There is peace even in the storm ― Vincent van Gogh, 3 November 1876
There are times, when chaos abounds, mused Rudyard Kipling in sport’s most over-quoted poem; that those with clarity of thought will come to the forefront at times of crisis. And while Manchester United is in no crisis, it is not yet clear whether the club will emerge from a significant period of change damaged, or otherwise.
Let there be no doubt: United faces the most challenging summer in more than 20 years, with Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure just one of several major changes at the club as the season ends. While Ferguson’s retirement brings to an end more than 26 years of the Scot’s management at Old Trafford, he is also followed out of the door by long-time chief executive and leading ally David Gill, 16 years a United employee. In their wake the pair leaves a raft of changes in both coaching and executive management that will test the club’s contingency planning to the fullest.
Indeed, by the time Ferguson officially departs his job on 1 July four executive positions and a handful of coaching roles will have changed hands at Old Trafford, threatening short-term disruption that could undermine United’s planning for the 2012/13 campaign.
The question, of course: through the whirlwind of change, who will emerge with clear-sight to minimise the impact of transformation?
In Ferguson’s stead comes Everton manager David Moyes, to mixed reception, while youthful Ed Woodward is promoted to executive vice-chairman as Gill’s effective replacement. But the cascade of change runs deep, with Richard Arnold and Michael Bolingbroke also changing roles in the executive team.
Moyes has wasted little time instigating widely rumoured plans to shake up United’s senior coaching staff, leading to the departures of Ferguson’s assistant Mike Phelan, and respected goalkeeping coach Eric Steele.
There may be more bloodletting too. Reserve team manager Warren Joyce’s quip at the club annual awards ceremony last week that he is as yet unaware of his employment position tells a key story. Nervousness abounds ahead of Moyes official start on 1 July; six weeks shy of the new campaign.
After all, a new man at the top certainly spells change. Moyes may now seek to bring in his number two at Everton, Steve Round, while rumours abound that Phil Neville will join Old Trafford’s coaching team. Paul Scholes has not formally been offered a position in the backroom, although Sir Alex is a leading proponent of the 38-year-old’s coaching ability.
Round is widely respected in the football community, although the same is not quite true of Chris Woods, Everton’s goalkeeping coach, who may also join United. The outstanding job Steele has performed working with David de Gea over the past two years has seemingly been forgotten before the ink has dried on Moyes’ new contract.
Nor is it yet clear whether Ferguson’s departure will prompt a rethink from Rene Meulenstein; the Scot’s principle lieutenant alongside Phelan. Meulenstein’s short managerial spell in charge of Brondby six years ago may represent unfinished business to the Dutchman, especially if Moyes reduces the coach’s scope.
Meanwhile, Phelan may finally take a crack at management – previous assistants including Brian Kidd, Steve McClaren and Carlos Quieroz have found the yearning to lead too great a draw.
It is at least now clear that Moyes is not prepared to work within a system already created, principally of Ferguson’s design. The younger Scot is a man with his own ideas. The former Everton manager is known to be a proponent of meticulously detailed planning, sports-science and boot-camp style fitness. There will certainly be a change of emphasis at Carrington next season.
Similarly, Moyes’ thinking on the style and substance of his team may prompt change in the playing staff. Top of the list is Wayne Rooney’s future, with the 27-year-old having asked Ferguson for a transfer earlier this spring. While the noise coming out of Old Trafford is that the new man will work with his former protégé, behind the scenes the club has sought an exit for the £27 million striker. A bid for long-standing target Robert Lewandowski hinges on Rooney’s departure, or otherwise.
Meanwhile, there have already been inevitable press reports linking United to an imminent bid for Everton’s combative forward Marouane Fellaini. The gossip may hold some substance, although it is surely unthinkable that Moyes will deploy the Belgian in the forward role he occupied at Goodison Park for most of last season.
Over in the boardroom executive changes are only likely to accelerate United’s hugely aggressive global search for cash. Gill’s departure, which is certainly linked to Ferguson’s – an announcement coming just days after the Scot told his ally last February of firm plans to retire – means significant promotion for three of the Glazer family’s key commercial team.
Woodward, as the Glazer family’s premier executor of United’s perpetual remit to create new revenue sources, will offer continuity of a sort. Although any temperance to rampant commercialism that Gill brought to the party over the past seven years – an argument often put forward in the 57-year-old’s defence – will now surely evaporate.
The club will still benefit from Gill and Ferguson’s part-time loyalty though. Debt, it seems, wasn’t Gill’s road to ruin – just a ticket into UEFA’s inner circle and a lucrative non-executive position. Meanwhile, Ferguson will reportedly be paid £100,000 a day to for up to 20 commercial appearances a season with United’s principle sponsors.
Yet, amid all the change on and off the pitch weight of responsibility for any post-Ferguson failure will fall squarely on Moyes’ broad shoulders, whether that judgement is fair or otherwise. Which is why there was some surprise at the sharp decision to sack two of Ferguson’s senior coaches, with perhaps more to come.
Amid a summer storm continuity may be Moyes’ best ally. The question now is whether Moyes’ head is clear enough to steer the club to the peace of safer ground.