10 of Football History’s Most Underappreciated Managers | @AFCFinners

When we discuss the game’s great managers, the likes of Sir Alex Ferguson, Pep Guardiola, Jose Mourinho and Brian Clough immediately spring to mind. And rightfully so, as the things these managers have achieved has earned them legendary status.

But at the same time, there are also a number of managers whose names have faded into obscurity. Despite incredible achievements, for one reason or another, their names are not household ones. It is a crying shame, as the managers I have listed above only scratch the service of great people that have been seen prowling down the touchline. So in this list, I will be going through ten great football managers that deserve more credit.

A key aim of my football channel is to help immortalize the legacy of greats, to ensure they are not forgotten. So should you wish to learn more about each of the managers I have mentioned here, I have left a link to the videos I have done covering their lives. Let’s get started:

10. Joe Fagan

As Eldon Tyrell says in Blade Runner, “The candle that burns half as bright burns only half as long”, and Joe Fagan certainly did burn so very brightly. He may have only managed for two seasons, but in those he guided Liverpool to two European cup finals, winning one of them, and also became the first manager to guide an English side to a treble.

Joe Fagan joined Liverpool’s coaching staff after retiring as a player, a dream job for the scouser. Upon the arrival of Bill Shankly, the scott said to Fagan “you must have been a good player Joe, because I tried to sign you.” Fagan would have various jobs over the decades at Anfield, with Shankly first making him reserve team coach. He helped the likes of Roger Hunt, Ian Callaghan and Tommy Smith grow their talents and find their way into the first team, as they would all become legends in red.

Fagan helped to develop a key part of Anfield too. After befriending the manager of the side Guinness exports, Fagan was often given complimentary cases of stout that he would store in Anfield’s boot room. Over time, the Liverpool coaching staff would meet in this room over a pint of stout, or a scotch on special occasions, and the room has been credited as a large part of Liverpool’s success at the end of the 20th century. Sadly though, when Elton John visited after his Watford side played Liverpool, they did not have the pink gin he requested available for some reason…

Fagan was promoted to first team coach in 1971, and following the shock resignation of Bill Shankly in 1974, he was promoted to assistant manager as Bob Paisley took over as manager. Shankly had won 6 major honours with Liverpool and made them one of the best teams in the world, but it was about to get even better.

Paisley guided Liverpool to an incredible 3 European cups and 6 First Division titles, and with Fagan at his side, Liverpool were formidable. Although renowned for being reserved, Fagan once gave the Liverpool squad a legendary telling off when they had started the season poorly, and they would finish that campaign with the league title.

After Paisley retired, it was Fagan’s turn. Fagan in his heart did not want the manager’s job, but in his heart, he felt it was his duty to the club. Once again, Liverpool had found the ideal replacement. In his first campaign in charge, he lead Liverpool to their 4th League Cup in the row, made all the sweeter as they defeated Everton in the final, and then they won the league.

The final piece of the puzzle was the European cup. Liverpool faced Roma in Rome, but with two weeks to prepare, Fagan was cool as ice. He took the players to Israel, and asked Graeme Souness to take the players on a night out.

On the day of the final, Liverpool were unphased by the Roma support. Eventually, the wobbly legs of Bruce Grobbelaar won out as Liverpool defeated the Italians on penalties. The picture below of Fagan chilling with the European cup by his side might be the most badass picture in football history.

Fagan’s second season would be his last, as his tenure was never intended to be long term. Sadly, it was a nearly campaign, as Liverpool finished second in the league, reached the semi-finals of the FA Cup, and lost the European cup final to Juventus. This game sadly, was not about the football, as 39 supporters died in a stampede in the stands before the game. Joe Fagan returned to England crying into the shoulders of his assistant Roy Evans. Kenny Dalglish said that Fagan remained haunted by this for the rest of his life.

Statues of Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley stand outside Anfield today, but I doubt anyone would object to one of Fagan being erected soon too. He may have been a modest man, but deserved to be cast in bronze, not just for the joy of 1984, but for the many years (and cans of stout) he gave to the club behind the scenes.

