For more than half a century, a few managers from the West of Scotland had a huge influence on British and European football. From Matt Busby in the 1950s to Sir Alex Ferguson, who retired in 2013, Scots managed top clubs in England and led Scottish and English teams to become European champions.
Busby, Bill Shankly, Jock Stein and Ferguson are up there with the best managers of all time globally, an incredible achievement from four men who grew up in working class areas in and around Glasgow.
They set the standard for Scottish managers – and others such as Dave MacKay, Kenny Dalglish and George Graham also reached the pinnacle of the English game, while not quite matching the achievements of the fantastic four.
When the sun set on Ferguson’s remarkable 27-year reign at Old Trafford, he passed the baton to a fellow Glaswegian who was hoping to attain the legendary status of his predecessor. Unfortunately for David Moyes, things didn’t turn out as planned and his subsequent fate has been mirrored by many highly-rated Scottish managers in recent years.
A growing number have made promising starts to their managerial careers but, after facing a bigger challenge or making a poor career decision, have failed to make the necessary progress to get the chance to reach the top.
As recently as 2011, seven Scots were in charge of clubs in England’s top tier. Ferguson was still at Manchester United and Moyes was Everton boss, while Dalglish was in his ill-fated second spell at Liverpool. Alex McLeish was in charge at Aston Villa, Paul Lambert led Norwich City, Owen Coyle was Bolton Wanderers manager and Steve Kean was the Blackburn Rovers boss. Malky MacKay would soon lead Cardiff City into the Premier League and Steve Clarke became West Brom boss in the same year. It seemed that the wealth of talent from the West of Scotland was still rich.
To understand where it all went wrong, a look at the fate of each individual paints a picture.
There is not much to say about Sir Alex Ferguson and Kenny Dalglish. Fergie was reaching the end of a glorious career and Dalglish was also on the wrong side of 60, overseeing a club that had been mismanaged for several years but failing to bring a turnaround in their fortunes. While Dalglish had never reached the heights of Ferguson, he won three league titles as Liverpool boss and his most impressive achievement was in making Blackburn Rovers the champions of England in 1995.
It is also difficult to read too much into the career of Steve Kean, who was made Blackburn manager in what many saw as an opportunistic betrayal of Sam Allardyce after his sacking. Kean was never recognised as a promising manager in the same way as some fellow Scots and his eventual departure from the struggling Rovers was inevitable. He has since gone on to enjoy success with Brunei DPMM, who play in Singapore’s S-League.
Clarke had made a career as a number two at Chelsea, Liverpool and West Ham before taking on the West Brom role at the age of 48, so doesn’t really fit the profile of having once been a promising young manager.
McLeish, however, has shown promise at several stages in his career but, like many before him and several since, made a poor choice in joining Aston Villa. The former Motherwell, Hibs, Rangers and Birmingham City boss — an excellent central defender under Ferguson at Aberdeen — had made positive starts at each of his previous clubs before apparently running out of steam. This was exemplified by a poor final season at Rangers when, as defending champions and title favourites, the club finished third behind Celtic and Hearts, at one stage going ten games without a win.
After leaving Rangers, McLeish took over the Scotland job from Walter Smith, with the Scots in a strong position to qualify for Euro 2008. He led his country to impressive victories against France in Paris and at home to Ukraine to move the Scots to the verge of qualification with two games left of the campaign. Unfortunately, another unhappy ending saw Scotland lose 2-0 in Georgia before conceding in the final minute to lose 2-1 at home to Italy.
McLeish soon resigned from the international post and his time at Birmingham saw him fail to save them from relegation to the Championship in his first season. Nevertheless, he took them straight back up and secured an impressive ninth-place Premier League finish in 2009-10.
But true to his general career path to date, McLeish could not bring sustained success. His trophy-winning experience helped him lead the Blues to a shock League Cup final victory over Arsenal in 2011 but the club followed this by being relegated two months later.
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While the club confirmed that McLeish would be kept on, the manager had other ideas and crossed the city to take on the challenge of managing Aston Villa. Things never got going for him at Villa and he was under pressure from day one due to his Birmingham City connection. Like so many managers since, McLeish proved unable to revive the sleeping giant and they narrowly survived relegation in his only season in charge.
