“My greatest challenge is not what’s happening at the moment, my greatest challenge was knocking Liverpool right off their fucking perch.”
It was, as ever, Sir Alex Ferguson’s defiance in the face of media criticism that elicited the Scot’s best and most memorable invective. “And you can print that,” was the appendage that inspired a thousand banners.
David Moyes’ nightmarish reign is now over. Manchester United, however, has been left in tatters with rookie coach Ryan Giggs in charge for the final four games. Given the lack of available top class managers the Welshman may very well end up as the best choice to take over on a permanent basis. It leaves an open question as to why was Moyes was appointed in the first place when Jose Mourinho, Josep Guardiola and Carlo Anchelotti were available last summer.
One conspiracy theory is that Sir Alex Ferguson wanted to deify his legacy at Old Trafford by appointing an incompetent successor. The facts over the past ten months paint a more reasonable picture than that.
When Ferguson retired Wayne Rooney was all but sold while Thiago Alcântara had been lined up as a star midfield purchase. United’s weak midfield and aging backline needed attention, but a decent transfer fund was available to address the problem.
Robin van Persie’s opportunistic acquisiton had limited Shinji Kagawa’s appearances, but the Japanese had a title-winning start in the Premier League at least. There was plenty of reason to believe United had attacking options to excite.
Thiago has proven to be an exceptional holding midfielder at Bayern Munich this season. United would have gained much had the former Barcelona player come to Old Trafford. Patrice Evra and Rafael da Silva, for example, could have advanced with far greater confidence had Thiago and Michael Carrick been present in midfield. The Reds might have even garnered another season out of the Frenchman by letting him concentrate on attacking rather than defensive duties.
It proved to be a crucial mistake – at £21.5m Thiago’s acquisition should have left enough money for a gifted winger, allowing Kagawa to play centrally in a replica of Borussia Dortmund’s approach that compensates for the lack of energy with extra creativity from deep.
In this context Moyes’ appointment made some sense. The Scot’s approach is far more system-based than Mourinho or Guardiola and the Scot’s default template is actually similar to the Dortmund model. The youth of Kagawa et al would have weathered a few years of Glazers-enforced austerity too.
So what went wrong?
Moyes decided against bringing in Thiago, experimenting in pre-season with Carrick in a role that demanded more pressing than the Geordie typically offers. Moyes’ very early trust of Anderson over Kagawa suggested that the Scot thought he could get away with Tom Cleverley or Anderson partnering Carrick in the engine room. He couldn’t.
Another Barcelona midfielder in Cesc Fabregas was eventually pursued. The suspicion, though, is that Fabregas would have played behind van Persie rather in central midfield – just as Danny Welbeck did in the season opener against Swansea City. The former Arsenal midfielder would have brought great energy and thrust in attacking areas.
The chase for Fabregas ended in humiliation. Having failed – or neglected – to bring in any wide players, Welbeck has spent as season providing cover on the flanks. Moyes certainly wanted directness if Adnan Januzaj’s exile in recent games is anything to go by. The Belgian-Kosovar is surely a considerate number 10 by nature. Meanwhile, Rooney was given another chance and gained much leverage over Moyes, to the detriment of manager and club.
Kagawa thrives in space and tempo, neither of which have been provided by United’s functional midfield. Moyes perhaps realised his error and United’s late window approach for Ander Herrera, a player similar to Thiago, was the result. The transfer saga, which at one point supposedly involved imposters bidding for the young Spaniard, ended with Maroune Fellaini arriving at Old Trafford. Moyes’ initial trust in Anderson and Cleverley was clearly misguided, if not completely insane.
In the end Moyes’ true nature reared its conservative head. Kagawa started out wide, asked to cut in and maintain possession rather than make impact in advanced central areas. The immobile midfield partnership of Carrick and Cleverley exposed both Nemanja Vidić and Rio Ferdinand, while Moyes blindly trusted Rooney to provide all the thrust alone. He couldn’t.
Juan Mata’s arrival was, in part at least, a move to appease an increasingly angry fanbase, but the former Chelsea player of the year also serves a tactical purpose. Mata’s genius has made the best of second balls while the Spaniard’s versatility has filled the void out in wide areas.
But the fact that Kagawa was often chosen ahead of Januzaj on the left suggests that Moyes views wide players as a function of a greater system. Spending £37.5 million on a world class player to support Rooney made little sense. Considering that Moyes deploys energy – Rooney or Fabregas – in the hole Mata was simply brought in as cover, or with no plan at all.
The long term implication is frightening. Mata is much better than Kagawa in creating space on his own and would work better with a target man that United does not possess.
van Persie is now a bona fide poacher, while Javier Hernández has been preferred in leading the line over the more well-rounded Welbeck. Moyes clearly values a man in the box at any given moment and the promising talents in Januzaj and Welbeck were always destined to face limited opportunities in their natural positions. It is worth noting that Ross Barkley at Everton is flourishing with Moyes elsewhere.
This is a theory, of course. If true though Moyes had no accurate assessment of United players and was foolish, or arrogant, enough to work against what appears to have been Sir Alex’ plan for squad evolution. Perhaps the most disturbing implication, however, is that Ferguson expected the current financial climate at Old Trafford to continue. Consistency, not excellence, is United’s target now.
It was, frankly, the worst Manchester United performance against Liverpool at Old Trafford for two decades. So limp was David Moyes’ team that the Scot’s decision to bring on substitute Rio Ferdinand for Juan Mata, with the Reds already 3-0 down, summed up United’s ambition. There simply wasn’t any on a day when Brendan Rodgers’ side was superior in every single department from management down.
