There will come a day when Sir Alex Ferguson’s name is associated not with Manchester United’s dug-out, but the North Stand at Old Trafford. It may not be in the coming summer, nor perhaps until the 70-year-old Scot is carried from the Theatre of Dreams in a box, but a change, as Sam Cooke once promised, is gonna come.
United’s stability under Ferguson, driven by the Scot’s obsessive-compulsive requirement for total control, is an outlier in football, where the average tenure of a Premier League manager is just 24 months. Moreover, the trend is increasingly away from the dictatorial model practiced in Manchester.
Yet, overseas owners at Chelsea and Liverpool will be looking enviously at Old Trafford as a model for storied and stable success as those clubs reach out to the market for new managers this summer.
But one day soon David Gill and the Glazer family will go through the same process now underway at Anfield and Stamford Bridge, of recruiting not only Ferguson’s successor, but the quality of manager demanded by a club of United’s stature. Yet, true to United’s cloak and dagger modus operandi it is highly unlikely that the club will hold any formal search, selection and interview the process for the role.
Indeed, football is one of the few industries remaining where senior executives are appointed, frequently on multi-million pound contracts, and then given even larger capex budgets, without any hint of due diligence. In other industries people would, quite literally, go to prison for the crass neglect of fiduciary duty.
Contrast this approach with the typical Fortune 500, or other large corporation, where an executive can expect to beat off potentially hundreds of candidates through a four or five round interview process, technical exercises and psychometric, intelligence, mathematics, language and logic testing. Often this process involves both interviews by the corporation’s board, executive management and outside consultants.
Even known candidates, whose track record is not in doubt, can still expect a due diligence process if only to ensure cultural fit at the highest levels of management.
Yet, football is an industry that is “different” Rant was told by one experienced journalist today; a sector where fickle fans, apparently, will not accept that there should be a process for finding the best candidate, leaving owners to appoint on a wing and a prayer. It is, of course, rank nonsense that helps explain the criminal failure rate of football management appointments.
No surprise, then, with the mocking tone of media coverage of Liverpool’s search and selection process for Kenny Dalglish’s successor at Anfield. Fenway Sports Group, led by Boston Red Sox’ owner John W Henry, has drawn up a long-list of candidates, including André Villas-Boas, Pep Guardiola, Didier Deschamps, Brendan Rodgers and Roberto Martínez whom, prudently, they would like to interview for the post.
Burned by Dalglish, an employee who spent more than £100 million on new players, but whose track record includes just two trophies in the past 20 years, FSG has set about deepening the due diligence process this time around. It is surely a sensible move.
To put Dalglish’s failure in context, while the Scot’s wages were around £4 million per annum, his spending was more than 50 per cent of Liverpool’s annual revenues. This is akin to newly IPO’d Facebook offering a new employee $2 billion to spend on whatever they want, and then Mark Zuckerberg complaining that HR hadn’t interviewed anybody else for the role.
Similarly at Aston Villa, who informally interviewed Ole Gunnar Solskjaer on Friday, Randy Lerner is seeking to cast the net wide to find not only the best candidate, but the man who will fit with the ethos and philosophy of the owner, staff and players. Solskjaer is not the only candidate, with Lerner undertaking a process, not simply appointing the latest hot thing.
Yet, there is still shock in the British media that FSG should want to break with football’s traditional method of appointing managers on a nod and a wink. Managers – ‘the most important employee at a football club’ – Rant was told, do not like to be interviewed because it undermines their current position. The heart bleeds that football clubs are, apparently, simply unable to recruit in the normal fashion, behind closed doors, and with a sensible level of due diligence.
Meanwhile, in the capital Roman Abramovich will likely continue the model that has served Chelsea poorly since Jose Mourinho’s departure. On each occasion Abramovich has anointed the new man seemingly on a whim – either through personal friendship, or in the case of the aforementioned Villas-Boas, because the Portuguese was the latest ‘hot thing’ on the market. The last mistake cost the Russian oligarch nearly £30 million, and his team a place in next year’s Champions League.
Which is all the more worrying when United comes round to replacing Ferguson. After all, while we know much about Mourinho, Solskjaer, and even David Moyes on a superficial basis, United’s senior executives will have little insight on a personal level. Not so much the blind leading the blind into a new era, as the partially sighted hoping that the light ahead is the end of the tunnel, and not a train wreck waiting to happen.
It’s precisely why FSG, despite the monumental mishandling of Liverpool’s transfer, communications and marketing strategy over the past 12 months, is now doing the right thing. Football industry be dammed, it’s better to get the right man, despite the negative headlines, than appoint another ill-fitting candidate on little-to-no information.
And while United fans may snigger at Swansea manager Rodgers turning down, on Friday, an interview with Liverpool, it may be best to remember that old Cooke refrain: change is gonna come. The question is, how will United manage its way through?