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11 of the hardest managers ever: you wouldn't mess with 'em...

Sir Alex Ferguson
(Image credit: Pitch International)

Lee Dixon once told a story of when mild-mannered Arsene Wenger was so livid that he scrunched up a paper cup and threw it at the bin. Upon seeing he – like his misfiring players – had missed the bin, Wenger picked the cup up and put it in the bin. He may be angry but he would not litter.

Other managers, however, choose to rule with a little more fear. Some players perform not wanting to upset the manager and cause a stir in the dressing room – and not just from the odd paper cup hitting the bin.

These managers range in their ability… but they're all hard as nails.

1. Paolo Di Canio

Sunderland’s players should have known what was coming. After all, Di Canio had already squared up to striker Leon Clarke on the touchline when he was Swindon manager. But the Black Cats players were still “shocked” when the Italian took over.

“He said he didn’t want us to laugh and smile in training,” recalled striker Steven Fletcher. “To be scared to say anything in case he had a crack at you, it’s not nice is it?”

2. Dave Robertson

There’s hard, then there’s Dave Robertson. A Royal Marine Commando who was trained in desert, jungle and Arctic warfare, if only his coveted ‘green beret’ could have prepared him for the rigours of Football League management.

After taking over as Peterborough’s caretaker boss in February 2015, he was handed the reins full-time in May, only to be given his marching orders in September after a poor run of results. He’s now manager of League of Ireland side Sligo Rovers. But still well ’ard.

3. Major Frank Buckley

Another military man and – as befits someone who fought in the Boer Wars and the First World War’s Battle of the Somme – a no-nonsense manager. Buckley was ahead of his time in many ways, paving the way for the likes of Brian Clough, Alex Ferguson and, in particular, Stan Cullis, who succeeded The Major at Wolves.

As Leeds boss, Buckley made a young Jack Charlton weed the Elland Road pitch in return for “five shillings for every bucket we filled”. But when Big Jack went to the Major’s office to claim his reward, “he nearly blew a bloody gasket. ‘Don’t ever let me see you up here again with your buckets!’” he raged. Message received and understood, sir.

4. Bobby Gould

In one corner, ‘Big’ John Hartson: 6ft 1in, 22 years old and notoriously nails. In the other, Bobby Gould: 5ft 10in, 51 years old and affectionately known as ‘The Gouldfather’.

Despite the latter’s Crazy Gang past, on paper it was no contest. But, in fact, it was the then-Wales manager who challenged his young striker to a training-ground fight before a World Cup qualifier in 1997 after their general antipathy towards each other spilt over.

Hard or just plain stupid? Either way, some minor scuffling later, senior players stepped in to put an end to the “embarrassing, weird, disturbing and totally undignified” episode.

5. Harry Storer

It’s little surprise that a man who once proclaimed: “I have a team of bastards and I am the biggest bastard of them all” was Brian Clough’s managerial mentor.

He was described by the Daily Mirror in 1950, when he was Coventry manager, as “the kind of man who meditates with Marcus Aurelius, daydreams with Omar Khayyam and shudders with distaste when a player shirks hard tackling”.

Storer would board the team bus shouting “How many hearts have I got today?” while thumping his chest, and while assistant manager at Sunderland he made the first team act as ball boys for the youth team, including a young Clough.

6. Jock Stein

The manager of the Lisbon Lions is rightly revered at Celtic but not every player was enamoured with his methods. In his 2014 autobiography, winger John ‘Yogi’ Hughes laid bare the dark side of Stein’s single-minded approach.

On a pre-season tour to South America in 1966, Stein kept news of Hughes’s wife’s miscarriage from the player – “Ach, what could you do about it, anyway? You’re here and she’s there” – and once gave him a pay cut when he’d asked for a pay rise following a prolific season. Hard and harsh.

7. Jock Wallace

Across Glasgow, one of Rangers’ greatest-ever managers was also one of the hardest. Anywhere. Ever. After working down a pit and completing his military service – in Northern Ireland then the Malay jungle where, he says, he survived on “monkey steaks” – an unremarkable playing career fuelled the management fires.

During two spells in the Ibrox hot seat, he would make players run up sand dunes in pre-season until they were sick. In between, he took charge of Leicester, once pinning Gary Lineker up against the dressing room wall at half-time and calling him “a lazy English this and that”. City were leading 2-0 at the time with the future England great scoring both goals.

8. Rinus Michels

A big man with big ideas, Michels was also a strict disciplinarian who described football as “something like war” despite perfecting Total Football with Ajax and Holland.

“His was the hardest physical preparation I ever had,” said Ajax outside-left, Piet Keizer. “We sometimes had four sessions a day. We would start work in the morning and carry on until the evening.” Eat your heart out, Mauricio Pochettino.

9. Helenio Herrera

Another managerial pioneer, Herrera introduced pre-match hotel stays among other ideas, while his Inter team of the early ’60s perfected catenaccio.

But all of this was underpinned by a win-at-all-costs mentality. Herrera once suspended a player for saying in an interview “we [Inter] came to play in Rome” instead of “we came to win in Rome”.

He also injured Alfredo Di Stefano with a violent training-ground tackle that ruled him out of playing in the 1962 World Cup for Spain (who Herrera was managing), and once made two players walk six miles back to the team base because they were 20 seconds late for the coach. Ouch.

10. Osvaldo Zubeldia

Not so much a hard case himself, but a facilitator of violence as manager of arguably the dirtiest team of all time.

Zubeldia led Estudiantes to three Copa Libertadores titles in the late ’60s, but as well as being a tactical innovator, he encouraged the ‘killer juveniles’ to mix it a bit… well, a lot actually. The Argentines’ display against Milan in the 1969 Intercontinental Cup final second leg was so violent that the whole team was arrested under the orders of the country’s president, with two players being sent to jail.

11. Alex Ferguson

The odd flying boot aside, Fergie ruled by fear rather than physical deed, but two incidents in particular, both from his Aberdeen days, proved that Govan’s most famous son was made of stern stuff.

As he unleashed one of his infamous half-time tsunamis at Frank McDougall, the burly striker hit back – literally – flooring Ferguson in front of a stunned squad. Undeterred, the manager sprung straight back up “as if he were on a trampoline” and carried on.

On another occasion, Ferguson took a swipe at a nearby tea urn. “We expected it to go flying,” recalled midfielder Neale Cooper, “but it never moved. I could see the pain in his hand – it was solid iron!” Suppressing the giggles, the players got the message and overturned a two-goal deficit. Nails.

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