9. George Raynor

Swedish football has given us the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Nils Liedholm, and Henrik Larsson. But none of this would be possible without George Raynor.

After experiencing a nominal playing career, the Yorkshireman worked as a personal trainer for soldiers in Second World War. After serving in Iraq, he managed a group of students who would represent their nation. After then working with Aldershot reserves, FA secretary Stanley Rous would recommend him to the Swedish FA.

Raynor set sail for Stockholm, and soon helped the game grow incredibly, teaching them discipline and everything the professional game of England had. His tactical knowledge saw the game turn towards professionalism, and in 1948 he guided them to Olympic gold back in his home of Blighty. He lead Sweden to third in the world cup in 1950, and managed a number of sides in Sweden along with the national team.

His first spell in charge ended in 1954, as he attempted to succeed in Italy, but had unsuccessful spells with Juventus and Lazio. He then took charge of third-tier Coventry city, before returning to Sweden.

In 1958, on home soil, he lead Sweden to the world cup final. They took the lead early on through Nils Liedholm, but sadly, they were no match for a little 17-year old boy named Pele. Sweden lost 5-2, but had still done themselves proud.

It summarises the bizarre nature of Raynor’s career that soon after this final, he was managing non-league Skegness Town. Sadly, the tail end of his career bought little success, but Swedish football owes him a huge debt of gratitude. Had English football given him a better chance, perhaps his name would be better known, but sadly, when Raynor died in 1985, his passing was not announced in any newspapers. A great manager, lost in time, with the biggest acknowledgement of his career being a somewhat unflattering portrayal by Colm Meaney in the film “Pele-Birth Of A Legend.” Raynor’s career was truly fascinating, but sadly, his tale continues to mostly be left on the shelf gathering dust.

8. Valeriy Lobanovskyi

One of the most trophy-laden managers of all time and one of the key pioneers of total football, Valeriy Lobanovskyi worked wonders with Dynamo Kyiv. He took a scientific approach to the game, getting his staff to note down statistics such as passes, tackles, interceptions to use in his analysis, something commonplace today, but unheard of when he began his career in the 1960s.

His style of play focused on a group of players who could interchange positions at any time, a key aspect of total football, and it is safe to say his methods would still bring him great success if he was managing today.

He won his first league title managing Dnipro in 1971, and in 3 separate spells at Dynamo Kyiv, he lead them to 8 league titles, 6 Soviet Cups, and 2 cup winner’s cups, as well as reaching the semi-finals of the European cup 3 times. He also guided the USSR to the final of the European championships in 1988, losing to another master of total football in Rinus Michels. (More on this final later on)

He died on the bench after suffering a stroke during a Dynamo Kyiv game, but his legacy with the club lives on immortally. Few managers have such a trophy cabinet like Lobanovskyi, with his 9 league titles as a manager being more than the top flight titles won by Bill Shankly, Brian Clough and Don Revie put together.

7. Albert Batteux

Speaking of managers with several league titles, nobody has won more French top-flight titles in history than Albert Batteux. He was Reims through and through, spending his whole playing career with them, winning 1 league title and 1 Coupe De France with them. But it was as a manager he would truly experience glory.

He took over Reims as manager soon after hanging up his boots, and quickly found success. He focused on discipline and prime fitness, often driving his players to exhaustion in training. He won them a league title in 1953, followed by another in 1955. He lead them to a European Cup Final in 1956, but sadly they were no match for Real Madrid. He would win a third league title in 1958, making it a double with his first Coupe De France as manager. By now, he was dividing his time between Reims and the French national team, finishing his time in charge of the country with a 3rd place finish in the 1958 world cup.

Sadly, he lost the European cup final again to Real Madrid in 1959, but this didn’t stop them in the league, as they won further titles in 1960 and 1962.

Unfortunately, his 26 years at the club came to an end in 1963 as the club were forced to part ways with him due to financial struggles. His next job at Grenoble bought little success, but when he took over Saint-Etienne in 1967, he was soon back to the top.

