The 10 most influential football managers of all time

Yes, it is another one of those most influential and greatest football managers of all-time lists. These are devilishly hard to produce as everyone has their own opinion on who is the greatest coach ever to sit in a dugout.

Each of the 10 men on our list was famous for the characteristics needed to succeed in coaching. From flexibility to organisation, to man-management, to being able to think outside the box, those attributes enabled each of them to leave a lasting legacy on football and help create the sport that we know and love today.

10) Rinus Michels

A four-time Eredivisie winner, three-time KNVB Cup winner and one time European Cup winner with Ajax. A La Liga and Copa Del Rey winner with Barcelona. A DFB Pokal winner with FC Cologne. A European Championship winner with the Netherlands.

And yet is it the team he managed who never won a trophy with whom Rinus Michels most influenced football – via Total Football.

That was the term lavished upon the playing style of his Netherlands side of the 1970s, considered by many to be the greatest never to win a World Cup. 

They came close, losing the final in 1974 to West Germany. It was the team in Oranje who lit up that tournament, delivering some of the most magical football the world has ever seen, led by Johan Cruyff as the on-field conductor.

Cruyff the manager will feature later on our list (no spoilers) as will several other managers who can trace their style and philosophy back to Michels and Total Football. That is some legacy.

9) Jose Mourinho

Heaven helps us if The Special One ever reads this list and sees himself only in ninth place. The ultimate Marmite manager, you either love Jose Mourinho or you hate him. There does not seem to be any middle ground.

In an era of possession football, attacking fullbacks and goals galore where money was often seen as the most important ingredient for success, Mourinho showed us another way when bursting onto the scene with Porto in 2003.

He led the unfashionable Portuguese outfit to a remarkable Champions League win in 2004. Inter Milan were perennial dark horses in Italy before Mourinho arrived. During his time at the San Siro, he won two Serie A titles, a Coppa Italia and his second Champions League trophy.

Mourinho’s success with Porto and Inter came because of a masterclass in man-management. His sides were drilled in how to win games and they highlighted how far organisation can take you. 

He did not need bundles of cash to succeed, although that helped him as league titles with Chelsea and Real Madrid proved.

Given what has happened at Manchester United since his sacking from Old Trafford, you could even argue that he did an excellent job at Old Trafford – a statement perhaps as controversial as the man himself.

8) Bill Shankly

Music and football dominated Liverpool in the 1960s. Whilst the Beatles were busy conquering the world, Bill Shankly was setting in place a dynasty that would last for 30 years and turn Liverpool into one of the most famous teams on the planet.

When Shankly arrived at Anfield in 1959, he found a rundown stadium and a club wallowing in the second tier of English football. He delivered the promotion back to the top flight in 1962 and his first league title as Liverpool boss in 1964.

Two more championships would follow alongside a UEFA Cup and two FA Cups, the second of which arrived in 1974 and was followed a few weeks later by Shankly’s shock retirement.

The silverware and taking Liverpool to the top of English football were only part of Shankly’s legacy, however. He believed in a strong connection between players and fans. 

He talked about the Kop having the power to “suck the ball into the net”. Shankly was a manager who tapped into the power of football beyond what happened on the pitch in a way nobody else really had.

That feeling of family was central to the concept of the Anfield Bootroom. Shankly was succeeded by his assistant Bob Paisley, who was succeeded by his assistant Joe Fagan, who was succeeded by his player Kenny Dalglish.

Shankly championed continuity and left the foundations in place for each of his successors to continue winning domestic and European trophies for Liverpool.

7) Matt Busby

Adversity is something that all coaches must face and overcome at some point in their careers. It is that ability to stand up and find a way through when all hope seems lost that turns a good football manager into a great football manager.

No manager in history had to battle adversity like Sir Matt Busby. He was already well on his way to immortality at Manchester United before the events of February 6th 1958, having led United to the FA Cup in 1948 and league titles in 1952, 1956 and 1957.

The latter two championships were won by his Busby Babes, a marvellously talented squad of fearless young players with an average age of only 22.

