Like the majority of us in our chosen careers, football managers spend their entire working lives trying to get to the top of their profession and then desperately try to cling on it for as long as possible.
What happens, though, to those whose grip on the hot-seat at a pinnacle club is prized away? What becomes of these men after they have made it all the way to top only to fall short at the highest level or else just run out of time? This article will seek to explore what happened next for a number of men who vacated the hot-seat at arguably the biggest club of all: Manchester United.
While the true greats get to choose both the timing and manner of their departure and then seemingly sail off into the Manchester sunset in the manner of Sirs Matt Busby and Alex Ferguson, others, either through necessity or dedication, have to find a way to get back on the metaphorical horse.
Since Sir Matt stepped down as Manchester United manager in 1969, there have been 9 full-time and permanent Old Trafford bosses, not including either Ryan Giggs’ caretaker spell in charge at the close of the 2013-14 season, or Sir Matt’s own return to the manager’s chair following the dismissal of his immediate successor, Wilf McGuinness.
Let’s now look at what became of each man after his time in the Old Trafford hot-seat was up.
McGuinness was a player at Manchester United who became a coach under Sir Matt Busby. When Sir Matt finally called it a day in 1969, McGuinness was promoted to the chief position, but, incongruously, not given the title of Manager. Instead upon him was bestowed the lesser-valued moniker of First Team Coach.
Having got off to a bad start, his tenure improved little in the eighteen months he spent in charge. He struggled to manage players who had been his contemporaries on the pitch not long before, and he was not helped by the constant daily presence of Sir Matt around the club who nominally acted under the title of General Manager, but in reality still had the ear of the players.
After a year and a half of unpleasantness all-around, coupled with disappointing results on the pitch, McGuinness was asked to step down and was offered his old job back in charge of the reserves. Although he initially accepted the position, after a few months McGuinness’ time at the club drew to a close.
Whatever his failings as a manager, a certain degree of sympathy lay with the man in the coming years. He had seen to be treated harshly and without respect to a degree, and by some accounts, it took a lot out of the man in later years.
After leaving United, McGuinness managed two clubs in Greece, Aris Thessaloniki and then Panachaiki. He later returned to England and managed York City for two years in the mid-1970s.
To say his time at the Boothery Crescent club wasn’t a success would be an understatement. In his two full seasons at the club York suffered successive relegations and when he finally departed midway through his third season, the club was already mired in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to climb away from the fourth division re-election zone.
Frank O’ Farrell
After Sir Matt had stepped back into the breach as caretaker manager and subsequently retired again, this time for good in the summer of 1971, the next incumbent in the manager’s chair at Old Trafford was Frank O’ Farrell.
Headhunted from Leicester City where he had overseen an FA Cup final appearance in the same season the Filberts were relegated, subsequent promotion back to the top flight earned O’ Farrell his chance at Manchester United.
Unfortunately for O’ Farrell, many of the problems that McGuinness had encountered during his reign remained, and O’Farrell spent much of his tenure trying to put out fires. The squad was getting older and problems with George Best were increasing in both severity and regularity. Despite a good start to the 1971-72 season, which saw United top the table at Christmas, the trophy cupboard once more remained bare.
The difficulties escalated and a year later, in December 1973, with the club mired in a relegation battle, O’ Farrell was sacked.
Like McGuinness, O’ Farrell’s post-Manchester United managerial career in Britain did not amount to much. Similarly, he also remained bitter about his so-called treatment at the hands of the United board and the perceived hold and influence over the club Sir Matt Busby was said to have held throughout his time in charge.
O’ Farrell managed first Cardiff City upon leaving United and then moved abroad to coach the national side of Iran. Here at least he was a success, leading Iran to qualification for the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. Thirty years later he was to be invited back to Tehran to attend a ceremony marking the achievement.
After Iran, O’ Farrell returned to England and began a long spell working with Torquay United. This included two different tenures as manager as well as a spell as general manager. In between spells at Plainmoor, O’Farrell managed once more overseas. This time he spent a season in the United Arab Emirates with Al-Shaab.