He won them a league title in his first season, and added a coupe de France to make it a double. They retained their league title the next campaign, and again the season after, winning another double. It would be his last honour, as spells with Avignon Foot 84, Nice and Marseille proved fruitless. Nontheless, with 8 league titles and 3 Coupe De Frances, no manager in French football has yet eclipsed the success of Albert Batteux.

6. Branko Zebec

A man who was perhaps the definition of a footballing maverick, Branko Zebec was certainly a great character, but a hugely successful one. Born in modern-day Croatia, after a successful playing career, he first managed Dynamo Zagreb, before taking over at Bayern Munich. Now, this concept may be unthinkable now, but at that time, Bayern Munich had never won the Bundesliga. Zebec however, took charge of the team and helped Franz Beckenbauer and Gerd Muller find their prime. He focused on defensive structure, and was another manager keen on fitness, with his players sometimes fainting from exhaustion in his training sessions.

His methods were soon justified though, as Bayern Munich won their first Bundesliga title in 1969, and also added a DFP Pokal to become the first side to win this double. Unfortunately, a falling out with the board saw him depart the next campaign.

He travelled around before his next great success came at Hamburg, but he was also battling his own demons. He suffered severely from alcohol abuse, despite being told to stop drinking due to his diabetes. This would cause severe issues later in his career, but did not stop him succeeding at Hamburg.

Zebec managed to get a tune out of the legendary Kevin Keegan, as they won their first Bundesliga title in 1979. The next season, he took them to the European cup final, but sadly, he was outwitted by Brian Clough and John Robertson as Nottingham Forest emerged 1-0 winners.

Zebec’s drinking at one point saw him come into a dressing room telling his players not to worry about the 2-0 defeat and focus on the game next week, with him unaware that it was only half-time. Furthermore, for a game against Borussia Dortmund, he had overslept as a result of heavy drinking. When he woke up, he elected to drive to Dortmund himself, but was soon pulled over by police as he was well over the limit. After taking a taxi, he arrived at the stadium at half-time, before falling asleep on the bench. After being warned about his drinking, he was sacked when he pushed sporting director Gunter Netzer at a press conference.

He sadly would not win any more honours, but Hamburg went one better and won the European cup (under a manager you’re about to find out more about) and there is no doubt this would have been impossible without Zebec. Sadly, spells with Borussia Dortmund, Eintracht Frankfurt and Dynamo Zagreb bought little success, and in 1988, he died at the age of 59 from alcohol-related illness.

One wonders what might have been had Zebec put the bottle away, but leading two separate sides to their first Bundesliga titles is some achievement. These days, Bayern Munich winning the league may be a garuantee, but were it not for Zebec, this may not be the case.

5. George Ramsay

Aston Villa are one of the most successful teams in English football, but this may not be the case at all were it not for a Scotsman happening to stroll through a park in Birmingham.

George Ramsay had moved down to Birmingham to work as a clerk, and was strolling through Aston Park where Aston Villa were training. He was asked to join in to make up the numbers. The players were dazzled by his skills, and quickly asked him to join the club. He helped the club develop a passing game, start charging for admission to their games, and after retiring due to injury, he became the club’s first ever manager in 1886. It would be a position he would remain in for 42 years.

During this time, he lead the villains to an incredible 6 league titles and 6 FA Cups, including a double in 1897, and he made them win the first post-World War One FA Cup in 1920. He held the record for FA Cups won as a manager until 2015, when Arsene Wenger won his 7th FA Cup, funnily enough, defeating Aston Villa in the final.

George Ramsey was the English game’s first great manager, winning trophies for fun and making Aston Villa the first giants of English football. Tragically, there is no statue of him outside Villa Park, despite the fact the ground may not exist without him. One wonders how different Aston Villa’s fortunes might have been had Ramsay decided to get the tram home instead.

4. Jack Reynolds

Ajax are one of the most successful clubs in the history of football, giving us countless great players and producing some of the best sides European football has ever seen. But they will always be the house that Jack built.

