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?