Indeed, so poor was Moyes’ outfit that all logic points to Sir Alex Ferguson as the Scot’s final hope of remaining in the United job long enough to correct the failures of a disastrous season. Sir Alex, it seems, is determined that Moyes will get “time” in the job. There is little doubt that at each of United’s peers on the continent the former Everton boss would have already been ignominiously sacked by now.
Dumped out of the FA and Capital One Cups, seventh in the Premier League, and seemingly heading for European exit, United’s season could hardly have been worse before Sunday’s derby defeat. It has hit a new nadir mostly of Moyes’ own making.
Yet, the brutality of Liverpool’s performance at Old Trafford is impossible for United’s supporters to stomach, no matter how circumspect the old guard has become amid the club’s slide this season. Not only were the Merseysiders’ full value for a thumping victory, but another brace might not have flattered the Anfield outfit.
If any data point is a précis for Sunday’s match – and there are many, few of them flattering for the home side – then United’s single shot on target over the 90 is perhaps the most succinct. Complaints about the three penalties awarded to the visitors should drown in the complete lack of creativity proffered by the home side.
It was a match in which United looked lost at every turn. Moyes’ side was conspicuous for a lack of shape, an absence of a clear pattern and an approach devoid of philosophy. The visitors, by contrast, were everything that United was not.
And the savage truth, whatever the limitations of United’s squad or failure in motivation with which many of the home side appear to be suffering, is that United’s lack of identity is entirely Moyes’ responsibility.
Worse, the home side was naive as well as mediocre on Sunday. That Liverpool dominated so completely and Moyes failed to make a single change of note before the 75th minute smacks of a coach out of his depth and devoid of ideas. It was ever thus under the 50-year-old Glaswegian. With Michael Carrick and Marouanne Fellaini overrun by Liverpool’s three-man midfield it was little wonder the visitors created chances with such ease. Moyes did nothing to fix an obvious failing.
Meanwhile, in United’s back four Nemanja Vidić and Patrice Evra proffered a timely reminder that age is no friend of two formerly great players who have appeared on more than 650 times for the club in aggregate. Rafael da Silva and Phil Jones, two talented but frustratingly raw defenders, contributed fully to United’s defeat.
And up front no amount of spin from United’s over-worked communications department can mask quite how unhappy Robin van Persie is this season, nor how poor the Dutchman’s form. In his shadow, Wayne Rooney’s fizz has withered through the winter, although the ink on that £15 million-a-season contract is barely dry. The Scouser looks every inch a player over-trained and under-rested.
But few players summed up the tactical mess better than Juan Mata, the £37 million playmaker forced into a manifestly uncomfortable role on the right wing. Indeed, those observers who continue to press for the Spaniard’s inclusion in a wide role seemingly forget quite how Moyes prefers is his wide men to operate.
In Mata and Januzaj United boast two hugely talented players who prefer to operate from central areas, yet 80 per cent of United’s play was compressed to the two wings on Sunday. It was, as ever, infuriatingly predictable from United, with supporters’ anger building with each new episode.
It should be alarming how few chances Moyes’ side creates, but it has been a season coming. The Reds have scored just 18 goals at home in the campaign – the same number as bottom-club Fulham.
Still, there was little answer from Moyes in the aftermath, where sorry excuses have become the norm and confidence is absent. United’s manager has neither the insight to analyse the Reds’ fall, nor a plan to resurrect a path to success.
“It’s difficult to explain it,” Moyes said. “I felt as if the players were in good shape and good fettle going into it, but we didn’t get to the standards required. I’ve seen confident players who are well motivated and hard-working and conscientious. I’d not seen that coming.
“There’s disappointment for everybody that we didn’t get the result today, and disappointment about the goals and the way they were conceded. We had a spell where we played quite well and tried to get ourselves back in the game with one or two half-chances. It’s difficult to explain.”
Yet, it is a message that sounds so familiar; one of victimisation that is inappropriate for the manager of England’s 20-times champion club. There is now little shock in the whispers emanating from United’s dressing-room that all confidence in Moyes has drained away. That Ryan Giggs is among the disciples lost, according to fanzine Red Issue, is perhaps Moyes’ starkest warning yet.
This was, after all, every bit as poor as United’s performance against Olympiakos in Greece last month – and that was the worst United exhibition in a decade. There is little evidence to suggest Moyes’ side will turn around a two goal deficit in the Champions League Round of 16 clash with the Greeks at Old Trafford on Wednesday night – a game when the Reds’ season may effectively come to an end.
It may well be a night when the patient minority turn on the former Evertonian; when Ferguson’s call for time finally runs out. After all, time is not only a commodity for good, but one in which more damage can be done.
Time may well be less than constructive given the mutinous rumblings from inside Carrington’s closed walls. The regularity with which half-a-dozen United players seemingly switch off says much.
Indeed, defeat to Liverpool cannot be viewed in isolation. The decline in fortunes has been so rapid under Moyes that the Merseysiders’ performance at Old Trafford is simply a précis for a season lost. One, unfortunately, from which United’s manager has no guaranteed roadmap to success.
After all, whatever expenditure the club empowers Moyes to undertake this summer is viewed in the context of the Scot’s tactical and philosophical approach. The £75 million spent on Mata and Fellaini has brought little but confusion, and almost no incremental improvement. There is, in contrast to Sunday’s victors, no clear path on which United now headed.
