Assessing the relative success of football managers, especially in historical periods, is what nowadays would be called challenging – that is, just this side of foolhardy. There are so many variables which can affect a team and club’s performance - financial backing, transfers in and out, league levels, and so on, over which the manager has little or no control. Former LFC players have managed at many different levels, from top tier to well below the fourth tier. Inevitably, therefore, the question arises as to the meaningfulness of trying to compare management success across different levels, widely varying points of views being reflected in phone-in programmes for fans. ‘Would Pep be as successful if he managed Harrogate Town?’ ‘Give Eddie Howe a crack at managing a top team, and you’ll see what he can do.’
There are, of course, many aspects of the sport which could establish praise or blame for a manager – changes in league positions over time, and success (or otherwise) in recruitment of new players, for example – but they all have serious difficulties for investigation. Lack of data also deters research into many clubs outside the British Isles and even some inside. Furthermore, there is no intention to claim that the experience of playing for Liverpool had an influence on managerial quality. It did, however, play an unquestionable part in getting managerial jobs, as the numbers going into this career follow the successful periods of the club’s history. (See Appendix)
In the end, however, the simple view of the game is that you have to score more goals than the opposing team in order to achieve the sine qua non of successful management – to win more matches than you lose. It’s what the club wants; it’s what the fans want. Tactics, luck (good and bad), Premiership, Isthmian League, or schools under-7s – are of no real account if you score 9 goals but your opponent scores 10. Quality is a bonus, and this article tries to measure success, not quality!
However controversial, what follows is therefore mainly based on the annual number of matches won and lost in the days when former LFC players had taken the plunge and passed through the jaws of football management, a route which may be dying with the advent of super salaries and media punditry. Player-managers have been included, but not coaches and assistant managers, as their roles and responsibilities are sometimes different. One or two players have been excluded, notably Steven Gerrard, as being a bit too early to judge, despite his excellent start. 60 others became coaches but rose no higher than that, but a further 12 coached before they became managers.
Is there any correlation between success as a player and success as a manager? Did any of the top players from Liverpool’s golden age become the manager of a national team? Based solely on the evidence of this small (82) sample of ex-Liverpool players, who made the most successful managers – goalkeepers, defenders, midfielders or forwards?
Elisha Scott was a brilliant manager at Belfast Celtic in time of turmoil
Goalkeepers are well known as a breed apart, almost an inter-club clique, and that theme continues when we consider their afterlife as managers. A keeper’s view of a match is little better than that of fans immediately behind him at the foot of the Kop (as I know to my cost), and it is relatively rare for a goalkeeper to be even team captain. Being thus deprived of awareness of what is happening in the opponent’s half is not a good background for goalies to choose a managerial career. Of the 82 ex-lfc players who became managers or player-managers, only six followed that questionable path from between the sticks, and of those I can find only one who made a success of it. The others had an average managerial career span of about one year, but Elisha Scott moved to Belfast Celtic as player-manager for two years in 1934, becoming full manager for the next thirteen years. During that time, Celtic won ten Irish League Cups, six Irish Cups, eight Gold Cups, five County Antrim Shields, and three Belfast City Cups. The club eventually became yet another casualty of the sectarian troubles.
The only other goalkeeper with even a modicum of success was Ray Clemence, after his Spurs excursion, taking Division 3 Barnet from 11th to 9th in seasons 1994 to 1996.
Ray Clemence during his time as boss of Barnet
The odd goalkeeper, midfielder and forward aside, statistics available leave little doubt that defence has provided the most successful background for future managers. With a couple of unfortunate exceptions like Gary Ablett at Stockport County and Sami Hyypia at Brighton where he introduced a system beyond the capabilities of the players and Mark Wright (see below), defenders normally seem to have kept their heads above water by winning more games than they lost. Outstanding, of course, are the nine years of Bob Paisley, and the twenty-three of Matt Busby. Busby’s teams won more matches than they lost in all but two of those 23 years as United manager. Even in the seasons immediately following Munich, he was more successful than most other former LFC players.
Thirteen years after he left Liverpool, Norman Low enjoyed a successful, though roller-coaster career with three lower-league English clubs. Norwich City were fifth in Division 3 South when he arrived on 4 March 1950, but ended the season 11th. In the following years they were 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 7th; when he left on 22 April they were 7th but fell to 11th by the end of the season. During all that time, Low’s teams had won 56 matches more than they had lost. The same pattern followed at Workington and Port Vale, a poor start (the latter even being relegated) and success by the time he left, each club winning more than they lost.