That squad would have won so much more too had eight of them not been killed in the Munich Air Disaster. Busby himself was badly injured. He then faced the challenge not only of rebuilding United but of helping to mend the broken hearts of everyone connected with the club.

Seven years after Munich and Busby miraculously won another title for United. Two seasons later and it happened again. 

Then in 1968 came his crowning glory as the Red Devils became the first English side to be crowned European Champions. A remarkable rise and recovery from the depths of despair.

6) Viktor Maslov

It is a travesty that so few people have heard of Viktor Maslov. In some quarters, the Russian is viewed as the inventor of the football we know today, having pioneered both the 4-4-2 formation and the tactic of pressing that are still staples of the sport 70 years later.

Up until the late 1950s, the formation played by virtually every major club in the world was 4-2-4. Teams would allow their opponents plenty of time on the ball, preferring to seize on loose passes as possession came towards the four front players rather than force errors.

Maslov changed all that. He figured that two extra bodies overloading the midfield would allow his side to dominate. Combine that with his players denying the opposition time and space through pressing, and his teams could win possession more frequently.

To play a high energy game, Maslov also had to focus on speed and fitness. That meant experimenting with nutrition to increase his players’ stamina. In the 1950s, all of this was completely alien.

Maslov ended up winning four Soviet league titles and six cups with Torpedo Moscow, Dynamo Kyiv and FC Ararat Yerevan. His methods soon seeped beyond the Soviet Union, leaving an everlasting imprint on football. 

5) Arsene Wenger

Before an unknown French bloke called Arsene Wenger rocked up as Arsenal boss in 1996, player nutrition consisted of 10 pints of Guinness.

Scouting went as far as driving 50 miles up the road to watch a game before turning around at the halftime. Tactics did not matter, as long as you played with passion and shouted a lot.

Okay, those are pretty sweeping generalisations – even if Wenger did famously ban ketchup from the Gunners’ training ground as one of his first acts in charge.

But the impact that he had on English football was massive. Wenger’s focus on diet, training methods and his desire to scout rough diamonds from across the world were unheard of – to the point that Arsenal’s players wondered if their club had appointed some sort of madman.

Arsenal hadn’t. In his first eight years in English football, Wenger won two doubles and led the Gunners to the 2003-04 title unbeaten, only the second-ever team to be crowned champions of England without losing a match after Preston North End in 1888-89.

His methods – once-seen as bizarre and farfetched – were quickly adopted by every club in the country. Wenger rose the standards and quality of English football across the board, helping the Premier League establish itself as the best league in the world. 

4) Pep Guardiola

Whenever Pep Guardiola features on one of these lists of the most influential football coaches of all time, the usual reasons are wheeled out as to why he is not worthy of a place amongst the greats.

Guardiola’s critics say anyone could have had success at Barcelona working with Lionel Messi, Xavi, Andreas Iniesta and the rest. 

Winning trophies at Bayern Munich is nothing special as German football is a one-horse race. And City’s dominance can be put down to being backed by the wealth of an oil-rich nation.

And whilst all those arguments are valid, you only have to look at the way football has changed since 2006 and Guardiola bursting onto the scene to see his influence. 

Tiki-taka became the style of play every side in the world adopted. It fed into Spain dominating international football between 2008 and 2012 in a way few national sides ever have.

That led to almost every national football association trying to copy the Spanish way. The FA’s own England DNA project – which has started producing Three Lions players good enough to reach finals at major tournaments – was based on what had made Spain a success. 

Spain’s success was based on what Guardiola did at Barca. His impact on English football, therefore, began long before City’s money lured him to the Etihad Stadium. His impact on world football stretches far beyond trophies with Barca, Bayern and City.

Guardiola’s greatest achievement might still be yet to come. He once said that his dream was to name a team consisting of 10 midfielders and a goalkeeper. 

No side in football history has ever won trophies consistently without a striker. If Guardiola can win the Premier League or a first Champions League using a false nine, then striker-less teams could be the next revolution in the sport. Now that is influence.

