The shortlist to manage Saudi Arabia’s national team in 1977 included Bob Paisley, Bobby Robson and Brian Clough

Bob Paisely, Bobby Robson, Brian Clough Saudi Arabia manager
(Image credit: Getty Images)

In 1977, Bob Paisley had just won the first of three European Cups with Liverpool; Bobby Robson’s stylish Ipswich Town had finished third in the first division; and Brian Clough had returned Nottingham Forest to the top flight. 

All three went on to achieve further incredible success at their respective clubs, but their careers could all have had a different look had they taken up an offer from Saudi Arabia to become their national team manager. 

With riches to match their ambition, Saudi Arabia had already paid Jimmy Hill – broadcaster, Coventry City chairman, ex-player and self-styled football visionary – a princely £25 million to work his magic, but they had even bigger plans for their vacant managerial position. 

Indeed, Saudi Arabia’s quest for overnight football success in the 1970s was even more quixotic than their 2020s pursuit of Newcastle United. The kingdom had banned football until 1951 and introduced a domestic league only as late as 1976. 

As Hill later wrote: “The thought was that an inspirational coach, manager or messiah might help them to move up the football ladder in double-quick time.”

Featured in the latest issue of FourFourTwo, available to buy, Saudi Arabia hadn’t yet competed in their first international tournament when they were courting Paisley, Robson and Clough. Hungarian legend Ferenc Puskas had already managed the nation in 1975 with little success, and left after just a year in charge. 

With their first international tournament still to come, at the 1984 Asian Cup, Saudi Arabia tried to expedite this process - as Hill suggests - by trying to appeal to the triumvirate of successful British coaches.

Paisley, Robson and Clough were all shortlisted to replace Englishman Bill McGarry, but, considering their success at their respective clubs, none left for the Middle East. Saudi Arabia did manage to appoint an Englishman as their next manager, though, with Ronnie Allen taking over. 

English managers Danny Allison and David Woodfield were the next two bosses in charge of the nation after Allen, signalling an end to the Saudis’ experiment. 

In fact, all Saudi Arabia needed to reach their first aforementioned tournament was Mario Zagallo - the 1970 World Cup winning Brazilian manager. Zagallo is just one of three people, along with Franz Beckenbauer and Didier Deschamps, to have won the World Cup as both a player and a manager - Zagallo lifted the Jules Rimet Trophy in both 1958 and 1962.

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