Heard the one about the 22 Englishmen, six Scotsmen, the Frenchman and the Portuguese?

AS the Premier League season heads towards an exciting climax – arguably the most gripping since Michael Thomas galloped through the heart of the Liverpool defence on May 26, 1989 – it’s worth remembering that, despite its cosmopolitan values, English football remains one of the tightest closed shops in the sporting world.

For all the numbers of international star players who now strut their stuff, in the 63 years of the post-war game only two non-British managers have managed to breach the citadel of Albion by overseeing their teams to win the league championship.

Even that is a relatively recent phenomenon. Arsène Wenger, who was famously parodied as “Arsène Who” in London’s Evening Standard when he arrived from Nagoya Grampus Eight in 1996, became the first non-Brit to lift the title when Arsenal did the Double a year later. He was followed, seven years afterwards, as if we would be allowed to forget it, by the second, José Mourinho. And that’s it.

There is frequent moaning in England about the lack of opportunities for British managers and it is true that no Englishman has won the league title since Howard Wilkinson achieved it with a limited and forgettable Leeds United.

But the truth is that the victory procession is historically dominated by homegrown coaches commencing with Liverpool’s George Kay in the first season after the Second World War.

Kay was a remarkable template for the modern manager. Born in Manchester, he moved to the Belfast club Distillery and played for them before the outbreak of the First World War when he transferred to the Royal Artillery and was captain of West Ham for the first ever cup final at Wembley – the ‘White Horse’ final – in 1923. He became manager of Liverpool in 1936 and included among his early signings two players who were to make a major impact upon the club in different ways... the legendary goalscoring winger Billy Liddell, and a rugged young wing-half from amateur club Bishop Auckland. His name was Bob Paisley.

From Kay you can trace a long list of distinguished, but unlikely, coaches who have lifted the biggest football prize in English football. Arsenal’s George Allison was the first, and last, journalist to lead a team to the title. He made his way to the hot seat at Highbury’s marble halls via the post of greyhound correspondent with The Sporting Life, commentator for BBC radio, and then – you have to pinch yourself to appreciate the engaging amateurishness of this – he replaced the legendary Herbert Chapman after a spell as the club’s programme editor.

The Irish and the Welsh are notably absent from the list of honours and currently there are only eight coaches with Republic of Ireland international connections in charge of any football league team – Mick McCarthy, Owen Coyle, Roy Keane, Gary Waddock, Chris Hughton, John Sheridan and Sean O’Driscoll.

The only Irish manager who has come near to lifting the title since 1945 was Dublin’s former Manchester United captain Johnny Carey who in 1961 guided Everton to fifth place, then their best post-war finish, before being sacked in the back of a taxi by director John Moores. The following year, with the bulk of Carey’s team still in place, including Golden Vision Alex Young, and Welsh international Roy Vernon, Everton won the championship by six points. Carey went on to do even better in 1967 when he guided Nottingham Forest to second place behind Manchester United.

But if Ireland and Wales have never produced a winner in England, there is one Celtic nation which has more than outpunched its weight at managerial level, Scotland. There may have only been six separate Tartan winners since 1945 – Matt Busby, Bill Shankly, Dave Mackay, Kenny Dalglish, George Graham, and Alex Ferguson – but between them they have garnered in 25 league trophies in 63 years. Only Bob Paisley, with six titles, can separate the Manchester United duo and the three titles of Dalglish and Shankly are only equalled by Stan Cullis of Wolves and Wenger.

Ferguson is, of course, the Toruk Makto of the Premier League and his capering around the touchline of Eastlands after 92 minutes and 48 seconds of action on Saturday rolled back the years for sport’s sprightliest 68-year-old. Manchester United have now got their full war paint back on after a dismal month. Meanwhile, further south, a 50-year-old Italian is sleepwalking towards May 9. For April Fool’s Day, Chelsea’s players bought Carlo Ancelotti a pair of pebbledash spectacles of the kind favoured by the short-sighted Mr Magoo in a practical joke which seems by the day to be more pointed than it momentarily appeared at the time. Whether or not Ancelotti can stagger over the finishing line in first place is an intriguing issue to be settled in the next fortnight. But you’ve got to admit that, as the marketing people might say, it will improve the demographic.

And take a record away before Fabio Capello starts considering the succession at Old Trafford.

Contact: allan.prosser@examiner.ie

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