It is an observation that draws an obvious question: whether Moyes should be trusted with a third transfer window and the time that Ferguson is desperate for his protegé to enjoy? Time that Sir Alex earned in an era of very different challenges.
“It’s a nightmare,” said striker Rooney in the post-match fallout. “It’s one of the worst days I’ve ever had in football and it’s hard to take.”
That is a sentiment which can be applied to a entire season.
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.
José Mourinho was never a smart choice to succeed Sir Alex Ferguson, the Scot who departed Old Trafford as Manchester United manager for the final time on Sunday. Mourinho may be the biggest managerial name in world football, Sir Alex aside, but contrary to popular opinion would never have been a good fit in Manchester – the Portuguese would have significantly clashed with the system set in place by Ferguson over two decades.
Built and moulded in the outgoing manager’s image, United’s top-down structure would have inhibited Mourinho. One needs only to look at examples from two of Mourinho’s old flames – Chelsea and Inter – for examples of how the system can limit a coach’s success. Mourinho achieved great things in west London and Milan by creating a coaching set up to his exacting specifications. Those managers who followed the 50-year-old to Inter anad Chelsea crashed and burned, haunted by Mourinho’s spectre.
There will be a presence at Old Trafford too of course. Mourinho has proven to be an outstanding manager over the past decade, but Ferguson is simply greater. Ferguson’s legacy, especially with the former Aberdeen manager remaining at the club in an ambassadorial role, would have doomed Mourinho to the same fate as his successors.
This may not be true of David Moyes, whose lack of ego means that he is more willing to work with the system in place. If anything the Scot may deal with Ferguson’s heritage better than Mourinho. Arriving from a smaller, less sophisticated club, Moyes is already familiar with working within the confines set by others, financial or otherwise.
Meanwhile, Moyes’ limitations should be no barrier to future success. True, the 50-year-old’s European experience is limited, but that is not as concerning as it may first appear. After all, United should be too good and experienced not to qualify from Champions League group stages next season, whomever the coach.
United’s 2011/12 European campaign was a disaster, and Manchester City, with arguably a better squad, failed to qualify beyond the group stage two years in the row. Yet, United’s players are well seasoned in Europe, unlike the Blues.
Beyond the group stage matches fall victim to the vagaries of chance more than most, which has haunted Ferguson over the years. Paul Scholes’ goal against Porto in 2004 springs to mind, incongruously ruled offside in the game against Porto that made Mourinho’s career.
Certainly, a tactician of Mourinho’s quality can prove the edge in key matches, but it may behoove United supporters not to write off Moyes too quickly. After all, caution is key in European matches – a trait in which the Scot is well-versed.
Moreover, it is highly advantageous that Moyes has been managing in the Premier League for more than a decade. Europe holds the glamour, but domestic superiority is always United’s priority. Not least because the financial rewards are now greater than in the Champions League. Moyes knows how to navigate difficult domestic ties; one of his main rivals for the top job, Jürgen Klopp, doesn’t.
And if Moyes’ tactical approach is cautious, so too is United’s executive branch. In 1986 United’s board could afford to gamble on Sir Alex taking to life in England. This is no longer the case. With millions of fans worldwide, and more than £300 million in debt, the club must continue to be successful to maintain its current station in world football. The club could not have appointed a coach with limited Premier League experience.
Ferguson, whether by design or disposition – his diligence and desire for control are well documented – is a manager in its truest sense. The 71-year-old secured a hand in everything from the first team to the Megastore. Over the years Fergie has delegated some of responsibilities, but has always remained United’s ‘manager.’
This system is a British tradition. Meanwhile, continental clubs have long abandoned the practice of an omnipotent head, stripping managers of all duties bar first team training and matches. It would have been foolish at this stage to bring in a new coach from continental Europe with a retinue and little understanding of the United way. Moyes probably won’t fulfil all of Ferguson’s extensive responsibilities, but he’ll be receptive to doing most.
In this sense Ferguson’s retirement is an opportunity for the club too. There may never again be a true manager running United in Sir Alex’ mould, partly because the club has become more complex, but mostly because managers are simply being trained to be ‘head coaches.’
But the club also needs prepare for the future. United will have to adapt by gently introducing more people into the back room. This may inevitably culminate in the club hiring a director of football down the line. After all, the benefits of specialisation and division of labour had long been obvious before Adam Smith’s pin factory.
Part of Ferguson’s genius lies in his adaptability – the Scot survived 26 years in his job because he continued to adjust. Moyes will not last that long, because he is already 50. But as football evolves there is no guarantee that Moyes will keep up as well as Ferguson has previously done.
Conceivably United will have to hire Moyes’ replacement within the next decade. Without a continental style system place, the club will find very limited room to manoeuvre vis-à-vis hiring the new man.
For now though, United has appointed a manager very much in Ferguson’s hue.
Football serves an odd function – and if you are reading this there’s a good chance that you really care about it. I am endlessly fascinated by what football represents to those of us who become so invested in the outcome of a few men kicking a ball around that it is transformed into drama, beauty, frustration, sadness, joy, love, hate (more’s the pity), escape, togetherness. Family.
Manchester United are often called a family club – a massive global enterprise, at the centre of which, administratively at least, are a bunch of the same people that have been around long enough to remember the first Sir Alex Ferguson title win.
[Of course, United are literally a family club, in the worst possible way, given that the club is run by a family of financial parasites, leeching millions away to line their own nest eggs, where presumably they nest their next generation who will grow up to do a leveraged buyout of a club in a developing market somewhere.]