Retiring from all football-related activities at the relatively early age of 55, O’ Farrell still lives in Devon.
Next through the revolving doors at Old Trafford was the force of nature that is Tommy Docherty. Much has been written about ‘The Doc’, and while it’s true that he was certainly a divisive figure during his five years at Old Trafford, it is also undeniable to state that he was also a breath of fresh air. He cleared away the cobwebs from Old Trafford and finally banished the ghosts of years and teams gone by with his brand of attacking football.
Relegation to the Second Division, although seen as catastrophic at the time, was ultimately proven to be a case of taking one step backwards to go three steps forwards. The FA Cup was won and the future looked bright until The Doc was fired for off-the-field reasons.
Although he felt, and still does to this day, that he was let down by the Manchester United board who fired him as a result of his affair with Mary Brown, wife of United physio, Lawrie Brown, it is hard to see what alternative the board had.
If his departure from Old Trafford was a surprise to some but not to others, the subsequent direction his career took was certainly unexpected to most. Upon leaving United, Docherty continued in management for the next decade or so but his career basically fell apart. He became a journeyman manager, flitting from club to club with little or no discernable success along the way.
He stopped off at Derby County, QPR, Preston, Wolverhampton Wanderers, and various clubs in Australia before ending his career in non-league football at Altrincham. It was an undignified end for a man who, despite his perceived failings on a personal level, had been a true football man.
‘Tommy Docherty the Entertainer’ was replaced by ‘Dave Sexton the Pragmatist’ in the summer of 1977, and there then followed four years of solid football with very few thrills or spills along the way.
To be fair to Sexton, he managed United to an FA Cup final appearance in 1979 and headlined a battle for the league title the following year, finishing runners-up to Liverpool. In the main, however, the football on offer at Old Trafford in this period was uninspiring and in 1981 he was dismissed.
Dave Sexton had been awarded his opportunity at United on the back of his strong coaching credentials honed in London at Leyton Orient, Chelsea and QPR. He was known as a great tactician but perhaps not a great manager. He had won trophies in charge at Stamford Bridge but had ultimately lost his job there due in part at least due to clashes with big-name players. His success at QPR, where he very nearly won the league in 1976, showed he had the footballing acumen to succeed but perhaps United proved to be too big a job for him in the end.
Upon leaving United, Sexton spent the majority of the rest of his career doing what he excelled in: coaching. He had one more spell in management, a two-year stint at Coventry City, before working as a coach and a number two at a variety of clubs.
One such spell as a number two was at Aston Villa, where he worked hand-in-hand with the man who had replaced him at Old Trafford a decade or so earlier. A certain Ron Atkinson.
Big Ron. What to say about the man? He spent 5 years in management at Old Trafford and then a further thirteen at a variety of clubs following his dismissal. As is commonly known, his involvement in football pretty much ended on a spring evening in 2004 when working as a commentator at the Chelsea – Monaco Champions League semi-final he made offensive and racist remarks concerning Marcel Desailly.
It is unfortunate that this incident should be what Atkinson is mainly remembered for now. His Manchester United teams were always attractive to watch and although ‘only’ two FA Cups were secured during Big Ron’s tenure, the title was at least challenged for on a number of occasions.
When Martin Edwards and the board finally ran out of patience and belief that Atkinson could deliver the title and sacked him in November 1986, Atkinson picked himself up, brushed himself down and simply got on with his career.
The man himself has stated that he never saw the United job as the pinnacle of his career, rather he described it as but one stopping-off point along its way. He went on to manage at West Bromwich, Atlético Madrid, Sheffield Wednesday, Aston Villa, Coventry and Nottingham Forest before finally calling it a day.
Atkinson seems to be the one man who coped best with being shown the door by United in as much as he refused to let the sack define him as a man. While O’ Farrell and McGuinness seemed to be broken men to a degree following their dismissals, and Docherty seemed to lose his mojo and never came close to winning another trophy, Atkinson picked up cups at both Villa and Sheffield Wednesday and took both sides into Europe.
