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socialism in english football

Clough, Shankly, Busby, Ferguson: The Golden Age of the Socialist Manager

There was a time, before the modern Premier League era, where some of the most iconic managers in English football were heavily invested in left-wing politics. That said, not all of them lived up to their own ideals.

by Will Magee
Nov 10 2016, 2:32pm

PA Images

When we compare the contemporary Premier League era to the great footballing epochs of the past, one of the things that stands out the most is the relative absence of managerial dynasties. Along with inflated wages and transfer fees, the growing power of agents, billion-pound television deals and the spiralling obsession with marketing, merchandising, corporate models and plasticated stadiums, the decline of the long-serving, figurehead manager is a trend which seems unequivocally marked. While Arsène Wenger could fairly claim to have created an era-spanning empire at Arsenal – having called the shots at the club for just over two decades – he looks to be the last of his kind in that sense, with Eddie Howe the second longest-serving manager at a Premier League club after only four consecutive years in the job. What's more, Wenger's reign is drawing to a close at this point. When he finally decides to bow out of the game, the age of the managerial dynasty will have come to an end.

There are many things that have done for the long-term coach, not least a culture of instant results and semi-immediate managerial sackings. That has been fuelled, in part, by the onset of rolling online media coverage, which has amplified criticism to an unsustainable fever pitch. Prior to mass access to the internet, football managers took their medicine on the back pages of the tabloids and major broadsheets; the carping and caviling was done in print, as well as a couple of times a week on The Big Match and its pre-eminent competitor, Match of The Day. There was radio coverage, and that was pretty much the end of the public analysis. Now, with the rise of social media and its insatiable demand for digestible content, there can never be enough criticism of managers. Likewise, rarely is there an opinion so strong that it's considered too incendiary to publish by an online outlet; the harsher and more unreasonable the censure, the more shareable and ultimately profitable it is.

Still, if the demand for disproportionate criticism makes management transient, it's far from the only obstacle facing the contemporary Premier League boss. The changing face of club ownership means that many managers are no longer accountable to a board of local grandees and supporters, so much as an autocratic owner who hires and fires on his whims alone. Over the past decade or so, the top flight has witnessed exactly that sort of behaviour from, amongst others, Randy Lerner, Shahid Khan, Vincent Tan and Roman Abramovich, who even Chelsea fans would have to agree is the worst culprit when it comes to rapid-fire sackings. There's an element of populism to all this, one that ties in with both media criticism and the often vitriolic supporter response to it. Autocrats want to seem like men of the people, and so they allow themselves to go the way the wind blows.

The Emirates, an advertiser's dream and home to the last great managerial dynasty // PA Images

Add to that the sheer financial stakes involved in managing a Premier League side these days, and it's little wonder that managers have such a meagre shelf life. There is pressure from the press, from the public and, more often than not, from above, the combined force of which soon becomes impossible to resist. It hasn't always been that way, however. There was an era when iconic, authoritative, long-term coaches dominated the top tier of English football, and when it would have taken the weight of the world to depose them. In the fifties, sixties, seventies and eighties, great managers ruled supreme, and the greatest of them had one thing in common: they were passionate, committed, old-school socialists and, whether in football or in politics, unashamedly left wing.

Looking at the current landscape of the top flight, it's hard to believe it once nurtured some of Britain's most popular leftists. Those managers – Matt Busby, Bill Shankly and Brian Clough especially – would doubtlessly rail against what English football has become, were they able to comprehend it as it is today. In many ways, the contemporary plight of the Premier League manager taps into a whole host of socialist causes: poor job security, callous bosses and vilification by the press are familiar problems for Britain's working classes. That said, Britain's working classes would probably be able to put up with all that bollocks if, like today's managers, they earned tens of thousands of pounds a week.

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In all seriousness, the offhand treatment of the modern manager would have offended the sensibilities of Clough, Busby and Shankly. The former would have been equally incensed by the endless hot takes of the established media, which he famously excoriated in a now-infamous interview with John Motson in 1979. None of them would have had much truck with the buy up of community assets by overseas business interests, nor with the cult of personality that surrounds the most talented Premier League players. The founding principle of their management was a socialist one, in that they vehemently believed that the players as individuals had to defer to the needs of the collective to succeed.

With socialist ideals fundamental to their football, Clough, Busby and Shankly achieved the incredible. Those ideals were not born out on the pitch, however, and were rather the result of their working-class upbringings. These were not necessarily men with an academic interest in politics, so much as advocates of everyday, common-sense, working-class socialism. Busby was born in the mining village of Orbiston, in North Lanarkshire, Scotland; his father was killed in the First World War, leaving him with no other option but to go down the pit at the age of 16. Shankly, like Busby before him, came from a mining community, namely the tiny Ayrshire village of Glenbuck. He worked as a miner for two years before an opportunity in football came knocking, and he joined his local side Cronberry Eglinton. Meanwhile, Clough grew up in an interwar council house in Middlesbrough, which at the time was a centre of steel production and a Labour stronghold in England's heavily industrialised north-east.

