Benitez, Clough and football’s most bizarre managerial appointments

by James Clancy

Brian Clough during his eventful Leeds United management reign.
Nationaal Archief, Den Haag, Rijksfotoarchief

Such has been the negative history between Rafael Benitez and Chelsea Football Club, to say it was a surprise for the Spaniard to be made manager at Stamford Bridge, would be something of an understatement.

The voices from the terraces at Stamford Bridge weren’t slow to voice their displeasure at the appointment with tens of thousands of Blues’ fans protesting before, during and after the 52 year-old’s opening game in west London towards the end of last month. Opposition manager Roberto Mancini said “I have never seen or heard fans protest like that before and during the first game of a new manager” as Chelsea and Manchester City played out a 0-0 draw at the Bridge.

Benitez has now overseen his first Premier League win as Chelsea manager (at the fourth attempt) having overcome relegation threatened Sunderland 3-1 at the Stadium of Light.  That won’t satisfy the Chelsea faithful however – many thousands of whom have become a baying mob following the Spaniard’s arrival at the Bridge.

Benitez’ appointment at the Bridge was unusual on several fronts; not least the fact that his predecessor Roberto Di Matteo had won the FA Cup and Chelsea’s first ever UEFA Champions League title within three months of his appointment. That triumph in Munich had come less than six months before the former Chelsea player – a man revered by Blues’ fans – was relieved of his duties.

The fact is however that Di Matteo was never Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich’s man and he was waiting for an excuse to relieve of his duties the man who scored the fastest goal ever in an FA Cup final. Abramovich ostensibly let Di Matteo go because the club had struggled in Europe this season. Di Matteo was in fact relieved of his duties only a few hours after a tepid 3-0 defeat to Juventus in Turin on 20th November, which left their chances of progression from the group stages of the Champions League hanging by a thread.

Chelsea still had a chance of progressing however and their 6-1 defeat of Nordsjælland (the first win under Benitez at the fourth attempts) very nearly saw the defending European champions advance. What made the appointment of Benitez at the Bridge all the more bizarre is the fact that Abramovich has often stated that he wants to play – and win – in swashbuckling style.

Whilst sides managed by Benitez are always well organized and difficult to beat, they have never tended to play with a particularly ‘sexy’ style of play. Anyway, the whole Benitez situation has been discussed ad nauseam and, whilst sparked by Benitez’ appointment, this piece intends to focus on some of the other most bizarre managerial appointments in football history:

When considering this list, the very first name that immediately leapt to mind was Brian Clough’s appointment at the then English First Division kingpins Leeds United back in 1974.

Clough had worked the oracle during six years as Derby County manager. He took the club from the bottom of the old Second Division to win the First Division title for the first time in the club’s 88 year history, holding off the financial might of giants Manchester City, Liverpool and Don Revie’s Leeds United to lift the title at the end of the 1981-’72 season.

The following season, Derby County reached the semi-final of the European Cup, only to be narrowly defeated 3-1 by Juventus, thanks to two late goals during the first leg in Turin, the Rams having overcome two time European Cup winning giants Benica along the way.

Clough had shown his managerial prowess and his ability to wheel and deal to sign players such as Colin Todd who would prove priceless to the cause and to sign those players for comparatively small figures.

Clough was becoming increasingly outspoken however. At the start of the 1972-’73 he labelled Derby fans as a “disgraceful lot” because they “only sing when the club is winning.”

Clough would also frequently slate the traditional powers of the English game at the time, most notably players such as Billy Bremner, Norman Hunter and Peter Lorimer. These players were star names of the famous Leeds United side of the late 1960s and early ’70s but one particular occasion when Clough called that trio “animals” was not received well by the players, media or the establishment of the English Football Association alike as Clough was charged with bringing the game into disrepute on more than one occasion.

At the start of the 1973-’74 season, Clough wrote an article in the Sunday Express which savaged Leeds United’s disciplinary record, stating that Don Revie should be fined for encouraging his players in their unsporting behaviour and Leeds relegated to the Second Division.

Clough also said that “The men who run football have missed the most marvellous chance of cleaning up the game in one swoop” and went on to say, “The trouble with football’s disciplinary system is that those who sit in judgement are officials of other clubs and might well have a vested interest.”

CLough was becoming a more and more notorious figures. Following various run-ins with such iconic names as Matt Busby, Leeds manager Don Revie, the English FA and future England manager Ron Greenwood, as well as the Derby County board, Clough eventually resigned from his job as Derby boss, along with his assistant and right hand man – Peter Taylor.

Clough’s departure was met with uproar from Rams‘ fans but he was gone, never to return as manager having overseen a period of unprecedented success at the club.

Clough went on to a 32 game spell at Brighton & Hove Albion, before being quite incredibly appointed manager at Leeds United during the 1974 close season!

Leading players at Elland Road despised Clough considering the numerous run-ins they had had with him in the past and the disrespectful manner their new boss had spoken about them on several occasions to the media as well as in private.

On his first day at training with Leeds, Clough gathered all the players together (less than two months after they had won the league title) and stated: “You can take all your cups and your pots and your pans and throw them in the dustbin because they were not won fairly. You’re all starting afresh with me.”

This was not taken well by Leeds’ senior players, most notably Ireland’s Johnny Giles, Hunter and Bremner, who led a revolt against the new manager.

Clough would go on to become statistically the least successful manager in Leeds United’s (then) 55 year history. Having won the title by five points the previous season, Leeds took just four points from their first six league games of the 1974-’75 First Division season and Clough’s reign was called to an end after a total of merely 44 days. Of those six games, Leeds won only one and were languishing in 19th place in the league table with just four points, fourth from bottom of the table for what was the club’s worst start in 15 years. Clough’s win percentage at Leeds has not been worsened by any manager of the club during the near four decades since he left the club.

