went on to win the FA Cup in 1978. Remarkably, Robson then led them to a UEFA Cup final victory over AZ in 1981, and his achievements in Suffolk were enough to land him the national team nod two days after England were eliminated from the 1982 World Cup.

Robson was under pressure almost from the beginning and when England failed to qualify for the 1984 Euros, he tendered a resignation that was rejected by the FA. Clough was apparently next in line but didn’t fit the mould in the eyes of the blazers, so Robson continued as the incumbent and, over the following six years and three tournaments, cemented his place in England lore.

There was the Hand Of God in Mexico ’86 and group stage elimination at Euro ’88, leading to a prolonged period of quite astonishing abuse and pressure created by the country’s tabloids, aimed at chasing Robson out of his job. Against all odds Robson stayed in place and at Italia ’90 led England on arguably their most significant World Cup campaign post-1966. Gazza, Turin, Waddle, Bobby, beautiful.

After 1990, “Bungler Bobby” PSV’d off to the Netherlands, winning two national titles before doing the same in Portugal with Porto after a mixed few years at Sporting, where his interpreter was future Paddy Power Games ambassador Jose Mourinho. Mourinho would follow Robson not just to Porto but also to Barcelona in 1996, where the Englishman had a tough time. He brought Ronaldo to the Nou Camp and managed the likes of Pep Guardiola, Luis Figo and Hristo Stoichkov, winning the Copa Del Rey but ultimately not doing enough to convince the club’s socios of his bona fides.

On the heels of another year at PSV in 1998-99, Robson called a halt to his European odyssey and returned to England after a decade away, joining Newcastle. He became a hero at St James’ Park and oversaw some wonderful scenes, including leading the Magpies to a UEFA Cup semi. He sadly passed away in 2009 but left arguably the most lasting legacy of any English manager since Ramsey.

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