McLeish has since had short spells with Nottingham Forest, Genk and Zamalek in Egypt as his career begins to peter out.
Owen Coyle, a player of many clubs, first made a splash in management with St Johnstone when they were in Scotland’s second tier. When the Saints went to Ibrox and beat Paul Le Guen’s Rangers 2-0 in the 2006 League Cup quarter-final, they were lauded for their brave attacking football. Coyle’s men also reached the Scottish Cup semi-final that year and he took his side to within a whisker of promotion in 2007.
Coyle had caught the attention of clubs to the south and he moved to Championship side Burnley in November 2007. Bright and articulate with the media, Coyle immediately made a positive impression on and off the pitch. In his first full season with the Clarets, he led them to promotion to the top flight for the first time in 33 years.
The side was generally without star names and Coyle succeeded by getting players to play above themselves. Seasoned pros like Graham Alexander, Robbie Blake and Wade Elliott gained a new lease of life.
In 2008, he had managed to get Andrew Cole on board for a loan spell and the former Manchester United star spoke very highly of Coyle when interviewed by the Daily Mail a couple of years later. Cole said: “If a manager is not good at his job, I might say so. But Owen Coyle was the most impressive manager I played for after Sir Alex. He made the Burnley players ten times better than they were.”
This was high praise indeed from a former England international and Champions League winner, who had played under Ferguson for six years at Old Trafford.
Coyle’s side made a swift impact in the Premier League, getting the better of two of his better known fellow Glaswegians. First, Ferguson’s Manchester United were beaten 1-0 at Turf Moor with a goal from Blake. Burnley then repeated the trick just four August days later as they overcame Moyes’ Everton side by the same scoreline. The scorer this time was Elliott.
By the end of the year, the Clarets were far from safe in 14th place but it had been a solid start for a team that had come up via the play-off. Most people now believed that Coyle was destined for bigger and better things but few expected what happened next.
Bolton Wanderers, one of Coyle’s former sides, parted company with manager Gary Megson just after Christmas and immediately targeted their old striker. Coyle felt the time was right to move after two highly successful years at Burnley, but he was moving to a struggling side with financial problems.
Coyle may have felt a sense of vindication when his new club defeated Burnley just three weeks after he took the hot seat at the Reebok Stadium. His Wanderers side beat the drop, finishing in 14th spot with just 39 points on the board. The Clarets occupied the final relegation place in 18th place. It was a disappointing end to a season that had started on such an optimistic note for Burnley but perhaps Coyle saw their relegation as inevitable and didn’t want that on his record.
The Trotters survived more comfortably in Coyle’s first full season in charge but there was little sign of sustained progress as the wheels came off towards the end of the campaign. Bolton finished 14th again, but this time with 46 points. However, the league season ended with five straight defeats and seven in the last nine games.
A run to the semi-final of the FA Cup should have provided solace for the fans but the 5-0 capitulation to a limited Stoke City at Wembley did little to dispel the growing feeling that Coyle may not be the manager he was meant to become.
And there was confirmation the following season when Bolton were relegated after a run of 13 seasons in the top tier. Coyle was given a stay of execution despite the failure but lasted just ten games in the Championship before being sacked for poor results.
Dougie Freedman and Neil Lennon have since both tried and failed to engineer a turnaround in Bolton’s fortunes under the spectre of financial issues, particularly in the 2015-16 season. The Trotters will start the 2016-17 in League One after a disastrous campaign that saw Lennon lose his job in March.
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Owen Coyle’s time at the Reebok suggested he should’ve stayed at Burnley
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There is a real sense of what might have been had Coyle stuck with Burnley rather than joining a club that was potentially doomed to failure regardless of who was in charge. A brief but unsuccessful stint at Wigan Athletic followed and, now 49 years old, Coyle has been attempting to rebuild his career with Houston Dynamo in Major League Soccer for the last two years.
Paul Lambert is another Glaswegian whose managerial career has taken a wrong turn. He was a late bloomer is his playing career so he must be hoping that his fortunes will take turn for the better before it is too late.