3) Arrigo Sacchi

Arrigo Sachi stands as a beacon of inspiration to coaches everywhere, his story proves that anyone with the right work ethic and ideas can go on to become of the most influential and famous football managers in the world.

Sacchi started as a humble Italian shoe salesman, something which led to questions over his credibility when he was appointed as AC Milan manager in 1987. 

Always ready with a fantastic soundbite, Sacchi responded to those who wondered whether a man who had not played professional football before was qualified to take charge of an Italian giant by saying: “I never realised that to become a jockey you have to have been a horse first.”

Of course, Sacchi needed to back up his words with success on the pitch. He did that by rewriting the rules of how football was played in Italy. 

Adopting a back four rather than a back three appalled traditionalists. In came zonal marking, a high defensive line and an aggressive press which went on to influence both Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp.

Sacchi won the Scudetto in 1988 and followed that up with back-to-back European Cups. The Milan side of that era is remembered these days for their defence – little wonder when Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini were part of a backline that conceded only 15 goals in the title-winning season.

Yet they were devastating in attack too, none more so than in the semi-final on route to their first European Cup success when hammering Real Madrid 6-1 on aggregate.

Sacchi changed the way Italians viewed football and set the foundations in place for Serie A to become the leading league in the world in the early 90s.

2) Johan Cruyff

21st century Barcelona is known as one of the most successful teams in world football, famed for tika taka and churning out world-class players from their famous La Masia academy at a rate of knots. It has not always been this way, however. Before 1988, Barca had won only 36 trophies in 89 years and had never been crowned European Champions. That all changed when Johan Cruyff returned to Camp Nou.

A popular figure during his playing days with Barcelona, Cruyff would go on to write his name even deeper into the history books during his eight years as manager. 

Having been the star turn in the Netherland’s Total Football side of the 1970s, it was no surprise to see him adopt the same principles once sat in the Barcelona dugout as part of a complete overhaul of the club.

It was Cruyff who introduced Barcelona’s style of play, indoctrinating every youngster at La Masia in his ways. The focus was on technical ability rather than physicality, something which now underpins every single football academy – but at the time was considered a questionable approach.

The result? Since 1988, Barca has won five Champions League titles and 47 other pieces of silverware. Players like Messi, Xavi and Iniesta have been unleashed on the world from La Masia and coaching disciples such as Guardiola continues Cruyff’s work to this day.


1) Sir Alex Ferguson

No manager in world football has delivered success over such a prolonged period as Sir Alex Ferguson. In the 1980s, he broke the Old Firm’s monopoly in Scotland by leading Aberdeen to three league championships and a European Cup Winner’s Cup success which involved eliminating Bayern Munich and Real Madrid along the way.

A move south of the border to Manchester United followed in 1986. Over the next 26 years, Ferguson would win 38 trophies including 13 Premier League titles, five FA Cups and two Champions Leagues.

The secret to Ferguson’s success? Flexibility and a willingness to reinvent himself. His first Premier League title was won thanks to the Class of 92. 

Six years later and the treble Winners of 1999 were a different kind of United. Skip another nine years and Ferguson had changed approach again as Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez formed a deadly front three.

The best coaches are those who know that football does not standstill. They are constantly learning, adapting and comfortable in changing their approach. 

Such flexibility kept Ferguson at the top for three decades. No other manager in the world has a CV quite like it.

Think you have what it takes to follow in the footsteps of these 10 influential football coaches? Then find out more about starting your coaching journey with We Make Footballers.




Why do football coaches coach?

Why do football coaches coach? Is it their desire to help football players realise their potential by coaching them in the ways of the sport?

Is it to learn more about the game and have a better understanding? Is it to shape the lives of children at a time when community projects have never been so important or vulnerable? Is it to inspire the next generation?

Is it out of love? Or an ambition to turn that love into something more, that many people involved at the grassroots level dream of – a full-time football career?