Like all football clubs, United are also something families share, passed down from mother or father to son or daughter, from your uncle who cares about football when your dad doesn’t, or your best friend’s dad’s wife, since this is the modern age. Football has long been regarded as a place where it is acceptable for men to show emotion, letting out the tears that are borne of a deeper loss, but that manifest in the delight or devastation you experience because of the good or not-so-good kicking of a ball.
Somewhere in this mix, where the human unconscious is given an escape valve for emotions that can’t be expressed elsewhere, profound attachments form. And there can’t be many sporting attachments greater than that between United fans and Alex.
Forget the Sir, not just because it’s a weird relic of the feudal age, but also because it’s a latter day addition, it’s a millennial thing, arriving in time to make a handy three letter acronym for the internet age. Before he was Sir Alex, he was Fergie or Alec, and he represented something to me, to us. He was our family club’s dad.
It started straight away. Alex came in and replaced ‘Big Ron’, an avuncular, friendly figure (how little we knew…), and he was quite scary. I was nine, so I didn’t have a drinking culture, but United did and Ferguson put a stop to it, making the club professional, hitting some stumbling blocks, but building, always building.
I never lost faith in him, but I was only 12 when there were “three years of excuses” and living exiled in Zimbabwe, climbing rocks and preoccupied with working out if I could design a hoverboard. By the time I really really cared about football, he became the best dad ever, buying Eric Cantona and winning the league in the year I started sixth form college.
Ferguson brought through a whole generation of kids, and the surrogate father bit was given a whole new dimension. Those of the class of 1992 who became the heart of Ferguson’s team must surely be the players with the deepest relationship with him – David became the black sheep, Ryan, Paul and Gary stayed loyal. Little brother Philip was sent to live up the road with Uncle David so he could come back a few years later and tell us it would all be ok.
Then came the knighthood, and with it the passage to grand-parenthood. Cristiano Ronaldo certainly needed a father figure, and another generation removed, Sir Alex became one. We all watched on, as Fergie became an elder statesman, this great manager becoming the greatest of all time in front of our grateful eyes.
Like all families, there was betrayal and tragedy. He sided with the Glazers rather than the supporters, perhaps because he felt it was in the fans’ best interests to act as a buffer between them and us. Perhaps for less noble reasons. Fergie said that if we didn’t like it we could go and support Chelsea. (Or – we could go to our rooms without any supper, as it were).
Like all dads he embarrassed us, not with his bad dancing – the fist pumped goal celebrations were joyous, not cringeworthy – but his ruthlessness could grate on those with a more sensitive bearing. Jaap Stam, Ruud van Nistelrooy, the weird goalkeeping blind spot. But as you grow up you learn that your parents aren’t perfect, and nor is your football manager.
I’m in my 30s now, and I try to keep the level of emotional investment in men, with a certain colour top, who kick a football, to a manageable level. But Fergie pre-dates my attempts to do that.
I’m so sad that he’s not United’s manager any more, even though I’m happy he gets to retire. I didn’t cry at the montages or the announcement, but I did cry when I recorded Rant Cast and I tried to list all his positive qualities as a human being. A day later, I realise why that was the trigger for me
It’s because it’s complicated. Fergie has been ruthless, and leaves our club registered in the Cayman Islands. He hurt a lot of people. But that’s not the full story.
There has been so much human goodness – the generosity to those in need, the support to other managers in hard times. He is a trade union man, after all. The thousands of letters of condolence and congratulations, done without fanfare.
And whilst there have been times of apparent obstinacy, and masses of footballing frustration, Sir Alex has brought joy to those of us lucky enough to be United fans that no other club anywhere in the land has been even nearly slightly close to experiencing.
I love my dad, even though he is not perfect, and I love Ferguson, even though he is not either. So, thank you, Alex, for dedicating your life to doing something which has made the fans so happy, so often. It’s been absolutely amazing and I honestly cannot believe that it is over.
I understand that impermanence is the fundamental nature of the universe, but I sort of thought you’d be the exception. I am going to remember the joy you brought for the rest of my life, and the pain will fade.
Most of all I will try to remember a mantra I try to live by, something which gives perspective when that inevitable impermanence shows itself: don’t be sad that it is over, be glad that it happened.
“I certainly don’t have any plans at the moment to walk away from what I believe will be something special,” said Sir Alex Ferguson in his programme notes accompanying Manchester United’s fixture with Chelsea last weekend. Forget the Italians, if Ferguson says it’s pasta, check under the sauce. For less than three days later United’s modern-day patriarch has gone. Retired and replaced. The king is dead. Long live the king.
Ferguson’s has been a remarkable journey these past 27 years. From a club on its knees, without a league trophy since 1968, to the global monolith that oozes silverware from every pore. Ferguson has overseen it all.
Along the way there has come more than 30 major trophies, countless rows and the unsavoury support for the Glazer family.
Yet, strangely almost, by the time United’s official announcement came on Thursday there was no surprise in Ferguson’s passing. Perhaps it is the numbness that comes with shock. Or, in truth, that the expectation of the unexpected was so ingrained that Sir Alex’ news, coming out of left field, was at least from clear blue skies.
Victory over Manchester City, such comprehensive victory at that, has proffered a send off better than any could have hoped. Not for this manager did it all end in failure.