Matt Busby watching a training session, alongside trainer Jack Crompton // PA Images

None of them came from privileged circumstances, and all would have understood what it was to go without in life. Born in 1909 and 1913 respectively, Busby and Shankly grew up at a time of abject poverty for much of Scotland's working class. It's no coincidence that both men came from mining backgrounds, what with the courage, fortitude and sheer good luck required to be a football manager; the very same traits were needed for a man to come away from the pit unscathed. Similarly, it's no coincidence that both were instilled with socialist values. Mining communities in the twenties and thirties were some of the most active in the trade union movement, and the men who worked in Britain's mines were some of the most politicised, which was perhaps little wonder given the highly perilous nature of their trade.

Busby was much influenced by his grandfather, a prominent trade unionist and former miner himself. At the age of 17, Busby participated in the General Strike of 1926, an event which he would come to acknowledge as helping to shape his life philosophy. While the miners were defeated in that particular dispute, and eventually forced to accept longer hours and lower pay, it would do much to confirm Busby in his embryonic socialist leanings. Shankly, meanwhile, needed only to see the conditions down his local mine, what with its rats, cramped conditions and general filth. In later life, he wrote: "We were never really clean. It was unbelievable how we survived."

While Busby was certainly less vocal in his political beliefs than Shankly, both men used socialist ideas to shape their football clubs. Søren Frank, writing in his book Standing On The Shoulders Of Giants: A Cultural Analysis of Manchester United, says of Busby: "He succeeded in creating a true family atmosphere and an egalitarian, 'one-for-all-and-all-for-one' culture at Manchester United, where no one was bigger than the club, and where the players were regarded as human beings." The idea of the individual owing a duty to the whole was a huge part of mining culture, with its fierce sense of camaraderie, as necessitated by the fear, adrenaline and danger of the work. In the near-total darkness of the pit, a man was forced to rely on his colleagues to warn him of hazards as varied as rockfalls and firedamp, and depended on other men to get by.

Shankly, meanwhile, talked openly of socialism, speaking about it with the fervour of a man who saw it not as a political dogma so much as a creed. The legendary Liverpool manager laid out his ideals thus: "The socialism I believe in is everybody working for the same goal and everybody having a share in the rewards. That's how I see football, that's how I see life." He had, as a young man, followed both Rangers and Celtic, scorning the sectarian divide between the two clubs. He was to become a great admirer of the Celtic side that won a record nine league titles under Jock Stein, a man with whom he had much in common. Stein was also a former mineworker, and once elucidated the connection between the miner's life and the beautiful game perfectly when he said: "If you've been down a pit, you're not going to worry too much about a wee kerfuffle in a football club."

In assessing the success of Busby and Shankly in management, it is difficult to separate the football from the socialist tendencies. The stress they placed on socialist ideals – selflessness, fraternity and mutual assistance, for instance – was fundamental in the way that their teams learned to play. That isn't to say that leftist thinkers are necessarily better football managers; Busby and Shankly were admired for their compelling personalities, tactical brains and understanding of footballing folklore, and were capable of inspiring fierce loyalty accordingly. That said, their view of society, community and the individual provided them with their blueprints for organising a football club. Between them, those blueprints brought them eight league titles, a European Cup, and the eternal admiration of two opposing cities.

So too when it came to their general conduct, one has to look to their belief in the collective. While he had a father-son relationship with many of his players, Shankly was said to stress that not even the most talented among them was more important than the average fan. John Toshack, who played under Shankly at Liverpool for four years, told The Guardian in 2009: "He rammed it into us how important it was to be playing for Liverpool, how privileged we were to be playing for these people. We really believed that." Shankly was known to procure tickets for hard-up supporters, and always emphasised communication and cooperation with the fanbase. Shankly's advocacy of self-sacrifice for the sake of the support was one of the ways he inspired his players; it was in part that sense of working for the greater good which allowed them to thrive, and him to take them from the doldrums of the Second Division to the pinnacle of English league football, collecting two FA Cups, four Charity Shields and a UEFA Cup along the way.

With his Manchester United side on the cusp of world domination, Busby had to put self-sacrifice into action. The 'Busby Babes' were considered to be in contention for all major domestic and European trophies ahead of the 1957/58 season, with their youthful potential leading many to predict they would dominate world football for years to come. Instead, eight of them were killed in the Munich Air Disaster that February, with Busby so badly injured in the crash that he was twice read the last rites. He recovered against the odds, and set about helping his players to do the same.

Busby and his players on a commemorative visit to Munich airport in August 1959 // PA Images

In the aftermath of the disaster, Busby told his wife, Jean, that he wanted to quit football. He felt survivor's guilt over the crash, in which so many of his young wards had been killed. Years later, he would say that Jean persuaded him to continue in honour of the players who had lost their lives. Despite his injuries, despite his own inclinations and despite his horrific memories of the accident, he stayed on, and worked closely with the remnants of his former squad on their rehabilitation. He would go on to win the league twice more with the team he eventually nurtured back to health, as well as leading them to victory on the European stage.