Turns out the answer to all those questions is yes. We spoke to some of our We Make Footballers franchisees to find out how their coaching journeys began, what motivates them to run their academies and where they see their careers in football going.

From their answers, here are some of the reasons why football coaches coach.

Helping players to realise their potential

The overriding aim of every football coach is to improve the players they work with. For some children, helping them to realise their potential will lead them into a grassroots team.

For others, it might take them all the way into a professional academy and set them on the path to a career in the sport. That could prove life-changing for both the child and their family.

Just ask Raheem Sterling, who went from skirting away from gangs in London to a full England international whose prospects were utterly transformed by the sport. Or Kyle Walker, who went from Sheffield Council Estate to champion of England at Manchester City. Or any of the other countless examples of players in the professional ranks whose lives might have gone down a very different path had football not come along.

Helping players realise their potential is the reason that Russell Lew set up We Make Footballers Milton Keynes. Russel says there is nothing more rewarding than seeing a player take something you have coached them in practice and use it in a game situation. “We play one-on-ones and two-on-twos during training and when you see somebody do a stepover, a Cruyff Turn or a piece of skill we have been practising in the earlier drills, that just makes me feel good. You feel as though you have made a difference.”

And that difference can take a young player far. We Make Footballers CarshaltonCoulsdon franchisee Simon Karrie speaks with pride of the opportunities that his academy offers players through its links with Crystal Palace and other clubs in the south London area. “It is all little bits of a jigsaw that helps create a pathway for our players,” says Simon. “Top players at our academy, we create pathways for them to get into pro football potentially.”

Marcelo Graca from We Make Footballers Chiswick & Southall speaks with pride of his “Galacticos” who have progressed to professional academies from under his watchful eye. “Matthew Dennis is at Arsenal, Lewis Richards is at Wolves, Richard Olise at Reading, and there are a few more at academies. We have been fortunate enough to work with such a
a talented bunch.”

Marcelo’s own journey into coaching happened almost by accident. “I was asked to referee an Under 7s game and it took me by surprise because of the talent I saw that day, I was gobsmacked. It made me want to enter the world of coaching and have my own impact.”

It is that prospect of having their own impact on the stars of tomorrow and helping them to reach their potential which is why many football coaches take up coaching.

Because football gives a buzz

When Russell talks about the rewarding feeling of seeing one of his players pull off that stepover or Cruyff Turn, you can tell the almighty buzz he gets from it.

That is common across football. For there is no better feeling than the height that comes from coaching. It is a bug that bites you and once you are bitten, it is hard to shake the addiction.

Many coaches stumble into it as Marcelo did, taking up roles because of a lack of volunteers and suddenly finding themselves discovering how much fun grassroots football can be.
We Make Footballers Essex franchisee David Pipe was pushed into coaching when he was only a teenager himself. There has been no looking back from there. “I have been coaching since I was about 15 years old myself,” David explains. “My dad just said ‘Do you fancy coaching?’ one day and I took him up on the offer. I was handed loads of five-year-olds, I didn’t have a clue what I was doing but I really enjoyed it and got the bug.” David has been coaching grassroots football ever since, including part-time roles at Millwall and Colchester United. The reason he does it is simple – that unbeatable buzz that coaching brings. And now he gets to experience it every day. Setting up his We Make Footballers academy in 2018 allowed David to go full time in football, achieving the dream of many coaches – to turn their love of the game into a career.

To turn their love of football into a career

The prospect of a football career is one of the biggest reasons why football coaches coach. With hard work, determination and the right opportunities, a role that starts as volunteering at a local grassroots club can eventually lead to a full-time career.

Getting into football at a professional level is not easy. For every academy coaching job advertised, clubs expect to receive a minimum of 150 applicants. Some applicants will have BTECs or degrees in sports science. Others might have a Masters or a PhD. The competition is hot.

We Make Footballers can help their franchisees and coaches get their foot in that door. Opportunities to work in coaching and scouting roles for professional clubs arise frequently thanks to the reputation We Make Footballers has across the game.