And in the passing of time and glory it is so easy to forget just how decrepit the club that Ferguson found in 1986; unstable financially, a squad bent more on drinking than winning, and an opponent in Liverpool that conquered all before it. The perch wasn’t even in sight.
The legacy is complete now. By any measure Ferguson’s reign is without peer. Not at United, nor in England, or globally. And he will leave a club far stronger than he found it.
“The decision to retire is one that I have thought a great deal about,” said Ferguson on Wednesday.
“It was important to me to leave an organisation in the strongest possible shape and I believe I have done so. The quality of this league-winning squad, and the balance of ages within it, bodes well for continued success at the highest level whilst the structure of the youth set-up will ensure that the long-term future of the club remains a bright one.”
There is so much that has already been written; Fergie strolls into retirement having created a surfeit of memories. It is an end none could have foreseen on 6 November 1986 – the day Ron Atkinson was sacked, and Ferguson hired as his replacement.
Indeed, there was little hope that Ferguson would last five years at a club that had sought glory, but failed to deliver in more than a generation. It has been one of the most remarkable tenures in the history of the game.
Then Ferguson is one of the most remarkable men to have graced the sport. A force majeure of control freakery, with an uncanny ability to cajole, bully and inspire. Each has contributed to Ferguson’s success.
As has luck. Barrel loads of it. But then, as Lefty Gomez, the post-war pitcher famously said: “I’d rather be lucky than good.” Ferguson is both and modern United owes him all for it.
But Ferguson’s appointment was a gamble, whatever the manager’s success in Scotland. As it turns out, ending the Auld Firm duopoly and taking provincial outpost Aberdeen to European glory was just the beginning of Ferguson’s iconoclasm.
Yet, United, as Fergie was to learn, is nothing like Aberdeen, and the expectation of success has always been different, even if it was rarely achieved between Sir Matt Busby’s heyday and the late 1980s.
It has long been said that Ferguson’s mission on joining United was to “knock Liverpool off their perch.” In truth that came much later. United, on its knees after Atkinson’s dismissal, had far more modest ambitions.
The club’s final position of second in the old First Division at the end of the Scot’s first full season in charge was entirely false. Simply becoming competitive with Liverpool was the imperative. After all, at Liverpool they said ‘winning is winning and second is nowhere’.
United was nowhere at best.
Most destructively, Ferguson inherited a deleterious culture of alcohol among a clique of senior pros. That Ferguson set about systematically re-engineering the club, and ultimately succeeding, is testament to the enduring influence the Scot has brought on what is now a multi-billion pound institution. And he did it all in Busby’s shadow.
Ferguson ripped apart United’s youth system – a decision that would prove fruitful nearly a decade later – laying the foundations for squad changes ahead.
By the end of the 1988 campaign Ferguson had released, sold or accepted the retirements of seven players. Within two years Ferguson had overseen the departures of more terrace heroes, including Gordon Strachan, Norman Whiteside, and Paul McGrath.
This, however, is United and progressive change, no matter the club’s state in the mid to late 1980s, was never so copacetic. By the turn of the decade Ferguson was under pressure from within, many calling for or anticipating the manager’s departure.
“Three years of excuses and it’s still crap…ta-ra Fergie,” read the now infamous banner following a run of six defeats in eight games during late 1989. Ferguson would later describe the period as “the darkest” he had ever suffered.
If there was a turning point in Ferguson’s tenure then United’s FA Cup win over Nottingham Forest at the City Ground in January 1990 is often the illustration. It has become a Fergusonian cliché, but the pressure to dismiss the Scot had United not secured the 1990 FA cup may well have become insurmountable.
The Cup win was never enough for the Scot though. Ferguson’s assessment that United had become a ‘cup team club’ was always on the money.
Success in Europe came in 1991 with a remarkable, and thoroughly unexpected, run in the Cup Winners’ Cup, triumphing 2-1 in the final against Barcelona. It would not be the last time Ferguson would meet the Catalans in European competition. Once again, however, United failed to put up a genuine challenge for the First Division title.
Not until narrow failure a year later, with Paul Parker and Peter Schmeichel adding to the growing influence of youngsters Lee Sharpe and Ryan Giggs, did United genuinely challenge for English supremacy. It was the first time in 25 years that the club had done so.
The Holy Grail was found a year on amid the late drama of Steve Bruce’s unforgettable headed double against Sheffield Wednesday. Champions of England at last, with Brian Kidd’s praise sent to the heavens.
The deluge started then. The double came in 1994, with the most combative team modern United has known. “So many of them, real tough bastards,” Ferguson would later note. The ‘double double’ came two years later under the magnificent influence of Ferguson’s finest signing, Eric Cantona.
By 1999 United conquered Europe’s best, driven not through expensive acquisitions alone, but by the youthful evolution Ferguson had instigated 13 years earlier.
United may have been lucky that remarkable night at Camp Nou, but it was Ferguson’s due having revived the club root and branch from a generation-long malaise.
In that Ferguson has never been a coach alone. Whether United’s board truly understood this in 1986 is moot; it was a decision that transformed a football club.
The Scot’s chameleon-like ability to adapt to an ever-changing environment has ensured that the club has continually met new challenges. He has personally evolved for the modern era by entrusting an ever-increasing sphere of influence to an army of coaching, fitness, health and science professionals.
There are failures though. Ferguson’s ability to succeed in the market has often been mixed. Eric Cantona, Peter Schmeichel, Steve Bruce, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Denis Irwin – all bought for a song. The Scot also wasted money on a plethora of the average, particularly as the 1990s gave way to a new millennium. The scattergun policy still unearths rare gems, but mediocrity is often a by-product.
