BY MARK GODFREY
Sir Alex Ferguson, Kenny Dalglish, Jock Stein, Sir Matt Busby, Bob Paisley, Bill Shankly, Brian Clough, Howard Kendall, Don Revie, Sir Bobby Robson: it’s a long and impressive list, but far from an exhaustive one. The common thread that links them to one another? Yes, they are all British, but more specifically, they’re all from either the North East of England or Scotland. So what, I hear you mutter.
Well, for starters this illustrious bunch have won – as managers – 9 European Champions Cups, 5 UEFA/Fairs Cups, 4 European Cup Winners’ Cups, 37 English championships, 14 FA Cups, 13 League Cups, 13 Scottish championships and 13 Scottish Cups, not to mention leading their nations at 4 separate World Cups and a European Championship. Numbers, such numbers. This vast haul tells quite the story, yet doesn’t give the full picture. What I find myself asking is why, rather than how? What was it about those two regions that once spawned the best managerial talent these islands have ever produced?
All of the men mentioned were, in their own ways, winners. All were, again in their own ways, leaders and innovators. But where did their character, determination, attitude and philosophy come from? Was it simply learned from their experiences as players; indeed all of those accomplished managers tasted varying degrees of success as players first and no doubt absorbed the practices and methodology of their former teachers. However, the same could be said about hundreds, if not thousands of ex-pros who have swapped the pitch for the dugout and who did not achieve anything remotely close to this lot.
It’s my assertion that, as they did not inherit, at birth, the specific qualities and traits needed to stand out in the cutthroat world of football but must possess them in order to break into that sphere in the first place, then it must be their upbringing and the environment of their formative years that defined them. So, it is to the North East of England and Scotland that we must look for those ingredients that shaped the young men who would eventually become legends.
Firstly, we need to go back in time; while the North East of England and Scotland are hardly the most economically prosperous areas of Britain in 2015 – in fact the reality is quite the opposite when using the North East as an example – the situation was even bleaker when our select group were in short pants. The first half of the 20th century, between the births of Matt Busby (1909) and Kenny Dalglish (1951), was a period of great upheaval in British society, especially for those from working class backgrounds.
The empire was beginning to crumble; accelerated by the horror of two world wars, Britain could no longer stand over its colonies as it once had, seeing both its once crushing economic and military power dissipate markedly in just a handful of decades. There was great social change as the welfare state was born, women were granted the right to vote and the Labour movement – backed by the increasingly powerful trade unions – gave the working class masses a more influential voice in the corridors of power; the bad old Victorian days of poor housing, healthcare and workers’ rights were to be banished in these attempts at a fairer Britain for all.
While these great changes took place around them, reality for the ordinary, everyday folk was often as gruelling as it ever was. The hard, gritty, tortuous life of the men (and women) that toiled in coal mines, shipyards, factories, smelters and power plants continued despite supposed improvements to their daily lives. This was your destiny from the age of 14 or 15 if you were ill-educated or had received no schooling at all. Still, it was better than the appalling workhouses of the 19th century; those who had jobs valued them, even if they were often dangerous and poorly paid.
That 42-year period between the births of Busby and Dalglish saw the Great Depression take a grip of the nation’s economy. For approximately a decade between the wars unemployment soared (up to 30% of Glasgow’s workforce) and productivity plummeted (90% of the North East’s shipbuilding was wiped out leaving approximately 70% unemployed). Times became even tougher as poverty and hunger took hold across the north of the country.
One can’t discuss this period in history without mentioning World Wars 1 and 2. Millions of men, women and children – armed combatants and civilians alike – were killed, maimed, displaced or damaged during the 14 years of conflict that raged across all the earth’s continents. Matt Busby lost his father and three uncles during the First World War and he himself joined the King’s Liverpool Regiment at the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. Bill Shankly joined the Royal Air Force while his future Liverpool second-in-command and successor Bob Paisley saw action as a gunner in the Royal Artillery across Europe and North Africa.
During peacetime, sport and leisure came to mean an awful lot to the working classes in the north. Stuck in the repetitious life of work (when available) and struggle, people turned to all manner of pursuits as a distraction. For the common man (usually) that often involved sport – football in particular. The first half of the 20th century witnessed huge growth in both the participating in and watching of football, both professional and amateur; playing and attending games cost very little relative to salaries of the time meaning streets, fields and waste grounds were full of children and adults kicking a ball – or a bastardised version of one – around, while terraces of Football League were regularly brimming with flat-capped throngs.