Lambert was a solid midfielder for St Mirren and then Motherwell until, to the surprise of everyone in the Scottish game, Borussia Dortmund signed him at the age of 27 and made him a Champions League winner within a year. Lambert soon returned to Scotland and enjoyed eight successful years with Celtic before embarking on his coaching career.
There was a false start with Livingston and Lambert left his position after a disappointing eight months in charge. But more opportunities would soon follow and Lambert led League Two Wycombe Wanderers to a League Cup semi-final, where they earned a 1-1 first-leg draw against reigning Premier League champions Chelsea. Wycombe reached the League Two play-offs the next season but Lambert left after defeat to Stockport County.
Lambert then had a promising spell at Colchester City that famously included a 7-1 victory over local rivals Norwich City, a result that contributed to the Canaries’ decision to sack the incumbent Bryan Gunn and turn to their tormentor.
Lambert quickly oversaw an improvement and led the team to promotion to the Championship in 2010. Astonishingly, Norwich followed up with a second successive promotion and found themselves in the Premier League in 2012.
Striker Grant Holt, a late bloomer like Lambert, starred as Norwich finished their first season back in a respectable 12th spot. Lambert’s stock had never been higher, having led the Canaries from the third tier to the top and kept them there.
Again, many imagined that another young Glaswegian could be on his way to the top but, like Coyle, he was perhaps too hasty in his next move. Aston Villa had dispensed with the services of McLeish after their narrow escape from relegation and turned to one of the most promising young managers around.
Unfortunately for Lambert, Villa were similar to Bolton – a bigger club but in bad shape financially. After spending much of the 2012-13 season in and around the relegation zone, a late surge in form ensured Villa’s safety. A key result was a 2-1 win over Norwich at Carrow Road in May but his former side were moving in the right direction with an 11th-place finish. Villa meanwhile, were just two points better off than in the previous season.
After the huge success of Christian Benteke’s signing in 2012, there was little money to spend in the 2013 close season so Villa’s regression seemed inevitable. There were rumours that Benteke would be leaving but he stayed on, only to suffer an injury-hit second season at Villa Park.
Villa just about maintained their top flight status with a 38-point total that represented another indication of the stagnation at the club. Once again, there were no big signings to speak of in 2014 but an excellent start to the season saw Villa top the table after three wins and a draw in the first four games.
But the feel-good factor was not to last and Lambert was dismissed in February 2015 after a dismal run of form. Tim Sherwood was brought in and managed to save them – again with a 38-point total – but Villa’s 2016 relegation seemed to bring a grim period for the club to an end.
Lambert had failed to work his magic after his outstanding success at Norwich and following a short and mixed spell at Blackburn Rovers, he is also looking for the right opportunity to get his career back on track.
And so to Malky MacKay. As a player he was strong centre half who, having failed to establish himself as a first-team regular at Celtic, forged a steady career in the English Championship, mostly with Norwich and Watford.
MacKay got his managerial break at the Hornets and, after two unspectacular seasons in the Championship (finishing 14th twice), earned a move to Cardiff City in 2011. In his first year at the club, he led the side to the League Cup final, where they lost to Liverpool on penalties, and to the promotion play-offs, where they were defeated by West Ham.
Nevertheless, MacKay had made a positive impression and, like Coyle, came across well in the media. He would be given another year in charge and this time led the Bluebirds into the Premier League as they won the Championship title, finishing eight points clear of second-placed Hull City.
It would be the first time in 51 years that Cardiff would be in the top flight and success on the pitch meant that club owner Vincent Tan’s hugely unpopular decision to change the team’s colours from blue to red became less of an issue.
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But MacKay was having an uneasy relationship with Tan and things came to a head after an indifferent start to the 2013-14 campaign in the Premier League. After an increasingly bitter war of words being played out in public, MacKay was sacked in December, bringing an end to what was generally a successful spell.
Most Cardiff fans sided with MacKay at the time and it was felt that another opportunity would soon come along for the highly-rated Scot. But Tan had other ideas and leaked a series of emails with sexist and racist comments, allegedly written by MacKay in his time at Cardiff.
Public opinion turned against MacKay and his appointment at Wigan, taking over from Coyle in 2014, was met with protests. But he lasted less than six months at the Latics and has been out of work since.
