Managers who were not their club’s first choice: Klopp, Mourinho, Wenger and ‘worst boss’ ever

Matt Stead
Jurgen Klopp issues tactical instructions during the game against Spurs

Jurgen Klopp was not the first man to be offered the Liverpool job, Newcastle messed up one appointment and Spurs seem incapable of getting their favourite.

Fun, important and absolutely imperative as it is to always laugh at Spurs, missing out on a top managerial target is not necessarily a disaster.

Feyenoord head coach Arne Slot has withdrawn from the running to take over in north London, with whoever Spurs eventually appoint arriving with the knowledge that they were behind at least a few of Thomas Tuchel, Julian Nagelsmann, Vincent Kompany, Xabi Alonso and many more in terms of the boardroom’s thinking.

That very same factor – as well as him not being a very good manager at all in the circumstances – doomed Nuno Espirito Santo to fail in 2021, with about seven other options considered before the Portuguese in a 76-day search.

It is yet another farce being presided over by Daniel Levy, but appointing a manager who was not first choice for whatever reason is not necessarily a disaster in itself. Far from it, if this lot is anything to go by.

Spurs supremo Levy


Mauricio Pochettino – Tottenham’s third choice
Not a single day goes by in which Spurs are not aggressively, irrevocably, inextricably Spurs. Even decisions that make them look competent and professional at the time are eventually proven to be just completely Spurs in retrospect.

The Daniel Levy: Employ A New Manager Smoothly Challenge was such a roaring success in 2021 that the chairman seems determined to recapture the magic two years later. An ordinary club might try and copy the template of their most recent prosperous coaching appointment, yet Spurs are so very Spurs that they rejected that notion so thoroughly by not only snubbing a reunion with Mauricio Pochettino, but by simultaneously pushing him towards Chelsea instead.

Even the initial ascension of Pochettino to the White Hart Lane throne could have gone so differently. With Tim Sherwood’s win percentage callously cast aside in the summer of 2014, Spurs managed to narrow down their search for Andre Villas-Boas’ permanent successor to Pochettino and Frank de Boer.

Perhaps cowing to a fanbase which leaned more towards the proven trophy-winning capabilities of the latter, who had won four straight Eredivisie titles with Ajax by this point, Spurs acted on an interest they had held for months by engaging in official talks with De Boer.

They had tried to tempt the Dutchman to north London the previous winter after sacking Villas-Boas, before making Louis van Gaal their primary manager target, then almost immediately accepting he was probably going to hold out for Man Utd after the World Cup instead.

So the crosshairs focused in on De Boer, who spoke with former Ajax players Jan Vertonghen and Christian Eriksen about the prospect of taking over and invited discussions but warned Spurs “they have to have good plans”.

He added that, “I want to add something to a club, something which people can say: ‘That’s the hand of Frank De Boer. Liverpool is a nice example of that, with what Brendan Rodgers is doing right now,” in the same week the Reds bottled the title against Chelsea and subsequently collapsed into a slump from which Rodgers could not drag them.

Those public comments ultimately frustrated Spurs and ended their dalliance with De Boer, with the more private Mauricio Pochettino plucked from Southampton instead.

The Argentine transformed Spurs from Europa League mainstays into title challengers and Champions League finalists, albeit with the caveat that they continued to win nothing; the man is no miracle worker. But metamorphic though his reign was, it is incredible to think that Spurs at one stage favoured and almost went for “the worst manager in the history of the Premier League” instead. Because Spurs just have to Spurs.


Jurgen Klopp – Liverpool’s second choice
The man Levy ultimately wanted and has long raised an unreciprocated eyebrow about was Carlo Ancelotti, whose capture of La Decima rather undermined the idea he might leave Real Madrid for England’s sixth-best side.

A year later, and by now out of work, Ancelotti had a far more tantalising opportunity to return to the Premier League. The Italian had been sounded out by Fenway Sports Group in September 2015 – with Liverpool forlornly denying that story – as the reign of Rodgers limped on. When the Northern Irishman was finally sacked the following month, it became a straight shootout between Ancelotti, the similarly unattached Jurgen Klopp and, earwigging a conversation to which he really didn’t then belong, Bournemouth boss Eddie Howe.

