Football Features

The nine managers who completed the European ‘continental treble’

By Mohamed Moallim

Published: 12:00, 11 June 2023

Football is ultimately about winning medals and since the beautiful game turned professional, no fewer than nine managers at the highest level across Europe have completed a clean sweep in any given season.

By simultaneously clinching a league title, top-tier domestic cup and European Cup you achieve what is known as a ‘continental treble’. It was a rare feat in the 20th century, occurring four times between 1967 and 1999, in the last 13 years we’ve seen it happen on five separate occasions.

Interestingly, Real Madrid, who have dominated the Champions League scene, have never managed to claim a treble in their illustrious history. The same goes for AC Milan and Liverpool as well. As follows are the coaches who have done so and those seven teams who sit in this exclusive club.

1. Jock Stein (Celtic)

Season: 1966/67

Competitions: Scottish Football League, Scottish Cup, European Cup

Britain’s first European Cup success also happened to be the first treble winners. During the 1966/67 campaign, Celtic were a force of nature, lifting every prize in their path — including the Scottish League Cup, extending this to a ‘quadruple’ — but it was their exploits in Europe which made Jock Stein’s side legendary. Each and every one of those players that faced Inter Milan in the Lisbon final were born within 30 miles of Celtic Park, the 2-1 success immortalised them as the ‘Lisbon Lions’ and it would be the club’s finest hour.

Stein never stopped winning, lifting eight more league titles before joining Leeds United for a brief spell, while his final job was managing Scotland’s national team. Unfortunately, following a 1-1 draw against Wales at Ninian Park, he would pass away in September 1985 after suffering a heart attack. This untimely death had a profound effect on Sir Alex Ferguson, who served as Stein’s right-hand man. Ferguson, who made his name coaching Aberdeen to unprecedented successes, was appointed interim manager but disappointed at the 1986 World Cup — he’d join Manchester United soon after and the rest is history.

2. Stefan Kovacs (Ajax)

Season: 1971/72

Competitions: Eredivisie, KNVB Cup, European Cup

Celtic could never quite build on their continental success and create a dynasty, something Ajax managed in the early 1970s. After breaking through at Wembley in 1971 under spiritual manager Rinus Michels, successor Stefan Kovacs took everything to another level. Johan Cruyff was in his pomp and bagged a brace to successfully defend their crown at Inter Milan’s expense. Ajax’s triumph in Rotterdam was seen by many as “total football”, extinguishing the scourge of catenaccio.

Kovacs’ side was near unbeatable and suffered just one loss all season (3-2 against Go Ahead Eagles). They would make it three on the bounce the following season but by then, cracks were starting to appear. The side ultimately broke apart and Kovacs moved on. He’d go on to manage the French national team before taking the reins of his native Romania. His final managerial spells were at Panathinaikos and Monaco.

3. Guus Hiddink (PSV)

Season: 1987/88

Competitions: Eredivisie, KNVB Cup, European Cup

As the 80s progressed, it was becoming increasingly clear that Ajax and, to a lesser extent, Feyenoord were top dogs of Dutch football. However, smart investment and recruitment saw PSV stake a claim and they soon began racking up championships. Guus Hiddink’s arrival in 1987 was a turning point and within that first season, he’d won it all, including the European Cup in unique fashion. From the quarter-final onwards they never won a game: De Boeren respectively drew 1-1 on the road against Bordeaux and Real Madrid while holding both to a goalless draw at home, before defeating Benfica on penalties in Stuttgart.

Hiddink’s stock understandably grew, winning two more league titles, before embarking on a worldwide managerial tour which included coaching five different national sides (the Netherlands, South Korea, Australia, Russia and Turkey), with three of those at the World Cup finals — most remarkably guiding South Korea to a semi-final berth in 2002. At club level, there was a mixed spell at Real Madrid and two interim periods in charge of Chelsea, where he came agonisingly close to reaching yet another European Cup final.

4. Alex Ferguson (Man Utd)

Season: 1998/99

Competitions: Premier League, FA Cup, UEFA Champions League

The first six-years of Ferguson’s spell in charge of Manchester United were frustrating, which led to a section of supporters calling for his resignation. The powers that be kept the faith and he repaid them in more ways than one. Ferguson turned United into English football’s first among equals, but they couldn’t quite crack Europe, falling at several hurdles. But that breakthrough eventually came in dramatic fashion when the Red Devils overturned Bayern Munich in the 1999 final.