Clough’s pay off from the Leeds board was estimated to be close to £100,000 – a monstrous sum at the time. Clough’s infamous time in charge was so notorious that, decades later, it would become the subject of a book called “The Damned United.” In 2009, a major motion picture was made with the same name, detailing Clough’s troubled time in charge, the build-up to it as well as the aftermath of it.

When the twice capped England striker was interviewed by Yorkshire television shortly after his departure from Elland Road, he said it was because of poor results and he made no reference to the hardly secret player revolt against him within the Leeds’ dressing room. It was to be one of the very rare occasions that the Middlesborough native would remain tight lipped.

Clough’s disastrous tenure “in charge” at Leeds would not prove to be overly adverse to the remainder of his football management career as barely four months after leaving Elland Road, he would go on to take over at a comparatively small provincial club called Nottingham Forest.

It was January 1975 and the east midlands outfit were 13th in the old Second Division. The side qucikly rocketed up the table. Forest were promoted at the end of Clough’s second full season in charge and won the First Division title as well as the League Cup in the club’s first season back in the top flight. The next two seasons saw Forest win consecutive European Cups as Clough became the most successful club manager of his generation.

There are many who believe the only reason Clough never became England manager was because of his notoriously outspoken attitude and his alienation of the establishment that was the FA. As the recent book and film to depict his time “in charge” at Leeds United will testify however, Clough’s time at Elland road will always be viewed as one of the most bizarre managerial appointments in football history.

Whilst Clough’s time in charge at Leeds takes some beating, there have been other similarly odd (if for different reasons) managerial appointments in football history:

Claude Anelka‘s brief time in charge of Raith Rovers would be seen as ‘bizarre’ by most observers.

Nicolas’ less talented brother and some time agent said in 2004 that he was tired of seeing football managers doing “crazy things” and decided he wanted to try his hand at the management malarkee himself.

He publicly announced that he would give any football club £300,000stg. if they appointed him as their manager. Scottish First Division side Raith Rovers duly obliged as the then 36 year-old took over at Stark’s Park during pre season of the 2004-’05 season.

However, he resigned as manager in September 2004 having proven that he wasn’t averse to “crazy things” himself as he signed several players from Parisian five-a-side and seven-a-side leagues.

He would go on to manage the Rovers to just one point from eight league games. After resigning as manager, he became Director of Football, but severed all ties with the club before the end of October 2004.

Having been a former Italian international winger only the previous season, Attilio Lombardo was only 31 when he left Juventus for the bright lights of Crystal Palace Football Club.

He was probably a bit young for management – especially as he couldn’t speak a word of English!

Palace chairman Mark Goldberg wasn’t worried about that at the time as the Italian’s arrival at Selhurst Park brought considerable media and fan/observer interest to the Selhurst Park outfit. When manager Steve Coppell moved upstairs in early 1998, Goldberg appointed Lombardo as boss with rotund Swedish midfielder Thomas Brolin as his interpreter.

Was it doomed to failure? Of course it was. Though Lombardo’s performances were so good he was called up by Italy, Palace were relegated in last place from the Premiership. The theme of an Italian who doesn’t speak a word of English managing an English speaking team is one which has been in the spotlight on the Emerald Isle over recent months and years. People didn’t have to search that far and wide to see it is something which is very unlikely/impossible for a manager to make a success of.

Hristo Stoichkov was the star player of the 1994 World Cup as well as of the famous Barcelona side of the early 1990s. He never seemed to have the aptitude for management however.

A cantankerous figure, Stoichkov would often be seen arguing with the referee, or with his opponents and frequently his own team mates even during his career. In 2006, he was sued by a former American University college student whose leg he broke in a violent tackle during a match against D.C. United in 2003. The case was settled out of court in 2007 for undisclosed financial terms with the player’s manager calling Stoichkov’s tackle “criminal.”

Only Celta Vigo know why they appointed the famously temperamental (or mental) Bulgarian in 2007. But one thing’s for sure – it wasn’t his CV.

In his only previous job, as manager of Bulgaria, Stoichkov had proudly announced that he “doesn’t do tactics” before sending his side out in a 2-4-4 formation that left them trailing to Malta for more than 60 minutes before equalizing.

He also fell out with every single player in the Bulgarian squad, forcing two captains and three players into early retirement, was lambasted the fans who revered him as a player and then absurdly accused Romania of fixing a European Championship qualifier. The famously quiet and reserved Stilian Petrov stated that he would “Never play for Bulgaria again” as long as Stoichkov remained manager.

Relegated in his first season in charge at Celta, Stoichkov left citing ‘personal reasons’ just six weeks into the following campaign. Fans rejoiced.

So there is my list of some of football’s most bizarre managerial appointments. What say you? Are there names that aren’t here which I should have included? Alex McLeish’s ill-fated season at Aston Villa, having previously bossed Birmingham, doesn’t seem the wisest ever move by the Villa Park hierarchy. This was heightened considering the reaction by the Claret and Blue faithful to the Scots’ appointment as well as the fact he would go on to have statistically the worst record in the club’s history before being let go at the end of his first season in charge at the club at the end of last season.

So, let’s see what you, the reader, have to say. I’m sure there are some bizarre managerial appointments that you can think of. Maybe there was/is someone who came to your club that you never wanted to have there and you’d like to get that experience/those views off your chest. Now is your chance to have your say.

2 Responses

  1. Simon says:

    Benitez is an odd appointment for Chelsea. I would have personally stuck with RDM but what do we know about football hey!!!

  2. James Clancy James Clancy says:

    I reckon we know more about football than a certain Mr. Abramovich! He was surely smoking something way too strong when he got rid of Di Matteo and replaced him with Benitez?!

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