There are conflicting reports as to who Liverpool championed. Some suggest Klopp was never anything but first choice but former Anfield scout Pedro Philippou later claimed “there was a bit of conversation about Ancelotti coming in,” before it drifted to his German counterpart.

In any case, Harry Redknapp provided the scoop, saying: “I have heard from good sources that [Ancelotti] was offered the Liverpool job. I don’t think [he wanted it]. They spoke to him at some stage.”

That much was confirmed by Ancelotti himself years later: “It was after Real Madrid, I had a chat with the owner. They were looking for a new manager but I think they made a right choice with Jurgen. He is doing fantastic work at Liverpool, so well done.”


Jose Mourinho – Chelsea’s second choice
“He is the only one left. I hope the talks have entered their final stage,” the ever-forthcoming Roman Abramovich told the assorted press in June 2004, with Champions League winner Jose Mourinho long since identified as the manager to lead the Blues into their new era.

Mourinho was considered the first and last name on a shortlist Chelsea knew they could compile with a gilded freedom of choice. But there are some things that money can’t buy, including the greatest Premier League manager of them all.

Sir Alex Ferguson was the candidate Roman Abramovich coveted most, before Mourinho would have even come into the picture. The new Chelsea owner never fancied Claudio Ranieri and immediately sought to replace him with Man Utd’s crown jewel.

Former Manchester Evening News reporter Stuart Mathieson heard it from the man himself, writing shortly before Ferguson’s retirement in 2013:

‘On one occasion, Ferguson revealed to me Chelsea had wanted him as their manager, soon after Roman Abramovich’s takeover. I thought it was one of those off-the-record nuggets I would not be able to use. So I asked did he want that going public.

‘He clearly wanted it out there, because he said I could use it, no problem. But it was on the understanding I did not reveal where it came from. I did have to use some quotes in the piece from him on his desire to stay at Old Trafford.

‘The M.E.N splashed the story on the front page and I was pleased with my exclusive, and I assumed, as Fergie was happy for me to run it, so would he. When I rang next day, I asked in all innocence: “Did you see the Chelsea piece?” “Yes,” he barked back. “And you made it pretty obvious where it came from too!” Bang, the phone went down.’

In a later chat with American television network PBS, Ferguson confirmed: “They approached me when Abramovich first took over the club. I said no chance.” Chelsea knew not to bother approaching the Scot again a year later when Ranieri’s inevitable demise finally came.


Rafael Benitez – Liverpool’s third choice
It was at his unveiling as Chelsea manager in summer 2004 – the Special One press conference – when Mourinho nonchalantly acknowledged “that some big clubs were chasing me very hard”.

With Porto’s Champions League glory still fresh in the mind, the Portuguese thus “arrived into a position where I could choose”, the implication being that he rejected a Liverpool side that was certainly interested at one point, electing to join Chelsea in the process.

There is some disagreement. Mourinho was said by then-Reds midfielder Danny Murphy to be “massively disappointed” at being overlooked for the Anfield post, while confusion lingers over whether Liverpool approached the Portuguese first or vice versa.

Liverpool almost unfathomably also met with Gordon Strachan, who had left Southampton months earlier, with Celtic manager Martin O’Neill also a strong candidate.

Alan Curbishley, at a time when he actually wasn’t available, confirmed he “was in the frame for Liverpool when Gerard Houllier left”. Sam Wallace of the Daily Telegraph alluded to things being a little further along than that, writing that the Charlton coach had ’emerged as the surprise favourite’ for the role, with ‘a number of supporters on the Anfield board’ backing him.

‘It has also emerged in Portugal that representatives of Liverpool have made tentative approaches to Jose Mourinho,’ Wallace added then. It was not the last time he and Rafa Benitez would lock horns, with Jamie Carragher later explaining why the Spaniard won their first encounter.


Arsene Wenger – Arsenal’s second choice
It was Wallace again who wrote in 2017 that ‘Arsenal had already tried unsuccessfully to appoint as their manager the late great Johan Cruyff’ more than two decades prior, before landing on Arsene Wenger.