The mention of Port Vale reminds me to include David Pratt, if only to ride a hobby horse – the club presents his career as their manager towards the end of the war as ‘Won 0, Drew 0, Lost 0’ because the FA recognises no games during the period. He had managed five other teams in the 1930s. In England, he could hardly claim great success, losing marginally more than winning at Clapton Orient and Notts County. Pratt also managed Hearts in Scotland for the whole of two seasons (1935/36, 1936/37), winning 46 of his 80 games and losing only 24.
Mark Wright had three spells as Chester City manager, as well as four other clubs. He had saved Football Conference Southport from relegation, and led them to fourth place a season later. Recently relegated Oxford United hoped he could perform the same miracle, but it was not to be – they won four and lost eleven during his few months with them. Rumoured altercations with officials, staff and players did not help his managerial career. His first period at Chester (9/1/2002 to 6/8/2004) was his most successful, winning 63 and losing 23, but a dispute marred this success in gaining promotion to League 2. Another off-the-pitch problem cut short his next job at Peterborough, two more short spells at Chester could not replicate his earlier success, and when, in 2009, the club was relegated and forced into administration, his tally was 5 wins and 17 losses.
Mark Wright at Peterborough taking on his former club, Oxford.
I had assumed that midfielders had the best chance of seeing a game at close quarters well enough to transfer that experience and knowledge for the benefit of other clubs. The results do include some notable success stories, especially that of Bobby Campbell. After an inauspicious start when Chelsea was relegated, he brought them back up immediately into the First Division by winning 29 matches and losing only 5. By then, they were 17 points clear of Manchester City in second place. By the end of the following year, a +6 win/loss difference had taken them up to fifth in the First Division and he was promoted to General Manager a year later. Before we sneeringly observe that his best year was ‘only’ in the lower tier, remember it was a feat which Shankly had failed to achieve in his first three years at Liverpool.
Several other former players have been worthy of mention in dispatches, if only to illustrate the fraught nature of the job while accumulating more wins than losses. John Barnes was sacked by Celtic and Tranmere Rovers, results which question the validity of this basis for assessing football managers. In little over half a season in Glasgow, his teams had won 19 games and lost ‘only’ 8 – but when one of the eight was lower tier Inverness Caledonian Thistle at Celtic Park, Barnes’ departure was accompanied by the headline worth repeating: ‘Super Caley go ballistic; Celtic are atrocious’. After managing Jamaica, where he saw his team beat Mexico, Honduras and Canada, he returned to Tranmere Rovers where his record of only two wins from eleven games led to his second unwelcome departure. Barnes is one of five former LFC players (the others being Keith Burkinshaw, Kevin Keegan, Steve Staunton and John Toshack) to manage a national team – another good question for an LFC-based pub quiz.
Nigel Clough has so far had a 22-year career managing Derby County, Sheffield United, and two spells at Burton Albion. In total he has won almost exactly the same number of games as he has lost, his best record being at Sheffield.
During Gary McAllister’s 12-month stay at League 1 Leeds United, Leeds won 8 matches more than they lost but slipped from 5th on the day he joined, to 7th at the end of 2007/08, and 11th on the day he left. This was a good winning differential compared with most other ex-LFC managers, but not good enough for Leeds United’s ambitions.
Gordon Milne with Liverpool teammates Gerry Byrne, who never went into management and Jimmy Melia (on the right) who took Brighton into the FA Cup final in 1983
Gordon Milne managed seven teams, accumulating 370 wins and 239 losses. For the English teams I can find no detail for his time at below-Division 4 Wigan Athletic from 1970 to 1972, but won 161 and lost 187 at Coventry and Leicester. His reputation rests on his period at Besiktas (won 176, lost 34).
Graeme Souness’ record in charge at Anfield was poor only in comparison with his period at Rangers, which must have been a major consideration when he was offered the post. During his five-year spell in Glasgow, he had won 167 matches, and lost only 44. When Souness resigned from LFC on 28 January 1994 after the cup loss to Bristol City, his Liverpool teams had won 65, drawn 47 and lost 44. He later had a similar level of success at Blackburn and Newcastle, but fared poorly in his year at Southampton.