Whether Busby stayed on because of his personal philosophy, or just because of his profound decency as a man, only his nearest and dearest could say. Either way, he put the collective first, and so lived the ideals he espoused as a manager. He was deeply admired for that by his friend, rival and fellow socialist Shankly, who later said that he was "the greatest manager who ever lived." Long lost in the history of bitter acrimony between the two clubs is the fact that Liverpool offered to loan five players to Manchester United after Munich, so that they could fulfil their league fixtures and continue to play.

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Shankly and Busby did their best to live up to their socialist ideals, and they were remembered for that not only in football, but in politics, too. Having continued to live in his semi-detached house in the Liverpool suburb of West Derby after retirement, Shankly died of a sudden heart attack in 1981. The Labour Party conference was in session at the time, and when the news filtered through, a minute's silence was held. When Busby died in 1994, a motion was put to Parliament commemorating his successes. Of its 59 signatories, 52 were Labour Party members.

If Shankly and Busby are remembered by football fans for their philosophical association with the left, so too are they remembered by the left for their achievements in football. The same could be said of their spiritual successor and late-career rival, the brilliant and enigmatic Brian Clough. Much like Shankly, Clough was vocal about his politics, and used his belief in the collective to drive a team from mediocrity to nationwide acclaim. Much like Busby, he favoured the team player over the individual. Then again, being Brian Clough, he was a paradox, and in many ways a raging individualist himself.

"He believed implicitly in what he was doing" – Brian Clough on Bill Shankly.

Having clashed with the monumental egos at Leeds – Johnny Giles, Norman Hunter and Billy Bremner, most notably – Clough's iconic Nottingham Forest side was always intended to be more than the sum of its parts. He would broach no rival to his own authority, and in that sense he was a socialist in a rather less democratic mould than his forebears. Just as Shankly had with Liverpool, Clough found Forest languishing in the Second Division, and soon built a team which would go on to triumph in the First. That team was made up of perceived journeymen and players whose star had otherwise faded, who Clough galvanised into a collective force.

So Clough won the league with veterans like Larry Lloyd and Peter Withe, as well as semi-unhinged Glaswegian Kenny Burns and a smattering of underrated youngsters. Much like Busby, he created a close, familial nucleus in the squad; much like Shankly, he used his personal charisma to inspire fierce personal loyalty amongst his players. Unlike his predecessors, however, Clough had a cruel edge to him, and would offer stinging rebukes to those he saw as failing to maintain his high standards. As such, Clough set himself up as something of a footballing Politburo. Pull in a different direction, and one would face ruthless suppression, but toe the party line, and all would be well.

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In terms of his active engagement with left-wing causes, Clough exceeded even Shankly. Though not from a mining background himself, he felt great affinity with the miners' during their industrial struggles in the seventies and eighties. He was known to turn up on miners' picket lines, sometimes bringing young players along as a lesson to them. He was also known to donate large sums to trade union causes, and even became a chairman of the Anti-Nazi League, a broad anti-fascist movement which was formed to counter the influence of the far right and the National Front.

Unlike the inherently modest Busby and Shankly, Clough was very much a lover of the limelight, and was far from averse to public life. That was perhaps part of the thinking that led to the Labour Party approaching him to become a parliamentary candidate, though he turned them down twice to continue his life in football. If that was quite understandable, given the instability of the labour movement at the time, some of his other decisions were rather more difficult to square with his socialist principles. His lifestyle left himself open to accusations of champagne socialism, though he had more than a few elegant ripostes to that charge. His homophobic treatment of Justin Fashanu and implication in the bungs scandal of the nineties were rather less edifying, even if he denied all allegations of corruption vehemently until his death.

With Clough's career winding down in the early nineties, the mantle was handed on to the last great socialist manager. That man was Alex Ferguson, another working-class Scot in the collectivist mould. He harboured huge admiration for Matt Busby, and revived his philosophy of no individual being bigger than the club. He was passionately committed to that ideal, as David Beckham, Jaap Stam, Roy Keane and numerous others can attest.

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While he was a lifelong Labour voter and committed left winger, Ferguson had perhaps the most problematic relationship with socialism. That was inevitable, really, given that his rise coincided with the dawn of the modern Premier League. He lived in a world of huge salaries and lucrative deals; a world which was far more compatible with the philosophies of New Labour than it was with the trade unionist ideals of his managerial forerunners. He was an enthusiastic supporter of Tony Blair, and a significant financial backer of the reinvented Labour Party. He was a relentless winner with Manchester United, just as Blair was a relentless winner with New Labour. The association is always going to be a controversial one, however. All of that, combined with his knighthood, meant that the tag of 'champagne socialist' wasn't hard to make stick.

Busby and Ferguson in 1991 // PA Images

Looking back at the golden age of the socialist manager, a pattern emerges over the years. From the humble ideals of Busby and Shankly, to the bombastic egotism of Brian Clough, to the left-wing multimillionaire that was Ferguson, the socialist principles changed to match the landscape of the beautiful game. First they evolved, then they waned, as socialism naturally should in a world of widespread wealth and increasing prosperity. Unfortunately, not everyone lives in the world of football, and not everyone can live the lives of Busby, Shankly, Ferguson and Clough.

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