The surprising story of successful caretaker managers in football | Soccer

NOTFew beyond Aston Villa staff would have heard of Aaron Danks before he took over from Steven Gerrard last week. After a dismal 3-0 loss to Fulham, Danks was put in charge and had just two days to prepare for a meeting with another west London side. Villa win 4-0 over Brentford was one of the most prominent examples of a new manager bounce in recent times.

Danks could barely contain his joy at his post-match press conference. “It was a really exciting experience,” he said. “I’m absolutely overwhelmed and exhausted now because it’s been a really tough three days.” His managerial reign ended the next day as Unai Emery has been appointed permanent manager of Villa Park. Danks can walk away with his head held high, with an impressive albeit brief record.

Perhaps Danks was inspired by another Villa keeper who took over the club in 1982 when Ron Saunders jumped ship for local rivals Birmingham City. As Saunders had guided Villa to the Premier League title, the season before his departure was a seismic shock for the club. Villa head scout Tony Barton has been dumped in the management hot seat. Like Danks, Barton inherited a side that had just suffered a heavy 4-1 defeat at Manchester United.

As Barton began his tenure as boss, the champions languished in 15th place, closer to relegation spots than challenge for Europe. Barton led them on a decent run which included taking them to the semi-finals of the European Cup. Once they reached their first-ever semi-final in European competition, Barton was rewarded with a permanent contract and Villa progressed to the final, where they beat Bayern Munich 1-0 thanks to a goal from Peter Withe.

Aston Villa manager Tony Barton holds the European Cup, with captain Dennis Mortimer (left) and goalscorer Peter Withe in May 1982. Photography: PA

Another caretaker manager who rose to European glory was Roberto di Matteo after being placed in caretaker charge at Chelsea when André Villas-Boas was sacked in March 2012. Chelsea were far from the rhythm in the Premier League, but Di Matteo succeeded a remarkable double cut, beating Liverpool in the FA Cup final and winning the club’s first European Cup in defeat Bayern Munich in the final on penalties. Di Matteo was duly given a two-year deal but lasted until November when he was let go after a loss to Juventus in the Champions League.

Danks’ short spell at Villa meant that, for a few days at least, there were three goalkeepers in charge of Premier League clubs. Gary O’Neil had the unenviable task of signing a Bournemouth side who had just suffered the ignominy of a record Premier League defeat after losing 9-0 at Anfield in late August. Prior to their two narrow defeats to Southampton and West Ham recently, Bournemouth had enjoyed a six-match unbeaten run, with two wins and four draws catapulting the club into the top half of the table.

Steve Davis hasn’t had quite the same positive impact at Wolves since step into the shoes of Bruno Lage. But after several managers, including Julen Lopetegui and Michael Beale, turned down the opportunity to take over, Davis and his assistant James Collins received a vote of confidence from Wolves chairman Jeff Shi. “We have complete confidence in their ability and leadership to continue playing their role through the World Cup break and into the new year,” the president said.

Rúben Neves scores from the penalty spot in Wolves' 1-0 win over Nottingham Forest.
Rúben Neves scores from the penalty spot in Wolves’ 1-0 win over Nottingham Forest. Photography: Sam Bagnall/AMA/Getty

Mário Zagallo is undoubtedly the most successful caretaker manager in football history. In March 1970, the Brazilian football confederation decided to replace its coach, João Saldanha, just months before the start of the World Cup in Mexico. Saldanha had led Brazil qualifying easily – they won all six games while scoring 23 and conceding just two – so it had less to do with football and more with politics and a clash of personalities.

Saldanha had become a journalist after his playing years and he was not afraid to make enemies with his former colleagues. At one point, he sought to settle an argument with a former journalist colleague with a loaded gun. The Brazilian confederation assumed that appointing a journalist would make other writers less critical of the team, but that only worked up to a point.

Saldanha’s communist beliefs were not well received by right-wing military dictator Emílio Garrastazu Médici, who wanted to use football to stoke national pride. The manager also fell out with his assistant – who said it was impossible to work with him – and dared to kick Pele out of his squad on the spurious grounds that the player’s eyesight was deteriorating.

Zagallo, who as a player had won the World Cup in 1958 and 1962 alongside Pelé, was not the first choice to replace Saldanha but he ended up getting the job. Zagallo had been the manager of the Botafogo club since 1966, and although he helped the national team as a coach from time to time, he had little international football experience.

He didn’t hesitate to bring his former team-mate Pelé back into the fold and also changed Saldanha’s 4-2-4, opting for a more fluid 4-5-1 that gave the players a bit more freedom. Tostão, Gerson and Jairzinho reveled in the new form and that 1970 Brazil side is widely regarded as the best World Cup side of all time. Their imperious 4-1 victory over Italy in the final is still considered the ultimate win on the international stage. The success culminated in the fourth goal, which validated a performance of grace and technique as Carlos Alberto finished a darted shot into the far corner.

Carlos Alberto scores Brazil's fourth goal in their victory over Italy in the 1970 World Cup final.
Carlos Alberto scores Brazil’s fourth goal in their victory over Italy in the 1970 World Cup final. Photo: Imago Sportfotodienst/PA

Brazil’s third title in four tournaments secured them the Jules Rimet Trophy for good and, becoming the first man to win the World Cup as a player and manager, Zagallo was named permanent manager. With Danks already gone after a match at the helm, it remains to be seen how long Davis or O’Neil will last. They’re unlikely to accomplish as much as their illustrious predecessors, but sometimes a foot in the door is all a new boss needs.

Richard's World Cup Nuggets book is now available.
Richard’s book World Cup nuggets is out now.