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What happens when the game is up for football's empire-builders?

As Arsène Wenger is discovering, even the greatest managers run out of time when the victories stop coming

In the wake of Arsenal's humbling at Old Trafford the bookies priced the possibility of Arsène Wenger exiting before the end of the season at 5-2. Within the hour that price was slashed to 6-4. Unthinkable? No more than when Bill Nicholson quit Tottenham, or Jock Stein was fired by Celtic.

Nicholson, Tottenham's most successful manager, had been at White Hart Lane for 16 years when he decided to quit. Spurs had lost the opening four games and Nicholson was disenchanted with the modern game, but it was still a shock given he had just taken the team to a second successive Uefa Cup final. Bill Shankly's departure from Liverpool was so unexpected assistant Ronnie Moran thought a Liverpool Echo billboard advertising the fact was a joke.

Every managerial era ends, and not all have the luxury of choosing the date. Stein was part of the fabric at Celtic Park yet when he failed to maintain his unprecedented success he was brusquely axed with no apparent thought for allowing him to rebuild. The same applied to Stan Cullis, the man who presided over Wolves' greatest years. Here there are similarities with Wenger. He had gone four years' without a trophy and his critics charged that he had persisted with a particular style of play, which he was closely associated with, for too long. His dismissal was still so unexpected the Daily Mirror gave it equal billing with news a General Election had been called.

Will Wenger be fired? Will he quit? Neither scenario is likely, but such history shows there are precedents. Arsenal are under the control of an absentee American whose opinions on most things remain unknown. Wenger is stubborn, resistant to being told what to do – by media, fans or Stan Kroenke, and not short of alternatives. What he will not do is retire. Nicholson and Shankly both regretted that and they were younger than Wenger. What strikes the modern observer is how young these men were when they left their great post: Cullis was 48, Stein 51, Nicholson 55, Shankly, like Sir Matt Busby, 60. Compare that with Sir Alex Ferguson, 70 this year and still re-inventing the team.

If there is a change at the Emirates the next manager would have the difficult task of winning over the young men Wenger has nurtured, but at least he would not be taking over an ageing team as the successors to Busby and Don Revie did. When an era ends it usually does so in tears, for the club, the leaving manager, or both. Only Bob Paisley and Liverpool appear to have managed the transition to mutual satisfaction. Emulating that will be the challenge for Arsenal and Wenger, if not now, then eventually; and one day for Manchester United and Ferguson, too.

The great managers... and how it ended

Sir Matt Busby
Club Manchester United
Seasons 23 (1946-1969)
Honours Football League (5), FA Cup (3), European Cup
Reason he left, and age Retired, 60
Trophy-less seasons at end 1

Busby laid the foundations for United's global allure, overcoming the 1958 Munich disaster to win the European Cup in 1968. However, his retirement caused problems. Key players were ageing and his continuing presence made things difficult for successors. Though Busby had a six-month spell in charge in 1970-71, United were relegated in 1974.

Brian Clough
Club Nottingham Forest
Seasons 19 (1975-1993)
Honours Football League, League Cup (4), European Cup (2)
Reason he left, and age Retired, 58
Trophy-less seasons at end 3

Clough had already won the title at Derby when he arrived at a second provincial club and made them the best in Europe. Then he split with sidekick and his talent-spotter Peter Taylor. With transfer coups dwindling, subsequent successes were rare and the final season ended in relegation as Clough battled alcoholism. Forest subsequently became a yo-yo club.

Stan Cullis
Club Wolverhampton Wanderers
Seasons 16 (1948-1964)
Honours Football League (3), FA Cup (2)
Reason he left, and age Sacked, 48
Trophy-less seasons at end 4

Cullis became manager at 33 and revolutionised Wolves with a brand of attacking, direct football. A visionary, he pioneered floodlit matches against Continental opposition leading to the European Cup. All three of Wolves' league titles came under him but he was fired after an 18-month dip in results. In 47 years since, Wolves have won two League Cups.

Bill Nicholson
Club Tottenham
Seasons 16 (1958-1974)
Honours Football League, FA Cup (3), League Cup (2), European Cup-Winners' Cup, Uefa Cup
Reason he left, and age Resigned, 55
Trophy-less seasons at end 1

Nicholson, who joined Spurs at 15 and lived around the corner from White Hart Lane, steered them to the Double and success in Europe. After a poor start to the 1974-75 season he resigned citing an estrangement from the "long-haired" players, his disenchantment increased by rioting in Rotterdam involving Spurs and Feyenoord fans.

Don Revie
Club Leeds United
Seasons 13 (March 1961- July 1974)
Honours Football League (2), FA Cup (2), League Cup, Inter-Cities Fairs Cup (2)
Reason he left, and age Joined England, 50
Trophy-less seasons at end 0

Hauled Leeds from the Second Division to European finals, though not without creating enemies for the way the team played in the late Sixties. He treated his players like family but this left a difficult legacy for his successors, notably Clough, as his reluctance to replace them meant the squad had grown old together.

Bill Shankly
Club Liverpool
Seasons 15 (1959-1974)
Honours Football League (3), FA Cup (2), Uefa Cup
Reason he left, and age Retired, 60
Trophy-less seasons at end 0

Created a dynasty at Liverpool, rescuing the club from the Second Division, winning domestic titles, and building the foundations for Paisley to conquer Europe. Quit because he felt "tired" but regretted it. After Liverpool asked him to stop "hanging around" Melwood, he spent a frustrated retirement watching Everton train.

George Graham

Club: Arsenal

Seasons: 10 (1986-1995)

Honours: Football League (2), FA Cup (2), League Cup, European Cup-Winners’ Cup

Reason he left, and age: Sacked, 51

Trophy-less seasons at end: 0

Graham steered Arsenal to their first titles since he played in 1971, but the team looked in need of rejuvenating when he was implicated in the ‘bungs’ scandal. Arsenal, without a home win in four months, fired him. Arsene Wenger, with Graham's defence as a platform, achieved even greater success while Graham managed Leeds and Spurs to limited effect.

Bob Paisley

Club: Liverpool

Seasons: 9 (1974-1983)

Honours: Football League (6), League Cup (3), European Cup (3), Uefa Cup

Reason he left, and age: Retired, 64

Trophy-less seasons at end: 0

Paisley, just three days older than Nicholson, began management the year he quit. Had been Shankly’s assistant and replaced him reluctantly but proceeded to lead Liverpool to even greater heights. He stepped down voluntarily leaving a well-oiled combination of staff and team, which he quietly advised as it continued winning.

Jock Stein

Club: Celtic

Seasons: 14 (1965-1978)

Honours: Scottish League (10), Scottish Cup (8), Scottish League Cup (6), European Cup

Reason he left, and age: Sacked, 55

Trophy-less seasons at end: 1

Won nine titles in a row, plus the European Cup, but a car crash in 1975 seemed to affect his leadership. After two trophy-less seasons in three, the board asked him to step aside. Celtic won three of the next four titles, but then took two of 15. Stein, rejecting a job with Celtic Pools, managed Leeds, then Scotland, dying mid-match of a heart-attack in 1985.

Featured are post-war managers who combined success and longevity at the highest level. Only major trophies included.

And... Arsène Wenger?
Club Arsenal
Seasons 15 (1996-)
Honours Premier League (3), FA Cup (4)
Age 61
Trophy-less seasons 6