Then there are the personality failings: Ferguson’s requirement for total control has seen Paul Ince, David Beckham, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Jaap Stam leave in acrimony, each before their peak.
Too often, with embarrassing results, Fergie picked fights with the Football Association, media, referees, fellow managers, coaches and, eventually, United’s supporters. Much of it was counter-productive.
“Sometimes I lose my temper,” he once noted. “If someone argues with me I have to win the argument. I can’t lose an argument.”
And no mention of Ferguson’s failings can come without an assessment of his role since 2005. The Scot’s acquiescence to the Glazer takeover, the decision to ‘look after his staff’, and to repeatedly, vocally, support a regime at the height of supporter protest was unnecessarily divisive.
Ferguson’s refusal to acknowledge even the basis for supporter concern was an error. Fans cannot, as Ferguson once urged a travelling supporter, simply “f*ck off and support Chelsea.”
Yet, the bitter after-taste of Ferguson’s loyalty to the Glazer family will fade before memories of the glory will. There is a generation of United supporters that know nothing else but Ferguson, good and bad. Those supporters have experienced little else but unbridled success.
The new journey begins with David Moyes in the dugout, and Fergie in the directors box. Sir Alex’ shadow will surely be long and dark. But that is for the future. In focus for now, the goodbye.
“To the fans, thank you,” concluded Ferguson on Wednesday.
“The support you have provided over the years has been truly humbling. It has been an honour and an enormous privilege to have had the opportunity to lead your club and I have treasured my time as manager of Manchester United.”
It is mutual. It has been a drama, a pleasure, and, frankly, an absolute honour.
The United States naval Special Warfare Development Group, commonly known as SEAL Team Six, became famous for killing Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan on 2 May 2011. SEAL Team Six, along with its brother unit DELTA, is responsible for eliminating some 3000 alleged terrorists and capturing 9000 more during its deployment in Iraq.
During the war, the elite counter-terrorism unit operated under the mantra of “surprise, speed and violence of action” and it is staggering to think just how violent they must have been – 3000 killed by a few scores of soldiers. Despite the ‘success’, SEAL Team Six has since adopted a new code as its modus operandi – “silence, stealth and decisiveness of action.”
It is beyond the scope of this post, nor is United Rant a proper place, to discuss exactly why, but the SEALs’ change of direction should be rather familiar to Manchester United fans.
Under Sir Alex Ferguson’s stewardship, United has won two European Cups. Yet, the change in tactical approach between successes has been stark.
Take, for example, the 1998/99 season in which the Reds scored 29 and conceded 16 over the Champions League campaign. By contrast, Ferguson’s 2007/08 side scored 20 and conceded six. The reigning English champions scored nine more, despite playing two games less in ’99, and conceded 10 more in the treble-winning season compared to nearly a decade later.
The explanation for the switch from profligacy to parsimony comes in Ferguson’s change of approach.
The tactics deployed by Ferguson in ‘99 were fairly basic – a classic 4-4-2, although some, including Sky pundit Gary Neville, argue that with Dwight Yorke deployed in the hole Ferguson’s formation was closer to 4-4-1-1.
Whatever the formation, it was also a phenomenally tough side. The second leg of the semi-final against Juventus encapsulates the spirit of the side perfectly. While the game is, of course, remembered for Roy Keane’s heroics, to “modern” eyes it is also absolutely astounding just how violentthe game was.
Watching the game one again it is noticeable how basic the vertical ‘box-to-box’ runs of Ferguson’s players were. There are no fancy false nines, nor an inverted winger. And while there was little choice with the Scot’s team two goals down, United’s sheer attacking verve is breathtaking – the ball just keeps going forward.
Contrast United’s performance at Stadio Della Alpi to the away game against AS Roma in ‘07/08. Right off the bat the side was infinitely more complex. Cristiano Ronaldo featured upfront as a false nine. Meanwhile, Wayne Rooney and Ji-Sung Park were deployed as defensive wingers. And the midfield three of Anderson, Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes did not include an old-fashioned defensive midfielder in Keane’s considerable mould at all.
The game was far more measured. Players didn’t just run in straight lines – instead, they covered each other and tried to progress carefully, with advanced players offering much subtler runs than Yorke or Andy Cole ever did. The game, notwithstanding Ronaldo’s great header, was won mainly on the chalkboard. In fact, Zonal Marking’s Michael Cox declares that “[the game against Roma] will go down as one of the great away performances in Europe by an English club.”
Correctly or otherwise, Ferguson considered the gung-ho style of football United played in Europe as a hindrance to further success in the continent’s premier competition. Or in other words, “surprise, speed and violence of action” could no longer be the order of the day when the manager wanted far more “decisiveness.”
Ferguson was proven right in his conviction when United defeated Chelsea in 2008. Had it not been for the emergence of Lionel Messi-led Barcelona – possibly the greatest team ever assembled – the Scot might have even added one or two more Champions League wins in the past five years.
United’s stark evolution in that decade owes much to the modern media era. Television brings almost any match on the planet to the viewer. Indeed, television has taken geography out of scouting and analysis.
And with so many eyes and brains, with so much money on the line, football is evolving quicker than ever. For example, the blistering pressing game buttressed by careful possession of the ball, championed by Barcelona and used so effectively by Spain, is already in decline.