The man who succeeded Atkinson on that late autumn day in 1986 needs no introduction of course, and twenty-six years after deciding to join the club he made the decision to step down. Still involved with United to this day, Sir Alex’s success enabled him to choose the manner and timing of his departure. Although he has suffered from ill-health recently, Sir Alex remains a welcome figure at Manchester United as he enjoys his retirement.
It is not suspected that Fergie’s immediate successor, David Moyes, enjoys quite the same warm welcome back to Old Trafford whenever he has cause to set foot back in the building following his pretty disastrous 10 months in charge of the club from the summer of 2014 onwards.
Poached from Everton upon the supposed recommendation of Sir Alex after a decade or so of steady progress but no trophies at Everton, Moyes quickly floundered at United. Giving every impression of being a deer in the headlights as the reigning champions struggled to finish seventh in 2014-15, it seemed a mercy when he was put out of his misery four games from the end of the season.
A good coach, Moyes failed at Old Trafford in part for the same reasons that ultimately Dave Sexton and Frank O’ Farrell did. Namely, the club was too big in comparison to where they had managed before. Moyes did not help himself with his choice of backroom staff and as with some of his predecessors, he too left the club feeling hard done by.
Attempting to get back on the horse quickly following his termination, Moyes took up a job at Real Sociedad in November 2014. It was, perhaps, an admirable attempt to show the world that his Old Trafford experience had not left him scarred, but it was ultimately a mistake. Lasting twelve months to the day in Spain, Moyes’ reputation took another nose-dive by way of a second successive dismissal.
Next came Sunderland. This too was not a success, as relegation was confirmed at the end of the 2016-17 season. Moyes was not well-liked from Day One by many Sunderland supporters who were aggrieved by what they saw as a lack of ambition from their new manager. At the beginning of his reign, Moyes stated that he fully expected the club to be involved in a relegation battle in the coming season. The fact that he was then proved right was of scant consolation to the Sunderland faithful.
In November 2017, Moyes rocked up at West Ham. There too he was not welcomed with open arms by large swathes of the West Ham support who were somewhat underwhelmed by his appointment. He remained in ‘interim’ charge until the end of the season when relegation was successfully avoided. Despite indicating he would be interested in staying at the club, Moyes left upon conclusion of the season.
David Moyes has spent the majority of the current season doing media work and being seen to put himself in the shop window. He seems keen to get back into management, and will probably do so in the forthcoming campaign.
Louis Van Gaal
Having gone down the route of engaging an up and coming manager in Moyes, the United board then tried another track in appointing their next manager. The CV of Louis Van Gaal was there for all to see with successes at Barcelona, Ajax, Bayern Munich and Holland all under his belt prior to his appointment as Manchester United manager in 2015.
His spell in charge at Old Trafford saw both a temporary return to the Champions League and an FA Cup victory for United but also resulted in the sack for him in 2017.
Upon leaving United, Van Gaal stated he would take a break from football but would be looking to return to management at some point. However, in January 2019 he announced his permanent retirement from the game.
That brings us hopping, skipping and jumping to the most recent manager to find himself being leveraged out of the Manchester United manager’s chair. The one and only José Mourinho.
Quite what possessed David Gill and his colleagues to think Mourinho was the man for the job will perhaps never be known, but securing the League Cup and Europa League trophies in 2017 was never going to be sufficient to save Mourinho or to convince anyone that United would be in any position to challenge for the Big Two of Premier League and Champions League anytime soon.
So, what does the future hold for Mourinho now? Well, alongside David Moyes he is the only ex-United manager likely to be looking for work in the coming season. Unlike Moyes, however, he has every chance of walking into another ‘elite’ job and thus laying to bed whatever ghosts he may be harbouring following his December 2018 exit through the Manchester United exit gates.
Of all the men to leave the Manchester United manager’s position since Sir Matt Busby, only Sir Alex did so willingly and of the others, only Ron Atkinson really went on to enjoy a relatively successful career subsequently. Perhaps José Mourinho will be able to buck that trend.