Jack Reynolds took over Ajax in 1915, with the side reaching the Dutch top-flight for the first time 4 years before. Jack Reynolds taught them the fundamentals of the professional game, focusing on training routines, as well as focusing on every outfield player being able to play in every position, and players in all teams from the youth to the first team playing the same way, principles we now know as synonymous with Ajax.

He won them the Dutch cup in 1917, and they won their first league title the next year, and retaining it again the next year.

Reynolds and Ajax were ultimately inseperable, as he left them in 1925, but returned 3 years later, taking them to 5 more league titles in this 12-year spell.

During the Second World War, he was a prisoner of war, but whilst interred he would still correspond with his fellow Ajax coaches, and was involved in arranging games between fellow inmates. He returned to Ajax once again after the war, and lead them to yet another league title, his 8th with the club, before retiring from the game in 1947. He remained in Amsterdam, working as a tobacconist, and remained a hero in the city, easily recognisable with his cigar and bowler hat. Ajax would not be the same without Jack Reynolds, who remains beloved by the club, but should be known to the whole footballing world.

3. Herbert Chapman

Truly one of football’s great pioneers, Herbert Chapman was a man years ahead of his time. Things that are commonplace in our game such as floodlights, shirt numbers and European competitions were all developed by Chapman, and he took full charge of the team rather than allowing the side to be picked by the board. He installed strict training regimes at his clubs, and also got them to partake in European tours so that they could learn more about the game. His famous w-m formation focused on advanced full-backs and inside forwards, and was adopted by many clubs with great success.

His playing career bought little success, but he started his managerial career with Northampton. He won them a southern league title before taking over at Leeds City (Not a typo, a separate Leeds side to the one you know). The First World War interrupted his progress with them, and were then involved with an illegal payments scandal. The club would be expelled from the football league and Chapman was banned from football for life.

Fortunately, Chapman successfully appealed the ban, and after working at a coking plant, he joined Huddersfield. He took them to new heights, leading them to their first, and to date only FA Cup in 1922, and then lead them to consecutive league titles in 1924 and 1925.

He then moved to Arsenal, whilst Huddersfield won their third league title in a row after he left. Chapman was keen to move due to his salary being doubled and the large crowds that attended Highbury. Arsenal were a side that had been battling relegation when he arrived, but he would turn things around. It took time for Champan to take them to the top, but he won the side their first major honour with the FA Cup in 1930, fittingly defeating Huddersfield in the final. 

He repeated what he had done at Huddersfield, guiding Arsenal to two league titles after winning the FA Cup. It could have been many more had fate not stepped in the way. After contracting a cold whilst on a scouting trip, his condition worsened and he soon contracted pneumonia, dying on the 6th January 1934 at the age of just 55. The game grew incredibly with him, but one wonders what more he might have achieved. Had he lived, perhaps he could have finished his career in style by managing England at the 1950 world cup.

Thankfully, unlike many is this list, Herbert Chapman is honoured with a statue, with his standing outside the Emirates Stadium. People may skip his statue to look at the ones of Adams, Henry and Bergkamp, but none of these players would have guided Arsenal to such success without the things Herbert Chapman did for Arsenal.

2. Rinus Michels

Seen by many as the master of total football, Rinus Michels is one of the all-time great managers. After a successful playing career with Ajax, he returned as manager in 1965. His total football and youth policy saw a club threatened with relegation turn into giants. With Cruyff starring on the pitch, Michels lead Ajax to 4 league titles and 3 KNVB cups, along with the first of a threepeat of European Cups in 1971. His first spell in charge of the Netherlands blew the world away, as their total football at the 1974 world cup dazzled spectators with their beautiful passing play and intense gegenpressing. Despite losing the final to West Germany, they remain admired as one of the all-time great international sides.

He then moved to Barcelona, winning a La Liga and Copa Del Rey, and also won a DFP Pokal with Koln. He was in charge of the Netherlands again for the 1988 European Championships where he hoped for redemption.

