FIFTY OF SO YEARS AGO, the Galapagos Giant Tortoise was a species on the brink of extinction. Human expansion, destruction of indigenous land to make way for agriculture and an amount of poaching that would make even the staunchest Tory supporter blush, had reduced the entire population of the majestic reptiles to just 15. Now, after extensive rehabilitation works, the population has risen to well over 1,000 and will hopefully be removed from the endangered species list in the near future.
This remarkable recovery story will give hope to another species, much closer to home, that looks to be in terminal decline. This species was once highly successful, filling its ecological niche superbly. So superbly, in fact, that they left their place of origin and headed to pastures new, colonising the lands to the south.
I am, of course, talking about the most volatile of beasts: the Scottish football manager.
Some nations have acquired a reputation in football that has become unshakable. For instance, if you are a well-to-do businessman in ownership of a top football club, and you need a talismanic forward, you would head to Argentina. If you required a stoic, intelligent defender then Italy would be the port to call upon. And if you need a modern, adept goalkeeper then you had better charter a flight to Germany.
As strange as it sounds there was a time when, if you were in desperate need of a manager that would galvanise a squad and get them to fight well above their station, then a trip to the rain-soaked lands of Scotland was needed.
This reputation for achieving excellence was born in the late 1960s and early 70s, where Scottish managers, who had been performing wonders for an age in the British Isles, began to flex their muscles on the continental stage.
First up was Jock Stein’s Celtic side who, in 1967, defeated a heavily fancied Internazionale side, with a team comprised entirely of players raised within a 20-mile radius of Celtic Park. The frenetic winger Bobby Lennox coming from the near-by village of Saltcoats was seen as an exotic presence. Celtic’s talisman Jimmy Johnstone, a man voted as the club’s greatest ever player, emphasised the surprise of the Scottish win, saying: “I thought we’d get a right gubbin’.” The 2-1 win broke the stranglehold Latin countries had enjoyed since the tournament’s creation way back in 1955.
Read | Jock Stein: the ordinary man who was anything but
A year later an arguably more Herculean effort was displayed. Just over a decade after the harrowing events of the Munich Air Disaster, Manchester United were triumphant in the European Cup, beating a wonderful, Eusébio-inspired Benfica side 4-1 after extra-time.
Manager Matt Busby’s journey leading a club that could very easily have collapsed under a tectonic strain of depression, to become the very best the continent had to offer, is nothing short of miraculous. When you add the fact that the Bellshill-born manager was personally read the last rites twice, it gives the whole tale the feel of something rejected by Hollywood producers for being too fanciful.
Scottish success was not limited to Ol’ Big Ears. The junior competitions of the UEFA Cup and the now defunct Cup Winners’ Cup also saw Scotsmen guide sides to victory. First was Bill Shankly’s UEFA Cup triumph with Liverpool in 1972, beating Borussia Mönchengladbach 3-2 over the two-legged final. The European trophy was the perfect way to crystalize Shankly’s work in morphing Liverpool from a side who had been wedded to mediocrity to a true juggernaut of the game.
The golden period for Scottish managers came to a close with Willie Waddell leading Rangers to a Cup Winners’ Cup triumph, beating Dynamo Moscow 3-2 in 1972. What makes Waddell’s triumph so impressive is the timing of his continental success. In 1972, bitter rivals Celtic were in the midst of winning a record nine titles in a row, so for Waddell to lead the Blues to such a prestigious position while being dramatically outgunned in domestic football, shows the depth of Scottish football, and by extension, their coaches in this time period.
Not to be outdone by their City rivals, Rangers too enjoyed European success with a side comprised entirely of homegrown players.
All of this brings us to the godfather of Scottish managers – a man who has earned a reputation that often eclipsed the sport he dominated, to the point he is now charged with delivering speeches before the students and faculty of Harvard University, in the minutiae of managing men. I am, of course, talking about Sir Alex Ferguson.
His time at Manchester United is well documented. Thirteen Premier League titles, five FA Cups, four League Cups, two Champions League titles and a Cup Winners’ Cup win well and truly allowed the purple-nosed Scotsman to feel as though he completed his self-imposed remit of “knocking Liverpool off their fucking perch”.
What is less well known is his tenure at Aberdeen, where his body of work, failing to span the same length of time as his Old Trafford days, is no less impressive. On paper his record reads three league titles, four Scottish Cups, a League Cup and a Cup Winners’ Cup, and while it stands out as a momentous achievement,