The modern way has evolved again. Instead, “hip” teams now press hard when the opposition goalkeeper has the ball. The concept is to stop opposition from building from the back, forcing the ‘keeper to launch the ball long, with defenders dropping back and picking up opposition players. After all, why waste energy chasing the ball when one can prevent the ball from ever reaching an opposition player?
Bayern Munich showed how effective the idea is by hammering Barcelona 4-0 in the Champions League semi-final last week and repeating the trick at Camp Nou.
While Ferguson evolved his side in the decade from the ’99 victory, the game as a whole has changed from being “violent” to being “decisive.” It seems that in his final years as United manager, Ferguson, now 71, has another challenge to meet.
Defeat in the Champions League this week may have been acutely unfortunate, but Sir Alex Ferguson’s pain in the wake of Manchester United’s exit to Real Madrid says as much about the manager’s record in Europe’s premier competition, as it did about the club’s disappointment. It is the Scot’s desire to improve on his two Champions League victories in a quarter century at Old Trafford that lies at the centre of the manager’s heartbreak.
“It’s a distraught dressing room and a distraught manager,” said assistant Mike Phelan after Tuesday’s defeat.
“I don’t think the manager is in any fit state to talk to the referee about the decision. It speaks volumes that I am sitting here now rather than the manager of this fantastic football club.”
Yet, Ferguson’s anguish was not only about one defeat, influenced by an over-zealous referee, but the realisation that time is running out to improve on a European record that includes one Cup Winners’ Cup and two Champions League victories.
After all, there is an argument that Ferguson’s European adventure has underwhelmed given the resources at his disposal. In an era of United dominance domestically and a period of Anglo-Saxon success on the continent, Ferguson has often said “we should have won it more”.
Two trophies and a further brace of defeats in the final is perhaps scant return for just shy of 20 seasons in Europe’s premier competition.
Indeed, United’s elimination at the round of 16, as against Real, has come as often as Ferguson’s side has made the last four, while the Reds have been eliminated at the group stage more often than they have secured the trophy. Ferguson’s base elimination stage is the quarter-final. Or to put it another way, Europe’s leading eight is the sum of Sir Alex’ parts these past two decades.
Those in charge of United’s marketing department spin a different story of course.
It is a cruel analysis of a man whose trophy count stands against few peers, although one that might explain Ferguson’s frustrated response in the past week. In the wake of Real’s victory, the 71-year-old blamed not only Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir for United’s defeat to Real, but officialdom for robbing the club of two further tournaments over the past decade.
“It’s hard to keep your faith when you see these things happen,” said Ferguson of Nani’s 58th minute red card at Old Trafford on Tuesday night.
“That’s three European Cups we’ve been knocked out of due to refereeing decisions. We’d have won two of them. I have no doubt about that.”
In 2004 José Mourinho’s Porto knocked United out in the round of 16 after Paul Scholes’ goal was incorrectly ruled out offside in a game mired by controversy. Dmitri Alenichev’s professional foul on Cristiano Ronaldo was ignored, before Francisco Costinha’s scored a debatable last-minute equaliser at Old Trafford to take the Portuguese through 2-3 on aggregate over the two legs.
“The decision of the Russian referee when they brought down Ronaldo who was right through and didn’t even book him,” claimed Ferguson. “They got the free-kick right after that. We would have won the European Cup that year. They got Monaco in the final, didn’t they?”
Porto went on to beat Olympique Lyonnais and Deportivo La Coruña in the knock-out rounds before dismissing Patrice Evra’s AS Monaco 3-0 in the Gelsenkirchen final.
The other injustice, said Ferguson, was Rafael da Silva’s red card against Bayern Munich in 2010 for two cautionable offences. Harsh on the player, perhaps, but terribly naïve of the Brazilian too. Munich beat Lyon in the last four, before losing to Mourinho’s Internazionale in the final.
Fortune, though, has two sides and United has benefited from a slice over the years. Mehmet Scholl’s shot against the bar moments before United’s equaliser in the 1999 Champions League final comes to mind. Or, perhaps, John Terry’s slip in the 2008 final shoot-out.
Not that Ferguson’s beef is with anything other than officialdom of course. And his frustration at not having achieved personal ambitions in the competition.
Given the tournament’s competitive nature Ferguson may never add another European trophy to his vast haul. After all, a golden period between 2008 and 2011 brought three finals, but only one victory with Ferguson’s side twice succumbing to perhaps the finest Barcelona team of all time.
Nor is the analysis of Ferguson’s record entirely justified. Since Ferguson’s first Champions League campaign in 1993 only Barça, AC Milan and Real Madrid have won the competition more frequently. None has retained the trophy during the Champions League era.
UEFA’s decision to open up the European Cup to non-champions, while merging the old UEFA and Cup Winners’ Cups into a single tournament, now branded the Europa League, has a created a far more competitive environment.
In another era, one where teams dominated in époques, Ferguson’s record may have been more impressive. After all, in the decade between 1970 and 1980 Ajax secured three European Cups in a row, Bayern repeated the feat, before Liverpool and Nottingham Forest each secured a brace back-to-back.
Nor has any manager bettered the Scot’s record during the modern era, although Mourinho may change that fact this season should Real win at Wembley in late May. In mitigation, few managers can match Ferguson’s 202 Champions League games spread over nearly 20 years.
There have been plenty of near misses too; those seasons when Ferguson’s side was just a shade short of the best. Defeat to Real Madrid in both 2003 and 2000 hurt, as did the semi-final loss to Bayer Leverkusen in 2002. Indeed, Ferguson’s team in the four years between 1998 and 2002 achieved far less than the sum of its considerable talents.