Simon combines running the Carshalton & Coulsdon Academy with his role as a firefighter. The dream though is to eventually go full time in football, something which he is moving towards.

“The fire brigade takes up 48 hours of my week, so I fit in my franchise basically in and around that. I have been in the firefighter bridage for 12 years and I love my job, it is a great job, however, if I could go full time in football then I would. That is an ambition and a desire of mine to get there.”

“Being involved with We Make Footballers has helped me take the first steps towards transitioning into full-time football, absolutely.”

“From the point of the franchise itself, you can grow and grow and grow and expand. I’ve gone to four classes a week and over 220 students or thereabouts. Obviously, that is endless and you can carry on growing.” 

Turning a We Make Footballers academy into a full-time occupation is one way to launch a career in football. Simon continues: “But there are also the opportunities that have opened up for me with professional football clubs.” 

“I work with Crystal Palace and that has come from We Make Footballers Carshalton & Coulsdon. That would not have happened if I didn’t have my area.”

“It is a good environment not just for my players but also for my coaches as there are pathways into Palace for them if they want to pursue it. And obviously, my own pathway has come from that.”

Marcelo meanwhile has already made the jump to working full time in football: “We Make Footballers and my experiences coaching have enabled me to start scouting, firstly at QPR and now at Tottenham. The two jobs (coaching We Make Footballers and scouting young players) go hand-in-hand.”

To increase knowledge, understanding and gain recognised qualifications

To become a football coach in England, there are a series of qualifications which have to be obtained via the Football Association. These ensure that individuals can give a high level of coaching to players under their tutelage.

Previously, a coach would earn their FA Level 1 and FA Level 2 badges before progressing to UEFA’s qualifications. Recent changes in response to the pandemic however mean that the Introduction to Football Coaching qualification replaced FA Level 1 in 2021. FA Level 2 is now no longer running; the UEFA C Licence will be introduced in 2022 in its place.

The new qualifications feature more independent, remote learning to make them accessible to potential coaches who may not have otherwise had the time to complete the old courses, where physical attendance has been deemed a necessity.

Becoming a coach means passing the qualifications. Passing the qualifications means increasing your knowledge of football. This is a reason for some coaches taking up the role. 

They want to better understand the theories and ideas behind what happens on the pitch and how they are put into practice on the training ground.

We Make Footballers provide franchisees and coaches with in-house, additional training and qualifications, building on their FA and UEFA qualifications and deepening their knowledge of what it takes to be a successful football coach.

David describes the coaching session training he regularly receives to help operate the Essex franchise as “amazing”. The training provided by We Make Footballers does not stop there – off the pitch, franchisees are given help and guidance understanding the business side too.

“Everything is very detailed, from the finance stuff to the admin behind the scenes,” says David. “We had a week or so of training and then great support from head office since then.”

“I can’t count the number of emails I have sent head office but they always respond straight back. It has just been a dream.”

Giving back to the local community and the sport

The role of football in the local community has never been more important. Lockdowns have adversely impacted the physical and mental health of children and budgets were being cut to the bone even before the pandemic.

Physical education in schools is no longer a priority and local councils cannot afford to provide services or maintain facilities. It is a perfect storm having a detrimental effect on the life chances of children.

Football coaching, therefore, gives back to the local community. It provides a means of keeping children fit, active and off the streets. Coaches become role models and mentors who can try and shape the lives of their young players.

Academies provide safe spaces for children to play, exercise and socialise with like-minded children. When football coaches provide such a service, it is not an exaggeration to say that it can be life-changing.

Coaching football does not just give back to local communities. Many coaches take up the role to give back to the sport they love, repaying the fun and enjoyment it has given them.

At some point in a coaches life, they were once the player benefiting from the knowledge and wisdom passed down to them by their own grassroots coach.

Football coaching is cyclical in that way; players become coaches, who coach players who become coaches. Often, the best way to give back to football is by helping to inspire a new generation to love it as much as you have.

To find out more about joining We Make Footballers and taking your own first steps into a rewarding career as a football coach, please see the WMF franchisee website for more details.