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The Blog

Coaching Lessons From Former Greats

Player Development Project’s resident history buff and writer Jon Hoggard spent his Christmas looking in the history books and football almanacs to find if the coaching styles of some of the game’s biggest figures still apply.

In many ways, football as we know it now is a very different sport to how it used to be only a few decades ago. Football has always evolved. Gone are the muddy pitches, heavy leather balls and the 1-2-7 formation of the game’s origins in the 1870s. Huge player wages, high-tech training complexes and evolving tactics are all influences which have shaped the sport in recent years. But are there common threads that we can see in the coaching of the game which still ring true? I wanted to see what coaching lessons the most successful and famous in the history of football had to pass on, including Sir Alex Ferguson, Jock Stein, and Brian Clough.

Jock Stein: “It was the way that we have won that has filled me with satisfaction.”

Manager of Glasgow Celtic 1965–78
10 Scottish League titles, 1 European Cup

English Football’s most successful manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, was Stein’s assistant coach with Scotland in the early 1980s. Ferguson described his mentor as a “one-man university” with a staggering depth of knowledge about his players.

Stein’s knowledge of people and human relationships was his strength. He even knew which of his players were prone to ‘over-socialising’ and made sure he got them out of trouble. He made sure he knew the background of his players, including the names of his players’ wives and extended family.

He also valued attractive, creative football. His entire way of working was to understand his players and work towards achieving a “pure, beautiful” style – something all modern coaches should aspire to. Speaking after his Celtic side beat Inter in the European Cup final, he said: “Winning was important, aye, but it was the way that we have won that has filled me with satisfaction. We did it by playing football. Pure, beautiful, inventive football. There was not a negative thought in our heads.”

Sir Alex Ferguson: “Everything we did was about maintaining standards. […] Every training session was about quality.”

Manager of Manchester United 1986–2013
13 Premier League & 2 Champions League titles

In many ways Sir Alex Ferguson was the remaining link in modern English football with the pre-Premier League world, and so we include him on this list despite him only retiring a few years ago. Shortly after his retirement he gave an address to the Harvard Business School.

He said: “Everything we did was about maintaining the standards we had set as a football club. This applied to all my team building and all my team preparation, motivational talks, and tactical talks. For example, we never allowed a bad training session. What you see in training manifests itself on the game field.”

“So every training session was about quality. We didn’t allow a lack of focus. It was about intensity, concentration, speed a high level of performance. That, we hoped, made our players improve with each session.”

Sir Alex Ferguson: “I don’t think many people fully understand the value of observing.”

Let’s face it, he’s the most successful manager of all time so he’s allowed two spots on the list! Also in his Harvard address, he spoke of the importance of observing and seeing everything that might be affecting a player:

“Once I stepped out of the bubble, I became more aware of a range of details, and my performance level jumped. Seeing a change in a player’s habits or a sudden dip in his enthusiasm allowed me to go further with him: Is it family problems? Is he struggling financially? Is he tired? What kind of mood is he in? Sometimes I could even tell that a player was injured when he thought he was fine.

“I don’t think many people fully understand the value of observing, but I came to see observation as a critical part of my management skills. The ability to see things is key or, more specifically, the ability to see things you don’t expect to see.”

Brian Clough: “We’ve got a fat little guy who will turn him inside out.”

Manager of Derby County 1967–73 and Nottingham Forest 1975–1993
2 First Division titles & 2 European Cups

Ok, so it’s an odd quote. But Brian Clough was a complete one-off – a maverick manager whose antics, quips and management style have gone down in football folklore. But amongst all the bluster, Clough was a man who could spot football talent and knew exactly how to get the best out of his players – ably abetted by his brilliant counter-point assistant Peter Taylor.

In an early mirroring of Billy Bean’s ‘Moneyball’ method, when Clough arrived at Forest he rebuilt the squad by bidding for prospects no one else wanted because they didn’t fit the conventional mould. For example he had Kenny Burns, Frank Clark, Ian Bowyer, Larry Lloyd and Archie Gemmill who hadn’t been valued by their former clubs, and signed Garry Birtles from non-League – a future European young footballer of the year.

He also inherited winger John Robertson. He was to hugely influence both European Cup finals, but was on the transfer list when Clough arrived and was a little overweight. Clough saw Robertson for what he was – a talented winger who could turn a game. He backed him, played to his strengths, and walked away with 2 European Cups. Clough was a master at seeing the qualities of all his players and moulding them into a successful side.

Pele: “I have a great responsibility.”

Pele is a man who needs no introduction. Widely regarded as the greatest player of all time, he is the leading league scorer in the world, and for his country Brazil. As a leading figurehead of the sport, first as a player, then as an ambassador for the sport, he has remained an icon and role model for all the generations behind him. At the PDP we value the importance of role models for young players, and this is a sentiment shared by Pele himself:

“Every kid around the world who plays soccer wants to be Pele. I have a great responsibility to show them not just how to be like a soccer player, but how to be like a man.”

This is a key part of being a role model which many players in that position do not recognise. It is a privilege to be a role model, but with it comes responsibility. Whether you’re a coach or a player, if you have young players looking up to you, it’s vital to look at their development holistically – set examples for them to learn as people as well as on the pitch.

Helenio Herrera: “The first task is to get to know the players really well.”

Manager of Internazionale 1960–68
4 La Liga titles (Barcelona and Atletico Madrid), 2 Serie A titles, 2 European Cups

Helenio Herrera led the famous ‘Grande Inter’ side of the 1960s which won two consecutive European Cups and three league titles. The Argentine was a hugely talented manager who believed that the key to success was harnessing the strengths in the natural game of each player:

“The first task is to get to know the players really well – watching them as individuals in training and in match play-to see what is good in their natural game. Then, and only then, can we begin to outline the general tactics.”

Sir Matt Busby: “Winning isn’t everything. There should be no conceit in victory and no despair in defeat.”

Manager of Manchester United 1945–69
5 First Division titles & 1 European Cup

In 1955–56 Matt Busby’s Manchester United team swept all before them and became known as The Busby Babes due to their young ages. The new champions had an average age of just 22. Of course, tragedy was to hit just two years later, when the team’s plane crashed on take-off in Munich, killing 21 people.

Sir Matt’s philosophy was simple: hard-working people toiled all week in anticipation of watching football and they deserved to be entertained. The events of 1958 made it clear that there were more important things than football, but also that football could provide happiness and a sense of community when played in the right spirit.

Speaking about Sir Matt Busby’s funeral, his former captain and ‘Busby Babe’ Sir Bobby Charlton recalled: “I saw the tears — and the meaning of the best of what could be achieved in the game in which we had made our lives. He always told us that football is more than a game. It has the power to bring happiness to ordinary people. In the sadness and the rain, that belief was the glory of the life that had just ended — and the unbreakable pride I felt at being part of it.”







Cover Image:

Moreno Berti / Flickr