At a local level, where social betterment was difficult, football was seen as a vehicle to make one’s name. It was also a matter of personal pride; some men had their prize-winning leeks or champion pigeons, others owned greyhounds or somehow came by a speedway or road motorbike to race.
Twelve hour shifts in the hot, noxious confined spaces of a ship’s underbelly or hundreds of feet underground without daylight or fresh air were no fun. Football was an escape from the noise, dust, danger and darkness in the pits of the North East coal field and the shipyards of the Tyne and the Clyde. Those men of the industrial age saw not only victory and achievement in the game of football, but beauty and honour.
Stein, Busby, Shankly, Paisley and Robson all spent time working in the mines and came from families and areas steeped in the coal industry that sustained their towns and villages. Ferguson and Dalglish were brought up in the shadow of the cranes and half-constructed hulls of the Govan yards, engineering and shipbuilding ingrained in their upbringing, and from the smog and smoke of Teesside’s chemical factories (or the North Riding of Yorkshire as it was then) Revie and Clough – who clashed so memorably during their managerial careers – emerged with very distinct ideas about how the game should be played.
Indeed, all of these men would have learned valuable, lifelong lessons about the importance of successful and attractive football to the people of the same economic and social spheres. Every Saturday, the humdrum and the mundane could be substituted for the escapism of the football field. And when two pit teams, neighbouring towns or big city rivals came up against each other, only two things carried weight – winning and winning with style. Kick and hoof merchants garnered little praise, even if rewarded with results; hard men did not necessarily always favour brute force away from the daily grind that required it, and would openly sneer at blatant base tactics. For their penny or tuppence entry they wanted entertainment to garnish their sporting bustle; they wanted wingers to be tricky, centre forwards who could jump, head and shoot, they wanted full backs who could tackle and inside forwards with skill and vision. Stout men demanded stout and fair play on the playing fields of their communities; hard yet honest, and at the same time something to appeal to their innermost aesthetic side – they craved the paradox of the protestant work ethic (whatever their actual religious leaning) they lived by the rest of the time and the simple artistic expressions of joy they saw in their religious buildings.
There would have been an oppressive mentality in the times and the areas where these deified men grew up, one that would be quick to knock anyone down who got a bit above themselves – it still exists today. It’s a very working class, northern trait. They would have to overcome this to succeed; they would need to possess strength of character enough to persevere when the going got tough and the cheers turned to sneers. At the same time though, they would have (as players and managers) been living the dreams of the millions of pitmen and stevedores, blacksmiths and welders who lived for the game that gave them respite.
There is something about football – and good, honest football at that – that is as equally deep-rooted in the history and culture of places like Ashington, Billingham, Govan and Auchinleck as any of the heavy industries that have almost all declined or disappeared entirely. Sometimes you have to go to these places and imagine life there 60 or 70 years ago to see why. These were the factors that sustained both body and soul; hard graft to put food on the table and a roof over the family’s heads and the promise of 90 minutes relief and a pint of ordinary ale on the way home to celebrate victory or commiserate defeat. And while they sought solace in their pubs and working men's clubs, few were sated by 'alehouse' football.
It is no coincidence that this venerated bunch - the North’s alumni – have such similar backgrounds. Their collective and individual philosophies were forged and chiselled as much in the foundries and mineshafts of Scotland and the North East as they were in any dressing room or training ground. Football was a game for men willing to uphold the honour of the team they represented, but it was also a game for artistic expression and these men epitomised that ethos. They were the products of often unforgiving circumstances, but without them they would never have achieved the incredible things they went on to. Nurture 1 Nature 0.
With the widespread proliferation of foreign managers in modern day British football and the insistence of the law makers to impose a necessity for formalised coaching qualifications on anyone employed in top level football, it’s highly unlikely we will ever see the likes of Shankly, Clough, Paisley or Ferguson ever again rise from humble, working class beginnings to dominate domestic and European football in the same way; and certainly not with the same charismatic, principled style. They were all undoubtedly hugely gifted in what they did, but their greatest leg-up may have been the humble life they were born into in the industrial grind of Scotland and North East England.