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6 club greats who returned as manager... then failed spectacularly

Alan Shearer Newcastle manager

David Unsworth beware: a successful playing career doesn’t always mean you can master it in charge, as these men painfully discovered

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From Zidane at Real Madrid and Guardiola at Barcelona, all the way to Neil Harris at Millwall, sometimes a club legend returning as manager is a feel-good story for player and club. But sometimes, it isn’t.

David Unsworth, who played over 200 games for Everton and won the 1995 FA Cup, takes charge of his first Toffees game tonight – and has said he wants the job full time. These returning greats say he should be careful what he wishes for.

Alan Shearer (Newcastle)

What could possibly go wrong? On April Fool’s Day 2009, Newcastle made the surprise announcement that Alan Shearer would be taking over as manager until the end of the season to try to save the club from relegation, while manager/Bird hunter Joe Kinnear recovered from heart surgery.

Big Al’s legend credentials were unquestionable as the local hero who turned down Manchester United in 1996 to sign with his boyhood club, going on to become the Magpies' all-time record scorer. Yet right from the start, this didn’t click.

Shearer brought relegation specialist Iain Dowie with him as assistant manager, plus all the passion and insight Alan himself brings to the Match of the Day studio. Newcastle took just two points form Shearer’s first five games, before hauling themselves out of the relegation zone with a 3-1 win over Middlesbrough.

Yet the celebratory fence creasoting that Shearer was planning never came to pass: Newcastle lost their last two games 1-0 to Fulham, then Aston Villa, and were relegated. Shearer hasn’t managed since.

Stuart Pearce (Nottingham Forest)

Pearce’s first stint as boss at Forest – the club where he spent 12 years terrifying right-wingers – wasn’t actually too shabby. Made player/manager in 1996 after Frank Clark was fired, Pearce admitted that his first team selection didn’t go too well: he tossed and turned before settling on a final XI, only for his wife to point out that he hadn’t picked a goalkeeper.

Despite this, Pearce beat Arsenal in his first game in charge and was named Premier League Manager of the Month for January. Forest were relegated at the season’s end, but Pearce had stepped back down to the playing ranks by then.

He had a spell managing Manchester City, then as Fabio Cappello’s assistant for England, where we had the indignity of seeing England’s Psycho manhandled by the aged Italian just because he couldn’t get the Capello Index to load on his Nokia (or something). 

Pearce returned as Forest boss in the summer of 2014. Displaying his newfound ability to pick 10 outfield players plus a goalkeeper, he actually won five of his first seven Championship matches – but then it all went wrong. Forest would win just three of their next 21 league matches, exit the FA Cup to Rochdale and Pearce was duly sacked by February.

Gareth Southgate (Middlesbrough)

The first captain to life a major trophy with Boro via the League Cup in 2004, Southgate also led the club to the 2006 UEFA Cup Final, all the while doing that weird post-match elbow-spasm celebration that they go wild for in Yorkshire.

The very season after that UEFA Cup loss to Sevilla, a 35-year-old Southgate was appointed Boro manager to replace Steve McClaren, who was packing his umbrella and heading for the England job. Southgate had some good results early on, including a Middlesbrough 8-1 Manchester City victory, which we’re guessing is a scoreline we won’t be seeing anytime soon.

Yet results slowly worsened during his three full seasons in charge and the club were relegated in 19th place in 2009. After just a few months in the Championship, Southgate was fired. With a club CV like that, it’s easy to see why England are currently overwhelming favourites to lift the World Cup in Russia in 2018 [citation needed].