Shadow looms large as Fergie eyes future role

February 20, 2012 Tags: , , Opinion 13 comments

There is little news in Sir Alex Ferguson’s admission on Monday that he intends to stay “two or three more years” as Manchester United manager. Ferguson, on a rolling contract, has long since given up setting a deadline for retirement, with manager and Old Trafford hierarchy content with the current arrangement. But Ferguson’s assertion – in a BBC radio interview with Liverpool-supporting DJ Spoony – that a role will be waiting for him at Old Trafford, once the 70-year-old steps down, recalls memories of the disastrous transition from Sir Matt Busby to Wilf McGuinness and then Frank O’Farrell in the early 1970s.

The smart money is now on Ferguson stepping down in 2013, even if the heavy smoke signals point towards a year thence. After all, nobody in the Old Trafford boardroom wants a repeat of 2002, when Ferguson’s squad took its collective foot off the gas after the United manager had announced his impending retirement that January. This time Ferguson’s departure will come as far ‘out of the blue’ as the Scot and chief executive David Gill can manage in a world of 24 hour rolling news.

While, a move upstairs into an ambassadorial role, or something further up the executive food-chain, is not contradictory to previous Ferguson assertions, the precise role requires close definition. After all, while Ferguson’s wealth of knowledge is unsurpassed, his shadow will loom large for whomever becomes the Scot’s replacement in the Old Trafford dugout. Yet, in Monday’s BBC interview Ferguson promises to remain “active” in a role reserve for him by United post retirement. Quite how active may determine his successor’s success – or failure.

“I will remain active,” Ferguson told Spoony.

“I think there will be a role at United after I finish, obviously. I don’t know how long it’s going to last now, but if my health holds up I don’t see another two or three years would harm me. I think you need stamina in my job and I think I’ve been blessed with good stamina. I’ll know when it’s time when I’m not enjoying it. I think if I got to a point where I’m not enjoying it, I would definitely get out. I think you always want to go out on a winning note and hopefully we can do that.

“Players ask how long I’ll be around. They all do that or their agent asks the chief executive, David Gill. That becomes more difficult the longer it goes on, of course. I answer it the way David answers it and he says I have no intention of retiring at the moment, therefore it’s not a question we can answer because we don’t know.”

But transition will come and there is, of course, a clear lesson in United’s failure to manage the transition away from Sir Matt. McGuinness’ short tenure as United Head Coach was doomed from the start, with Busby retaining an Old Trafford office as General Manager, and the players looking to the long-time United boss for leadership, rather than the inexperienced 31-year-old. Busby’s return for 21 games in the second half of 1970-71 simply underlined that ‘Old Man’ had not fully stepped down.

Worse was to come, with new recruit O’Farrell seemingly undermined from the start of his appointment as manager in 1971. Busby had led negotiations with the then Leicester City manager, setting the tone for a relationship not bourne of equality. While O’Farrell removed Busby from the Old Trafford manager’s office, he would later complain that his predecessor repeatedly interfered in team matters.

“He was always about somewhere where the players could find him,” O’Farrell complained in a recent Daily Mail interview.

“After one game, he told me I shouldn’t have dropped Bobby Charlton. Obviously he said the same to Charlton, because the player was moping round the place. Another time he told me Martin Buchan was responsible for letting in all these goals, when it clearly wasn’t his fault. He was interfering.

“Alex will leave the club in a much better place than Busby did. All the basics for continued success will be in place. He’ll make sure of that. If [the new man] wins, everything will be fine. But I can tell him this: the moment he starts losing, then the comparison with Alex will start.”

Few expect Ferguson to actively undermine his successor, but a public facing United role will do that anyway. Any move into the Old Trafford boardroom will ensure that Ferguson’s successor is permanently looking over his shoulder, with a squad of Ferguson’s players questioning the new man’s capacity to lead.

Meanwhile, an ambassadorial position is unlikely to satiate Ferguson’s thirst for a daily football fix. One wonders how a media facing role will suit the 70-year-old Scot, who has spent the best part of 25 years at war with the fourth estate, although cynics might suggest Fergie has spent the past six as an ambassador the Glazer family anyway. Rant couldn’t possibly comment.

Then there is the question of whether Ferguson and his board define the post-Fergie era in the same way. Sir Alex has previously offered mixed messages on his post managerial role, promising in 2007 that he would not “take up a director of football type role” or “have any input on the football side,” and only last year promising to cut himself off from football altogether and “head for the hills and the sunset.”

But if he is to remain with United, Ferguson’s post retirement role will also be largely defined by whomever Gill and the Glazers appoint. José Mourinho, for example, is not universally supported in the Old Trafford boardroom, but is unlikely to be dissuaded from engaging in Machiavellian tactics if he is not proffered full control. One need only witness the Portuguese’s victorious power struggle with now former Real Madrid Director General Jorge Valdano for evidence.

At the other end of the spectrum, should United appoint a far younger man – Ole Gunnar Solskjaer or Ryan Giggs, for example – it is hard to envisage Ferguson’s name being far from the players’ minds. Or speed-dial.