The Netherlands, with the likes of Frank Rijkaard, Ruud Gullit, and Marco Van Basten, were amongst the favourites. They found their way to the semi-finals, where they faced West Germany, and the game would take place on the same turf as the world cup final 14 years before. They won thanks to a 89th minute winner from Van Basten, and as the players celebrated their revenge, Michels told them the importance of ensuring that for once, the Dutch won something.

They did not disappoint. Goals from Ruud Gullit and a legendary volley from Marco Van Basten sealed a 2-0 win over Valeriy Lobanowskyi’s USSR, with Michels holding his head in disbelief at Van Basten’s goal. The Dutch had won their first, and to date only major honour. The world cup may have alluded Michels, but nobody can doubt his influence on the footballing world. He was a mentor to Johan Cruyff, who in turn was a mentor to Pep Guardiola. He was known as both a disciplinarian and a practical joker, and wherever he went, trophies tended to not be far behind.

1. Ernst Happel

In my opinion, the most underrated manager of all time. The Austrian who won two European Cups, reached a world cup final and won league and cups titles in four different countries.

Raised amongst the famous coffee houses of Austria where people would often go and discuss football tactics, he spent many years at Rapid Vienna as a player, winning 6 league titles. And also finished third at the world cup twice with Austria.

He began his coaching career with Den Haag in the Netherlands, and won them the Dutch cup in 1968. This persuaded Feyenoord to appoint him as manager, where he truly made his mark. He took them to the European cup final in 1970, where a late winner from Ove Kindvall saw them defeat Jock Stein’s Celtic 2-1 at the San Siro to become the first Dutch side to win the European cup. 

The next year, he won his first league title as Feyenoord become Dutch champions in 1971. After leaving Feyenoord in 1973, he had an unsuccessful season in charge of Sevilla, he took over Club Brugge, where he had further success. Here, he won 3 consecutive league titles along with the Belgian cup in 1977, and he also became the first man to guide a Belgian team to a European cup final in 1978, where they faced Liverpool. They were no match for Paisley’s side at Wembley though, as a goal from Kenny Dalglish won it for the reds.

He experienced further heartbreak in 1978 as he took charge of the Netherlands, leading them to the world cup final. A man of few words, he simply said to his squad before the game, “gentleman, two points.” Sadly, Argentina would win 3-1.

He remained in Belgium, but had little success with Harelbeke, but won the cup with Standard Liege. Next up was Hamburg. In his first season, he won the league, but lost the EUFA Cup final to Gotenburg. The league title was retained the next season, and after the club had lost the European cup final 3 years before, a goal from Felix Magath sealed victory in the final over Juventus. Ernst Happel was the first manager to win the European Cup with 2 clubs.
He completed his West German trophy cabinet when he won the DFP Pokal in 1987, and he would then return home to Swarowski Tirol. Here, he did what he knew best, and won more trophies. He won the league and cup double in 1989, and retained the league the next season. He would have a brief spell in charge of Austria in 1992, but sadly, after years of chain smoking, he died of cancer later that year. In Austria’s first game following his passing, Happel’s cap lay on the bench. To win the honours he did across multiple countries, and guide two separate sides to their only ever European cups, Ernst Happel is no doubt one of the greatest managers of all time.

So that is my list. There are of course, many more managers that deserve a mention, and so honourable mentions go to Guy Roux, Willie Maley, Bill Struth, Tommy Walker, Jimmy Hogan, Vic Buckingham, Emereich Jernei and Fred Pentland.

Football has produced so many great managers, some who we all know, some who deserve far more credit. They are the most fascinating part of the game, as it is one thing to play the game, but to manage a squad of at least 23 players is something else entirely. Hopefully, with this list, many overlooked managers will finally get the legacy their achievements truly deserve.

Written by Finlay Stanley (Twitter/X: @AFCFinners & YouTube) and kindly given to The Football History Boys (Follow us on Twitter/X: @TFHBs)  

©The Football History Boys, 2023 
(All images borrowed and do not belong to The Football History Boys) 

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Anonymous said…
Really enjoyed the article - good mixture of wit and facts..loved it.

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