In 1977, Bob Paisley had just won the first of three European Cups with Liverpool; Bobby Robson’s classy 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 further incredible success with their respective clubs, but their careers could all have taken a different turn had they taken up an offer from Saudi Arabia to become their national team manager.
With wealth to match their ambition, Saudi Arabia had already paid Jimmy Hill – broadcaster, Coventry City chairman, ex-player and self-proclaimed 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 quest for Newcastle United in 2020. The kingdom had banned football until 1951 and did not introduce a national league until 1976 .
As Hill later wrote, “The thought was that an inspiring coach, manager or messiah could help them move up the football ladder twice as fast.”
Featured in the latest issue of FourFourTwo, available to purchase, Saudi Arabia had not yet entered their first international tournament as they courted Paisley, Robson and Clough. Hungarian legend Ferenc Puskas had already led the country in 1975 with little success and left after only a year in charge.
With their first international tournament yet to come, at the 1984 Asian Cup, Saudi Arabia sought to speed up this process – as Hill suggests – by calling on the triumvirate of successful British coaches.
Paisley, Robson and Clough were all shortlisted to replace Englishman Bill McGarry, but given their success at their respective clubs, none left for the Middle East. Saudi Arabia did manage to appoint an Englishman as their next manager, with Ronnie Allen taking over.
England managers Danny Allison and David Woodfield were the next two bosses in charge of the country after Allen, ending the Saudis’ experiment.
In fact, all it took for Saudi Arabia to reach their first aforementioned tournament was Mario Zagallo – the Brazilian manager who won the World Cup in 1970. Zagallo is only one of three people, along with Franz Beckenbauer and Didier Deschamps, to have won the World Cup as both player and manager – Zagallo won the Jules Rimet Trophy in both 1958 and 1962.
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