The brain behind Barcelona’s reinvention was certainly the bookmakers’ favourite for the chance to replace Bruce Rioch, with relative unknown Wenger a distant possibility.

But it was only when Cruyff ruled himself out, his spokesman Johan Derksan confirming the legendary Dutchman was “not interested in a job at the moment” and “wants some time off from football” after his Nou Camp sacking, that Wenger’s unlikely path became clear.

Cruyff never did return to management after 1996. Enticing as the thought of him overhauling that drinking culture and stodgy style of play remains, he himself would praise Wenger for putting “his life and soul into Arsenal” in a way no-one else ever could.


Marcelo Bielsa – Leeds’ fourth choice
This one is simple enough, coming as it does straight from the mouth of beleaguered Leeds owner Andrea Radrizzani.

“With Conte in charge, Premier League football would have been certain and I was ready to offer him £20million,” he said in August 2018 of a remarkably ambitious attempt to lure the Italian to the Championship.

“Then I had an interview with Ranieri, who was flattered but declined as he was waiting for a club in the top division. I also spoke with Martinez but the Belgian national job was an obstacle so that didn’t happen.”

Those doors shut, Marcelo Bielsa took advantage with what was almost certainly an absolutely stunning PowerPoint presentation.


Claudio Ranieri – Leicester’s second choice
It was only after winning the Premier League with Leicester that Ranieri felt comfortable being a bit pickier with his posts. Which is to say he has managed Nantes, Fulham, Roma, Sampdoria, Watford and Cagliari in the seven years since.

The Italian might not have had the opportunity to achieve the unthinkable at the King Power if Guus Hiddink had treated the Foxes’ advances differently when they were seeking to replace Nigel Pearson.

“It is true that Leicester asked me for this season,” he said in May 2016. “But I had decided this was a time for rest, and I wanted to do just nothing.”

In what capacity did Hiddink give that interview? As interim Chelsea manager, preparing to welcome the newly crowned champions to Stamford Bridge, with the Blues having sacked Mourinho after a defeat to Leicester in December 2015. Time is a flat circle and the Foxes probably don’t regret how things played out.

Claudio Ranieri


Eddie Howe – Newcastle’s second choice
Rarely is a manager appointed despite having been so clearly, provably and inarguably a club’s back-up option; almost never do they go on to do much of note, so painfully undermined is their entire reign before things have even started.

It is to Howe’s immense credit that he has excelled at Newcastle despite the rank incompetence of his arrival. The Magpies might appear to have cracked this football ownership lark in record time, but their first big decisions were underpinned by laughable ineptitude.

The sacking of Steve Bruce took long enough, the manager being allowed to carry on for another fortnight after the takeover despite it being agonisingly obvious he was soon for the chop, seemingly just so he could be allowed to take charge of his 1,000th career game.

With that small but necessary step finally taken, the hunt for a successor could take place. All manner of names were predictably linked – Conte, Martinez, Benitez, Paulo Fonseca, Lucien Favre, Wayne Rooney, Frank Lampard and Erik ten Hag among them – but those candidates were very publicly whittled down to just two .

And even then, while Howe and Unai Emery were outwardly considered on an even keel, the latter was blatantly Newcastle’s preference. And so they set about trying to tempt the Spaniard back to the Premier League from Villarreal.

Newcastle f**ked it and the constant media leaks surrounding his impending arrival did not help. Not appreciating the distraction ahead of a crucial Champions League game and questioning the philosophical vision of a club which grouped his style with that of Howe, Emery declared himself “grateful for the interest of a great club” but removed his name from the equation.

That masks the apparent private fury with which Emery ultimately came to his decision. One newspaper reporter criticised a ‘chaotic strategy’ which included Newcastle being ‘so sure that they’d landed Emery that they scrapped the final interviews they’d had planned this week with the other candidates,’ while the rush to backtrack and reframe Howe as the better appointment all along was risible.

As it happened, Howe was precisely what Newcastle needed. And Emery emerged better for the fiasco, too: Villarreal reached the Champions League semi-finals to reinforce a reputation which attracted Aston Villa to have him lead their own evolution.