Sir Alex Ferguson announced this week that he is to retire as manager of Manchester United after 26 years in charge. But should Ferguson be considered the greatest manager of all time? Which other managers rival him? And should you measure greatness anyway?!

Measuring greatness

Ferguson won an incredible 38 trophies in his time at Manchester United and 49 trophies over his managerial career:

But to assess whether Ferguson is the greatest manager ever we need to dig a little deeper.
We’ll consider the following categories:

  • Domestic greatness
  • European greatness
  • Longevity
  • Winning as an underdog

Domestic greatness

The graph below shows Domestic League titles won by different managers.

In terms of total English League titles Ferguson wins convincingly with 13 titles. George Ramsay (Aston Villa: 1884-1926) and Bob Paisley (Liverpool: 1974-1983) are joint second with 6 titles.

In terms of FA Cup and English League Cup titles Ferguson is equally competitive. Ferguson’s 5 FA Cups are the joint second highest and his 4 English League Cups are the joint highest.

In total Ferguson won 22 Domestic English titles, the highest by a considerable margin.

However if we consider the number of English League title wins against the number of seasons in charge then the picture changes. Both Bob Paisley and José Mourinho have title winning ratios of 67% i.e. in every 3 seasons Paisley and Mourinho won 2 League titles. 

Mourinho’s sample size of just 3 English seasons is probably too small to compare him to Paisley and Ferguson.  However as Mourinho is allegedly returning as Chelsea manager next season we should all watch this space!

Conclusion: Ferguson is the greatest domestic English manager of all time in terms of trophy success but Bob Paisley has a better league title winning ratio.  

European greatness

The European Cup/Champions League title is considered the pinnacle of European football.

Bob Paisley is the only manager to ever win the European Cup three times, whereas Ferguson is in a large group of managers who have won the title twice. Ferguson’s Manchester United side were runners-up to Barcelona in 2009 and 2011. If one of these defeats had been reversed then Ferguson would have equalled Bon Paisley’s record.

Even taking into account Ferguson’s Cup Winners Cup success with Aberdeen in 1983 does not draw him level with Paisley as Paisley himself also won a UEFA Cup in 1976.

Conclusion: Bob Paisley is the greatest European manager of all time.


In the cut throat world of football management simply keeping hold of your job is an achievement in itself!

Opta, a sports data company, recently tweeted this entertaining statistic:

  • 33 – the number of players used by Alex Ferguson in the PL who were born after he was named Man Utd boss in Nov 1986. Father.

So does Ferguson’s 26 years at Manchester United make him the longest serving manager of all time? No.

Ferguson’s 26 years place him 11th in the all time list of longest serving managers, with Fred Everiss’s 46 (!) seasons at West Bromwich Albion from 1902 taking top spot.

However the 10 managers ahead of Ferguson all managed roughly 100 years ago. So Ferguson is the longest-serving post war manager.

Conclusion: Ferguson wins!

Oh, and the shortest serving manager of all time? Leroy Rosenior, Torquay United, 10 minutes!

Winning as an underdog

Manchester United are one of the richest and biggest clubs in the world and have been throughout Ferguson’s managerial tenure.

So how should we consider his success given he has worked at such an advantage? In a previous Figure it Out edition (“Hey Big Spender”) we found that over a recent five year period Manchester United’s spend per trophy was actually very impressive:

So, even though United are in a position to spend a large amount of money our previous FiO analysis showed that their spend per trophy was very competitive when compared to other clubs.

But what about when a manager takes a club from a relatively poor position and brings unexpected success? The classic example of this is Brain Clough in the 1970’s and 80’s who took two unfashionable sides in Derby and Nottingham Forest to unexpected League and European glory.

If we consider the league finishes of Aberdeen and Manchester United it appears both clubs, in terms of league position, had been performing modestly in the 10 years prior to Ferguson’s reign.

If we look at the same analysis for Bob Paisley at Liverpool it could be argued that Paisley inherited an already high performing side:

Conclusion: Ferguson probably deserves more credit for the transformations he achieved with Aberdeen and Manchester United

In summary:

  • Domestic greatness – Ferguson wins in terms of trophy success but Bob Paisley has a better league title winning ratio.  Ferguson and Paisley tie.
  • European greatness – Paisley wins with more European Cup wins.  Paisley wins.
  • Longevity – Ferguson wins as the longest serving post-war manager. Ferguson wins
  • Winning as an underdog – although he worked at a considerable advantage Ferguson’s spend per trophy is impressive and he deserves more credit for the transformations he produced at Aberdeen and Manchester United. Ferguson deserves more credit than he gets!

So is Ferguson the greatest manager of all time? With equal weighting across the categories Ferguson comes out on top.

Attention now turns to David Moyes, Ferguson’s successor at Manchester United. The following graph from illustrates why David Moyes might be an excellent choice.

The graph shows Premier League position achieved since 2002 against the wage budget of each club. Every dot above the line represents a team over performing relative to their wage budget. David Moyes’ Everton have clearly punched well above their weight in the last 10 years.

So David Moyes could be an excellent choice, although doing better than expected is one thing, being the best and winning trophies is quite another.