Maresca or Slot next? Man Utd and Liverpool feature in 10 manager downgrades

Steven Chicken
David Moyes, Graeme Souness and Jesse Marsch
David Moyes, Graeme Souness and Jesse Marsch

We’re not saying Enzo Maresca is going to fail at Chelsea: he genuinely might turn out to be really very good, and we wish him all the best. But it’s a gamble to go from the more proven Mauricio Pochettino to a manager who frankly did exactly what was expected of him by taking an extremely strong Championship side to the top of the table.

On which note…going in more or less chronological order, here are ten(-ish) of the biggest managerial and most costly downgrades ever made by clubs. Your suggestions for others are very welcome.


Sir Matt Busby to Wilf McGuinness (Manchester United, 1969) and Sir Matt Busby to Frank O’Farrell (1971)

You know it’s gone wrong when you need to come back 18 months after leaving in an effort to steady the ship, which is exactly what happened after Sir Matt left Old Trafford in 1969, just a year after leading them to European Cup glory.

In truth, Manchester United’s decline had already begun before Busby departed; they finished 11th in his final season at the club, with the powers of several of his star players on the wane. But a strong finish to the season had set hopes high that an upwards trajectory could be restored, but they were unable to do so under his young protege McGuinness.

Busby returned for six months midway through the 1970/71 season as the ultimate caretaker manager and immediately profoundly improved results: a side that had won just five of their first 23 games won 11 of the remaining 19 to finish eighth for a third season in a row.

In came O’Farrell from Leicester in summer 1971 – and once again United got it wrong. By the time he left a year and a half later, United were in a relegation scrap. His successor, Tommy Docherty, got them on a good end-of-season run that lifted them clear of the drop, but the downward spiral was set and they were relegated the following season.

Kenny Dalglish to Graeme Souness (Liverpool, 1991)

Another epoch-destroying downgrade following the resignation of an iconic manager. The now-Sir Kenny had carried on a fine lineage of Liverpool managers from Bill Shankly onwards, with the club repeatedly defying the rule that says losing a legend automatically leads to a decline.

As with Busby, Dalglish’s reasons for leaving were entirely understandable: both men had carried the burden of tragedies on their backs to help their clubs pull through and find a small degree of comfort and healing in success.

But unlike United 20 years earlier, Liverpool were not already entering a serious slump: they were three points clear at the top of the league and on course to retain their title. But results suffered under caretaker boss Ronnie Moran, allowing Arsenal to storm ahead and win the league.

Matters only exacerbated from there, with Liverpool making a series of poor signings and drawing altogether too many games under permanent replacement Souness in the first two-thirds of the following season, then losing more times in the last 16 games of the season than they had in over a season and a half under Dalglish.

Souness then prompted outrage by giving an interview to The Sun about the heart surgery that caused him to miss the end of the campaign, which was published on the third anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster.

The Scot admitted himself years later that he should have resigned on the spot; if he had, he would have spared himself another two years of things going from bad to worse. The club didn’t truly recover their glory days for another 25 years.

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Alan Curbishley to Iain Dowie (Charlton Athletic, 2006)

Alan Curbishley was once regarded as one of the hottest prospects in the English game, and reasonably so.

Initially appointed as player-manager, Curbishley had lifted Charlton back from the second tier to the Premier League, got relegated, then came back stronger, establishing the club as a constant mid-table presence at worst and – genuinely, we promise – had them in the top four midway through the 2003/04 season.

After a decade and a half at the helm, Curbishley called time on his spell at the Valley to go to the seemingly more upwardly mobile West Ham United.

Slightly strangely, Charlton turned to Iain Dowie as his replacement, despite having been unable to save Crystal Palace from relegation the previous year and then failed to get them promoted back into the Premier League. Curbishley had been manager for 15 years; Dowie lasted just 15 games, winning just four, and was sacked with Charlton already well on course for relegation. They’ve never been back to the top flight since.

And hot young thing Curbishley? A couple of years later West Ham became one of the biggest victims of the late 2000s financial crisis and Curbishley successfully sued for constructive dismissal after key players were sold against his wishes. He has not worked in management since.

Sam Allardyce to Steve Kean (Blackburn Rovers, 2010)

Big Sam is more or less a punchline now, but at the time was still reasonably well-regarded for his superb stewardship of Bolton Wanderers , despite a short-lived and unsuccessful spell at Newcastle that saw him replaced by a returning Kevin Keegan after just seven months.

Allardyce was able to get Blackburn punching above their weight despite financial difficulties causing them to sell off many of their best players, delivering consistent mid-table finishes.

Then out of the blue, midway through the 2010/11 season, with Blackburn sitting 13th, new owners Venky’s decided to do the opposite of replacing a safe pair of hands with an ailing incompetent. It quickly emerged that Steve Kean’s agent had helped broker the deal that saw Venky’s buy the club. Hmm.

Kean looked in over his head from day one and was deeply unpopular with fans (who repeatedly campaigned for him to be sacked), yet somehow he managed to hold onto the job for nearly two years despite at one point overseeing just 11 wins in 15 months; bizarrely, two of those were against Arsenal and Manchester United.

Blackburn, inevitably, were relegated in 2011/12, never to return, with Kean finally sacked in the early weeks of their Championship campaign.

Sir Alex Ferguson to David Moyes (Manchester United, 2013)

This one is a less a reflection of Moyes’ abilities than it is the sheer magnitude of the shift United had to make when the most successful manager in the history of English football stepped down after 27 years at the helm.