Some of our most popular midfielders have fared badly in a managing capacity. Peter Cormack lost more than he won at Partick Thistle, as did Harry Kewell at Crawley Town, Notts County and (so far) Oldham Athletic, Sammy Lee at Bolton, and Didi Hamann, another ex-LFC victim at Stockport County.
Steve McMahon is another ex-player (like Mark Wright) whose very character, which made him a fans’ favourite at Anfield, did not help his managerial career. Results at his first club, Swindon Town, included a relegation, and ended after six years with a fans’ pitch sit-down to protest against both Steve and Town’s manager. His next appointment, at Blackpool, began with relegation, and although he steadied that particular seaside ship, the club wanted better than simply staying afloat, and he resigned (twice!) during his fourth year.
Most unfortunate of our midfielders must be Mark Kennedy, whose first job was at Macclesfield Town in January 2020 – a few months later the club was hit by Covid-19, relegation, and administration. Before he resigned, Mark had won 1 and lost 8.
Campbell and Souness apart, if midfielders are considered as a whole group, the average difference between matches won and lost is -16.5. ( If I were a midfielder, I would put this down to the small size of the sample!)
And what of our much-vaunted forward lines? How did they fare when they chose to become club managers? Of the twelve (out of 21) whose record as manager is available, they averaged in their careers three more wins than losses. Kevin Keegan at Newcastle and Manchester City was the most successful when judged by this method. Closely behind him was David Hodgson at Darlington.
Over an extraordinary length of time in charge at Motherwell, John "Sailor" Hunter was remarkably consistent, his teams winning 281 more matches than they lost, an annual average of +7. Hunter featured in 45 matches for Liverpool from 1899 to 1902, scored 12 goals and won one League championship. Hunter was appointed Motherwell's manager in 1911, at only 32 of age in the club's first-ever season and was in charge until 1946. He continued to attend to administrative affairs at the club until 1959 until he was eighty. He is Motherwell's longest serving manager, guiding the team in 1,064 games and to victory in the Scottish league in the 1931/32 season when the team scored 119 goals in 38 league games! This was the only league championship win by a team outside the "Old Firm" (Rangers and Celtic) from 1904 to 1947.
Bobby Murdoch had three unspectacular years managing South Liverpool in the Northern Premier League where they finished 17th, 11th and 15th. He was in good company, as other strikers below their own group par, were John Aldridge, Kenny Dalglish, Gordon Hodgson, Fred Pagnam, Dean Saunders, Les Shannon, and Ian St John.
Ian St John
St John had an undistinguished record at Motherwell. His three years as manager included only one full season in charge, before he was persuaded by Bill Shankly (from whom he had not parted on good terms, but who, in his words, ‘could sell you everything’) to take the Portsmouth job, the details of which are enough to deter any budding manager from even thinking about such a career move. It included dropping from 15th in Division 2 to 29th in Division 3 (relegation having been sealed by a result against rivals Southampton), ‘creditors circling the club like vultures’ (C. Farmer, ‘Portsmouth: a complete record’), directorial in-fighting, and money promised having to be obtained by selling players until his final, third year. Even the acquisition of Chris Lawler could not prevent an overall win/loss figure of -30 compared with his +2 at Motherwell.
The seven ex-LFC players (Kenny Dalglish, Roy Evans, Matt McQueen, Ronnie Moran, Bob Paisley, Graeme Souness, and Phil Taylor) who later managed Liverpool form another group which might be considered separately for their time at the club itself. Two others, Bill Shankly and Don Welsh, had guested for LFC during the war. The club knew the men, and the men knew the club, which was not always the case when a different club was involved. All but one (Ronnie Moran) distinguished themselves by virtue of winning more matches than they lost, Paisley having an annual average far higher than any of the other 81 in this study. Even those who have come in for some criticism of their tenure of office (Taylor and Souness) performed well in this particular regard, the latter achieving better than Matt Busby (fractionally) and Keegan, for example.
Liverpool descended into Division 2 at the end of 1953/54, so Phil Taylor’s next five years’ record must be seen in this light. However, what must also be taken into account was that we were in that Division on merit, and we did not develop a team strong enough to return until 1961/62. By the end of the 1958/59 season, his record stood at won 94, drew 36, lost 52. He had taken the club from 11th to 4th , and it was only the club’s deterioration by November 1959 (winning 5 but losing 6) and the Worcester City debacle which prompted his retirement.
APPENDIX 1 Number of LFC ex-players becoming debut managers by decade.
Written by Colin Rogers for LFChistory.net