Heading into the final seconds, the German powerhouse held a 1-0 lead, but in a blink of an eye, Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer gave Ferguson his ultimate dream. Man Utd kept winning in the ensuing years, but it felt another European triumph wasn’t coming. However, less than a decade after that night in Barcelona, there was another Champions League medal to be placed around Ferguson’s neck. Cristiano Ronaldo and company were one FA Cup success away from giving Man Utd another treble.

5. Pep Guardiola (Barcelona and Man City)

Season: 2008/09

Competitions: La Liga, Copa del Rey, UEFA Champions League

A year after beating Chelsea in Moscow on penalties, Man Utd were back at it again, but they couldn’t have faced a worse opponent. Barcelona, who had won their second European Cup three years prior, were playing scintillating football under a former captain and nobody could keep up. What made all of this impressive was a year prior, Pep Guardiola sat in their ‘B’ team dugout — nobody foresaw his appointment, let alone the immediate success.

The disciple of Johan Cruyff set about reinventing the game and more trophies followed — including a second European Cup, again beating Man Utd — as well as at future clubs Bayern Munich and Manchester City, where he became the first manager of an English side to lift a domestic treble of Premier League, FA Cup and League Cup titles.

Season: 2022/23

Competitions: Premier League, FA Cup, UEFA Champions League

His unrelenting success continued when Guardiola became the first manager ever to win a league, cup and European Cup treble with two different clubs. City first reeled in Arsenal who ultimately set a new record for spending most days on top of the Premier League title without winning it. A first-ever Manchester derby at Wembley followed, now remembered as the Gundogan final, before a date with Inter Milan in Istanbul. Gundogan’s midfield partner Rodri sealed the win and historic treble.

6. Jose Mourinho (Inter Milan)

Season: 2009/10

Competitions: Serie A, Coppa Italia, UEFA Champions League

Very few have made a grander entrance than Jose Mourinho when he led an unfancied FC Porto side to Champions League glory in 2004. This earned him a big move to Chelsea where he set about establishing himself as Europe’s premier coach. That image was maintained at Inter Milan where he ended the club’s 45-year wait for European Cup success a season after Guardiola wowed purists.

Inter were too much for their Serie A rivals and Bayern felt their wrath in Madrid with the game seeing Mourinho face Louis van Gaal, whom he assisted during their period together at Barcelona. To date, that victory remains Mourinho’s last Champions League win, but since then, the Portuguese tactician continues to do things his way, and from next season he will be found guiding Roma after leaving Tottenham Hotspur.

7. Jupp Heynckes (Bayern Munich)

Season: 2012/13

Competitions: Bundesliga, DFB-Pokal, UEFA Champions League

Mourinho wasn’t able to lift the big one at Real Madrid, something you couldn’t say of Jupp Heynckes, though he didn’t last in the job after winning the club’s seventh European Cup title. 1998 wasn’t on his mind when he inspired Bayern Munich to a fifth crown at Jurgen Klopp and Borussia Dortmund’s expense.

It was an emotional night at Wembley as it was meant to be his final game in charge, but the German coach would soon return following Carlo Ancelotti’s dismissal a few years later. He’s now happily retired after cementing his place in club folklore, but you just never know.

8. Luis Enrique (Barcelona)

Season: 2014/15

Competitions: La Liga, Copa del Rey, UEFA Champions League

Much like his former teammate Guardiola, Luis Enrique tasted unprecedented success in his first season as Barcelona manager. Given the plethora of talent at his disposal, anything less would arguably be sackable.

Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar were giving opposition defenders nightmares while Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets were still cool, calm and collected. He’d last for two more seasons before taking a sabbatical which ended when the Spanish national team came knocking.

9. Hans-Dieter Flick (Bayern Munich)

Season: 2019/20

Competitions: Bundesliga, DFB-Pokal, UEFA Champions League

Sometimes it’s about being in the right place at the right time. Niko Kovac losing the confidence of Bayern’s first-team players enabled the appointment of his assistant, Hans-Dieter Flick, to an interim managerial role. More often than not, this sort of managerial switch leads to an uptick in performance and, indeed, the Bavarians surged upwards. They were unrelenting, especially with Robert Lewandowski playing like a man possessed up-front.

Another Bundesliga championship followed before Bayer Leverkusen felt their wrath in the DFB-Pokal final, leaving only Paris Saint-Germain standing in their way. A closely fought game saw former PSG academy graduate Kingsley Coman make all the difference.