Brian Clough was a better manager than Sir Alex Ferguson says Roy Keane

December 11, 2013

This week [Dec 2013] Roy Keane the combative former Manchester United and Ireland football player turned pundit has responded to remarks about him by his former manager Sir Alex Ferguson

Keane is settling old scores, but is also playing the media as his television programme “best of enemies” is screened.

He is reported as saying that Brian Clough was a far better manager than Sir Alex. New subscribers may like to see an earlier post from LWD, re-posted below. It was entitled Can we learn much from Brain Clough’s leadership style?

The original post

My leadership students this week [sometime in 2010] chose Invictus as a book or film worth studying. Would they have voted for Brian Clough, if they had seen The Damned United, screened by the BBC this week-end?

A case can be made for studying leadership in its widest variety of forms, including the actions of dictators as well as saints. Can we learn more from studying Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa and Gandhi than from studying Hitler and Stalin? And what about sporting leaders such as Sir Alex Ferguson and Brian Clough?

The Damned United, [released March 18th, 2009], concentrates on one of Clough’s few managerial failures, who after less than two months managing Leeds United Football Club, was fired for a combination of bad results and an abrasive style which extended to the club’s board of directors.

It was rescreened by the BBC [10.30pm, BBC2, Sunday July 18th, 2010].

Brian Clough is fondly regarded nowadays, not because he was ahead of his time but because he was very much of it, despite upsetting football’s authoritarian old guard with his cocky contempt for them. He would never have got away with his genius in today’s world of agents and multimillionaire egos. With copious footage, this documentary traces his rise from a dazzling young centre-forward scythed down in his prime, turned brilliant, self-assured manager, to the ruddy-faced figure he cut in his sad decline.

When the film was first released, Prof Szymanski of CASS Business School told the BBC “It was socialism if you like …You do see this idea in business sometimes. The focus was on the needs of his players. These were his frontline staff – they’re the ones under the pressure, they’re the ones who deliver, so you need to meet their needs whatever it takes. …[however] he was a very overbearing employer, incredibly paternalistic – like Stalin and just as frightening.”

Clough himself never over-analyzed his management technique.
“They tell me people have always wondered how I did it” he once said. I’m told my fellow professionals and public alike have been fascinated and puzzled and intrigued by the Clough managerial methods and technique and would love to know my secret. I’ve got news for them – so would I”

Would Clough make a good business leader? In one of his teasing philosophical dialogues, Plato has Socrates ask a similar question: ‘would a military leader be a good director of a theatrical chorus?’ But in Plato’s account, Socrates was too cute to suggest that there was a simple answer to that question.


Image [Brian Clough not Roy Keane] from The Tactician

Special 1 TV, Roy Keane and Mid-Table Madness

January 8, 2011

As Special 1 TV turns its attention to Mid-Table Football Madness, Roy Keane is sacked by Ipswich

Those who believe in Sod’s law will have seen the signs of Roy’s sacking. A recent post in Leaders We Deserve sang his praises. To be fair, we tipped him maybe to rescue the Tractor Boys, but maybe to implode. As guest blogger Ken Scully wrote [November 2010]

Can the Tractor Boys steam ahead with Keane leading them? Of course they can, but don’t be surprised if the wheels fall off, with the blame falling on the Tractor driver.

Special 1 TV

While searching for news of Roy Keane’s demise, LWD came across fresh cartoon humour in The Special 1 TV [BBC 3]. Their recent 5 minute video clip deals with Mid-Table madness. This is an illness which besets football clubs languishing mid-table. It manifests as uncontrollable desire to sack the manager in search of a better one.

Will the Tractor Boys steam ahead with Roy Keane in the Driver’s seat?

November 26, 2010

Story by Ken Scully

When Ipswich Town reached second place in the Coca Cola championship recently, it was felt that the Tractor Boys could steam ahead and gain promotion to the Premiership. With Roy Keane in charge you wouldn’t doubt it. Or would you?

As a player, Roy Keane is synonymous with the great Manchester United teams of the 1990s and early 2000s. He played with United for 12 years and was club captain for eight. For the record, he won seven English league titles and four FA Cups with them. He was also part of their 1999 Treble winning team that conquered England and Europe.

Cult status

Any football fan will tell you that Keane was an inspirational leader for United on the pitch. To this day, he retains cult status with United’s fans. So what was is it about Keane that made him such an effective and inspirational leader on the pitch? Can it be assumed that such a leadership style will work for him as club manager of Ipswich Town?

Many remember Keane as a tough, uncompromising player. He was driven to win. Even referees felt his wrath – all in the cause of winning. He seemed detached in his dealings with the media. But I’m not sure that he fits the charismatic style associated with a Clinton or a Kennedy. [Or even a Mourinho? Ed]

Is Keane charismatic?

Riggio (2010) identified elements of personal charisma including emotional control and social sensitivity. Does Keane possess such qualities? Based on the above, it could be argued that Keane is not charismatic. However, further analysis suggests that he is. Weber (1947) identified heroic devotion as an element of charismatic leadership. Of relevance to Keane the player, is the concept that heroes should fight and be successful in bringing “benefits” to followers. Could Keane pass this test? Of course he could. His playing career is littered with heroic endeavours and success. Therefore it is not surprising his team mates put their absolute trust in him and regarded him as their leader. In analysing Keane as a leader with Manchester United, we must not forget that he was a player on the pitch and part of a team.

Sir Alex Ferguson was (and still is) the undoubted team manager and leader of the club, on match-day Keane was the leader on the pitch. Ferguson and Keane are similar in many respects, single-mindedness being one of their similarities. It could be argued that Ferguson encouraged Keane to be single-minded in the confines of the pitch. Maybe we should identify Keane’s leadership style as a player as being charismatic within a broader fraemwork of Distributed leadership.

Now he is a manager

As a club manager, his leadership responsibilities are now broader than that those of a playing club captain. He is expected to lead outside the confines of a football pitch and to lead various consituencies of stakeholders, not just footballers. Ipswich Town, a provincial English club, is no Manchester United, a leading global sporting brand.

Does Keane have previous club management experience? He does. He was manager of Sunderland but walked out on them in controversial circumstances. It has been suggested that charisma can be associated with obsession which eventually proves dysfunctional. There have been claims that players lived in fear of Keane when manager of Sunderland. (As a player at United we certainly saw him verbally attack team mates over poor work ethic for example.) Fear may be just about tolerated by followers in the confines of a match, but not something that is equally acceptable to those wider audiences.

Another possibility is to consider what has been called adaptive capacity i.e. the ability to change one’s style and approach to fit the culture, context, or condition of an organisation. If Keane adapts his style, my view is that his success as a leader could be enduring.

Tractor Boys to ‘Steam Ahead’

So can the Tractor Boys steam ahead with Keane leading them? Of course they can, but don’t be surprised if the wheels fall off, with the blame falling on the Tractor driver.


The post was developed by invitation from an assignment written by Ken Scully [October 2010] for the Global MBA programme at Manchester Business School .