In the meantime Mourinho will flutter his eyes towards Old Trafford, while the Scot ponders the future. Friendly as the pair remain, Mourinho is unlikely to accept anything other than Ferguson working in a ceremonial role. The question remains, with the Portuguese odds-on favourite to take over, whether that will be enough for Fergie?


sheesh - February 20, 2012 Reply

Fergie admitted in the same interview that he could have landed Joe Hart for £100,000. I can’t believe we missed out on such a promising keeper. We got Ben Foster instead.

I’m a big fan of Joe Hart. He has this air of assuredness (cockiness?) which I like. He would have been a magnificent signing for us.

I’ve said it time and time again: you can have all the ability in the world, but if you don’t have the temperament that comes with being the no.1 at United, you’re of no use to us. I believe Hart has the right temperament.

TheCantona - March 7, 2012 Reply

u win some u lose some. citeh also could have welbeck and sturridge for nothing but they let them away.

Alfonso Bedoya - February 20, 2012 Reply

I honestly can’t face the idea of United, post Ferguson, as long as the Glazers are still in charge.

Does anyone actually think Mourinho and the Glazers have any chance of working together?… Bollocks.

Any manager appointed by the Glazers, is sure to spoil my enjoyment of the game even more than they already have.

dozer - February 20, 2012 Reply

If Mourinho or whoever the next manager is wanted Fergie out of any influence then the new manager will have my full support. Like Fergie says, ‘the manager is the most important man in the club’ and it should stay that way.
In fact I’d like it if the new manager wanted Fergie out of the way. Once Fergie leaves the post, he ought to compeltely cut off any managerial ties IMO and move on. The new manager must get a fully fresh start. We’ll struggle with the sudden change in environment of course, but it’ll come good in a matter of time.
Fergie started off looking at the club with a clean slate to fill, so should the new manager.

Sir Ryan Giggs? No no no. Sir Paul Scholes say.

sidney - February 21, 2012 Reply

If they give him a bullshit Chief Footballing Consultant role then he’ll undermine whoever takes the job
The press will run & run with the narrative, especially if he attends the games, and we’ll get no end of shots of him after ever substitution etc.
I’d rather he be at the end of the phone and occasionally in the spa at Carrington than anything major. Let the new manager work

sidney - February 21, 2012 Reply

That is a class interview, surprisingly candid
The story about Big Sam and the wine, haha

kramer - February 21, 2012 Reply

sounds to me like a terrible idea, fergie hanging around.

Dinkinflicker - February 21, 2012 Reply

The only way i’d see Fergie being around the building as an asset would be if the speculation over Scholes/Giggs taking over was true.

Anyone else would have to show some balls from the outset by laying down the law and demanding that Fergie keep well away. Otherwise it’d be like the Mourinho effect at Chelsea x10.

I agree with Alf – I dread the day Fergie walks away if the Glazers are still here. I genuinely believe that the single biggest reason he’s still here is because he didn’t want to hand over to anyone else with that lot in charge, despite his public support for them.

Brown man - February 21, 2012 Reply

I’d believe that, if he keeps well dv, he’ll be manager ’til 2014. He won’t give an imminent date – if he were to say ‘We’ll see’ to the question of retirement it’d be as close as you’d get to an announcement. Thou knowest not the day nor the hour etc.
He’ll have his successor handle the Glazers the way he did.

19 and Counting - February 22, 2012 Reply

Brown man, what if the Glazers ruin our great club by the time the new manager takes over? I hope the Glazers will sell the club and we get new owners who won’t place so much debt onto the club. People are happy atm but things could change in a heartbeat. The latest financial reports are discouraging.

dws - February 22, 2012 Reply

the glazers are on a good run at the moment with everything going their way, when Fergie leaves sooner rather than later that will totally change the dynamics of the place. Throw in Gill who could move to the FA ( although in what role God only knows ) and you will have a different scenario completely. I love manchester United, loathe the glazers and there will come a time when things will go against the scum from Florida and it will all come to a head -PLEASE

19 and Counting - February 22, 2012 Reply

Commenter said:
the glazers are on a good run at the moment with everything going their way, when Fergie leaves sooner rather than later that will totally change the dynamics of the place. Throw in Gill who could move to the FA ( although in what role God only knows ) and you will have a different scenario completely. I love manchester United, loathe the glazers and there will come a time when things will go against the scum from Florida and it will all come to a head -PLEASE

Yep, there’s no doubting United will go through a bad patch in the future. So far we’re still hanging in there but for how long? I worry for our club when SAF retires and class players like Scholes and Giggs are gone and all we have left is a lot of debt and a lot of mediocrity on the pitch. If the Glazers stay, we’re pooched.

Gopher Brown - February 22, 2012 Reply

@19 and Counting

We aren’t necessarily going to have to endure a hard patch under the Glazers. It’s plainly clear that their ownership of the club is entirely dependent on the club’s success, and any period of more than a couple of years without a major success would make their entire ownership venture unprofitable and therefore unmanageable.

While we continue to get results on the budgeting constraints we have the Glazers will rein, as soon as it starts to drop off, the transfer fund will increase to avert disaster. If the bad times continued they would be forced to sell.

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