Moyes was Sir Alex’s hand-picked successor having lifted Everton from near-constant relegation worriers to solid top-half finishers, while reigning Premier League champions United had finished no lower than third in the past 22 years (and no lower than second in the previous eight).

But things unravelled more or less immediately: United had their worst ever start to a Premier League season, losing to Liverpool, Manchester City and West Brom to drop to 12th while Green Day were still fast asleep.

Moyes’ later praise for Liverpool and City, a training session in a public park before a Champions League clash with Bayern Munich, and a near-mutiny among his players made his position untenable; he didn’t even last the season, United finished 7th, and they’ve still not got back on their perch 10 years later.

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Just Chelsea in general (Chelsea, loads)

There is, we’re sure, a big spinning wheel at Cobham with the names of every manager in Europe written upon it that Chelsea use to decide who’s going to be their next manager.

We see no other explanation for their having replaced a still-good Jose Mourinho with Avram Grant; Carlo Ancelotti with (in fairness) an up-and-coming but ultimately unsuitable Andre Villas-Boas; AVB himself with Roberto Di Matteo, who somehow won the Champions League during his eight months in charge; then Di Matteo with the deeply unpopular interim appointment of former arch-nemesis Rafa Benitez.

Binning off Maurizio Sarri to bring in Frank Lampard was purely a matter of heart ruling head in a manner unbefitting a supposedly elite club, and sacking a more legitimate Champions League winner in Thomas Tuchel to bring in doomed Graham Potter from Brighton was at best a lateral move, at worst the squandering of one of their more forward-thinking and capable appointments.

And now, just when Mauricio Pochettino had finally got things to click…another bullet, to be replaced by a Championship-winning manager who lasted just six months in his only other top-flight role, with Parma in 2021. It’s a gamble, but then what else do you expect?

Gary Rowett to Gianfranco Zola (Birmingham City, 2016)

A departure from the Premier League here, but for good reason.

14th December, 2016: Gary Rowett’s Birmingham City sit 8th in the Championship, one point outside the play-offs.

So, of course, he’s sacked by the club’s new owners to bring in Gianfranco Zola, whose CV to date consisted of just about managing to stop West Ham from getting relegated; losing a play-off final with a very good Watford side before taking them down to 13th the next season; winning two of his 10 games in charge of Cagliari; and a poor year managing in Qatar.

Naturally, Birmingham’s form completely drops off a cliff: under Zola, they are the second-worst side in the division throughout Zola’s four-month spell, and he resigns with the club in 20th, three points outside the relegation zone, with only rock-bottom Rotherham holding a worse goal difference.

That went well.

Zinedine Zidane to Julen Lopetegui (Real Madrid, 2018)

Remember what we said when talking about Matt Busby, about how if you have to come back 18 months later it’s all gone wrong? Yeah, well, Zidane was back in less than a year.

Zidane had won three successive Champions League titles before stepping away. In came their former B team manager Lopetegui, then in charge of Spain. Appointing the national team boss may not seem absurd, but bear in mind that he had yet to take charge of a single game at a major tournament: he took that job just after Euro 2016 and was announced by Real just before the 2018 World Cup.

A 4-2 defeat to Aletico in the UEFA Super Cup set the tone for a disastrous and short spell, with a run of just one point from five league games culminating in a 5-1 defeat to Barcelona and Lopetegui’s dismissal. Santiago Solari took over as interim boss for much of the rest of the season before Zidane returned in March, guiding them to a league and cup double the following season.

Oh, and hey, how’s this for a segue? (The next entry, not the ‘read more’ links, though they’re also good stuff.)

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Carlo Ancelotti to Rafa Benitez (Everton, 2021)

Ancelotti had quite understandably walked away from the troubled club to take over from Zidane at Real Madrid; it was hard to begrudge him that.

More difficult to understand is why on earth Everton thought it was a good idea to replace the winningest manager in Champions League history with somebody who was not just yesterday’s manager by that stage: the ‘yesterday’ in question was at their fiercest rivals. Rafa’s an absolute glutton for punishment, isn’t he?

Things actually started pretty well, with Everton winning five of their first six games and claiming a draw at Old Trafford. But Benitez oversaw just one more win in the next 17 games, one of which was an unconvincing late League Cup victory against Championship side Huddersfield Town (the other, weirdly, was against Arsenal).

With that Benitez was gone, and Everton went on to bigger and better th– oh.

Marcelo Bielsa to Jesse Marsch (Leeds United, 2022)

Yes, we’ll also give you the absolutely insane ‘Brian McDermott to Dave Hockaday’ switch of 2014. The Massimo Cellino era, what a time that was.

But it’s impossible to overlook this one. Bielsa was beyond adored by Leeds fans from the moment he made the borderline inexplicable decision to join the then-Championship club in summer 2018, and that affection grew to a fever pitch after he proved true to his reputation by ending their 17-year exile from the Premier League. A top-half finish was immediately secured in their first season back.

Their second season went far less to plan, but even with Leeds sitting 16th, just two points outside the drop zone with both of the sides immediately below them holding two games in hand, the decision to dismiss Bielsa was a shock.

That set Bielsa’s swiftly-announced RB Leipzig flop of a successor off to an impossible start, and Marsch remained unpopular despite actually succeeding in just about getting the results they needed to stay up on the final day. The next season was an unmitigated disaster, however, and the American was sacked just shy of a year on from his arrival.


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