It is difficult to compare Moyes to the McLeish, Coyle, Lambert and MacKay. He earned his move to Everton following a four-year apprenticeship at Preston North End. Moyes then ensured that his side finished in the top ten in nine of his 11 full seasons on Merseyside.
While failing to win trophies and challenge the top sides for supremacy, this was seen as achievement enough for a club with more limited resources that many competitors. A manager at the top-level may have been expected to do better in his cup runs – the most realistic chance of silverware. The closest Moyes came to a trophy was in 2009 when Everton lost the FA Cup final 2-1 to Chelsea.
Critics suggested that Moyes didn’t get an opportunity at a bigger club because of his dubious record against the top teams in England. But he formed organised and competitive sides that included the emerging talent of Wayne Rooney in the early years to the tentative steps of Ross Barkley towards the end.
Moyes also had an eye for a player, signing the likes of Tim Cahill, Phil Jagielka, Leighton Baines and Seamus Coleman, and helping them become among the best in their positions in the league.
Overall, his record spoke positively enough for Manchester United to come calling and offer him the daunting challenge of succeeding Alex Ferguson after his 27 trophy-laden years at the club.
The end for Moyes came more quickly than anyone could have imagined given the oft-cited problems Ferguson had faced in his first few years at Old Trafford. Ferguson took almost four years of struggle before he managed to land silverware. But Moyes’ predecessor had taken over a squad of under achievers at a club that had failed to win a league title in more than 20 years. Moyes was taking over the reigning champions.
Following Ferguson was never going to be easy but Moyes oversaw a dramatic collapse in form in the early days of his tenure and soon lost the faith of the United fans. It seemed to be business as usual when Moyes’ side spanked Swansea City 4-1 on the opening day of the 2013-14 Premier League campaign but a defeat at Liverpool soon followed and a 4-1 thrashing at Manchester City pointed to the first signs that the new man wouldn’t be up to the job.
When West Brom took their first win at Old Trafford since 1978, one week after the Man City debacle, the knives were being sharpened and it wasn’t even October. Form picked up somewhat and United went unbeaten in seven before the irony of a 1-0 home defeat to Everton. After another 1-0 home defeat, this time to Newcastle United, hopes were raised when the Red Devils won four on the spin.
But a disappointing result was never far away when Moyes was in charge at United and the next five games saw defeats to Spurs, Chelsea and Stoke City. Worse was to come in the shape of 3-0 home defeats to Liverpool and Man City before Everton’s 2-0 victory at Old Trafford in April 2014 sealed their first double over United since 1970.
The defeat to the Toffees was the final straw and Moyes was sacked by a board that had wanted to show patience. Moyes was not the right man for the job and had seriously damaged his chances of finding another job at this level.
A stint at Real Sociedad in La Liga was to follow, but lasted just over a year as perhaps the most likely of all the Scottish bosses to try and take on the mantle of the greats was back on the unemployed list.
It is no shame to fail to be as good as the great Scottish managers but some of the recent crop seem to have fallen too far, too soon. The West of Scotland’s breeding ground for some of the world’s best coaches may have dried up temporarily or forever. Early promise has led to disappointment for many.
The game has changed so much that it is difficult to expect there to be another Jock Stein or Ferguson but someone who can go a bit further than relative success at smaller clubs would be a positive sign that the region still has talent. And when clubs like Bolton and Aston Villa come calling, managers would be advised to think carefully about whether or not there is more to lose than to gain.
A the time of writing, the only two Scots in charge in the Premier League are at the clubs propping up the table. Eric Black’s stay at Aston Villa is expected to be temporary, following Rémi Garde’s departure from the doomed club. Alex Neil – another West of Scotland native – did phenomenally well to bring Norwich City to the top tier in his first season but it looks increasingly likely that he will be taking them straight back down.
It is 24 years since Leeds United’s Howard Wilkinson was the last Englishman to lead his side to the top of the English game. It is now three years and counting since a Scotsman claimed a major title but Ferguson has retired and there is no sign that his heir apparent is from the West of Scotland.
By Paul Murphy. Follow @PaulmurphyBKK