Which, perhaps, is why the injustice of the past week has hit Old Trafford so hard. Ferguson is building a team better than many had believed, evidenced by a healthy Premier League lead. But it is in Europe that the standard is set, and the Scot’s side has now been eliminated in the group stage and first knock-out round in the past two campaigns.
“I probably haven’t felt that disappointed for a long, long time,” says veteran Ryan Giggs of defeat to Real.
“But somewhere in your head there are so many positives as well. Because I think that we performed so well, we made Real Madrid look ordinary at times. It was a proper European performance.
“The manager always says about games in Europe: ‘Be careful because the roof can fall in.’ And it did, but not in a way in which you can really blame the players, tactically or some of the performances. It was shock. I’ve never seen a stadium in shock like that.”
The disappointment will wear off though, leaving Ferguson with perhaps two more campaigns to add a third Champions League victory to his roster.
There are no guarantees though. Ferguson is acutely aware.
David Gill’s surprise announcement on Tuesday, that he is to step down as chief executive of Manchester United after 10 years in the position, comes as a personal “blow” to manager Sir Alex Ferguson, leaving the 71-year-old Scot without a key Old Trafford ally. It is the most serious conclusion to draw from Gill’s resignation, which will take effect after the season has concluded in June.
Gill’s departure comes against the backdrop of the 55-year-old executive’s move into football politics. Gill, who has spent 16 years at Old Trafford first as chief finance officer and then ceo, recently joined the FA as vice chairman, and is applying to join UEFA’s executive committee. He will remain as a non-executive director of the club.
Meanwhile, 40-year-old Edward Woodward, very much the Glazer’s man, will take up his new role with a remit to further strengthen United’s commercialisation strategy. Woodward becomes ceo after a highly successful campaign to broaden United’s commercial reach over the past seven years, which has seen the club’s commercial revenues nearly triple to £117.6 million.
Woodward, formerly executive vice chairman at the club, led the team that globalised United’s commercial reach and diversified the portfolio of sponsors. Under Woodward’s executive leadership United’s aggressive commercialisation is highly unlikely to slow down.
But it is the impact on Sir Alex that is of primary interest to supporters, who have witnessed just three chief executives during Ferguson’s reign; Gill, Peter Kenyon and Martin Edwards. Indeed, Gill has become Ferguson’s close confidant in the past seven seasons, and a central link between the playing side of the club and the detached Glazer family in Florida.
“I have worked alongside the finest manager in the history of the game and been part of what I consider to be the best club in the best sport in the world,” said Gill in a statement released shortly after United informed the New York stock exchange on Tuesday.
“I have always been conscious of the fact that, as a member of staff, I was always just a temporary custodian of this marvellous institution. I am also of the view that all businesses need to refresh themselves with new management and ideas and after 10 years in charge I believe it is appropriate for someone new to pick up the baton. I’m delighted Ed has accepted the role.
“I am looking forward to continuing my involvement on the club board. And I hope to be able to make a contribution to the game on a wider national and European level.”
Without Gill, Ferguson’s political position at the club is challenged. After all, it was Woodward, not Gill, that was the primary driver of United’s IPO roadshow last summer, at one point promising potential investors that the Reds will not spend more than historical norms on transfers and wages. It was a promise that many people took at face value – an average net transfer budget of less than £20 million per season.
Recent analysis by blogger Andy Green forecasts that United’s surplus cash flow could reach more than £100 million in the coming years, putting Woodward on a collision course with Ferguson over budget, should the septuagenarian Scot remain at the club.
No wonder Ferguson admitted his dismay at Gill’s departure, with the man dubbed ‘Safe Hands’ no longer in the boardroom to facilitate his manager’s relationship with the American owners.
“I have been at United for over 26 years and for 23 of those years my boss has been one of only two men: Martin Edwards, who brought me to the club, and David Gill,” said Ferguson on Tuesday.
“Of course we have had a million arguments, but I have always enjoyed them because I know that David has two great qualities: he is straight and he always puts Manchester United first. No disagreement is ever personal with him. He always wants the best for United, whether it’s the players, the training ground or the staff.
“Him stepping down is a big loss to me but the fact that he is staying on the board encourages me that the reason for his departure is heartfelt, that he believes it is time for the club to move on. If I could have found a way of persuading him to stay I would love to have done that.”
In a decade as ceo, first under the Plc regime and latterly working for the Glazer family, Gill has generated significant controversy. Gill was integral to much of United’s first wave of commercialisation, provoking criticism from the media for United’s marketing approach, and from fans for the evolving nature of the Old Trafford matchday experience.
Gill also led the board’s strategy to increase ticket prices ahead of the Glazer’s leveraged buyout, justifying rises under the mantra of retaining the club’s ability to fight off a hostile takeover. It did little good.
Most controversially, Gill initially rejected the family’s approach for full control of the club in 2005, infamously stating that “debt is the road to ruin” and that the Glazer family’s business model was “overly aggressive”. Gill’s hostility soon morphed into support for the Glazer regime once the takeover was completed, although there was little material difference in either debt leverage or business approach.
It takes not a cynic to suggest that Gill’s salary, which has more than doubled since 2005, has bought significant loyalty to the new owners, who have sought to retain the executive’s involvement in a non-executive capacity.
“David has played a significant role in the success of Manchester United in his 10 years as CEO and he can take great satisfaction at all that has been achieved on his watch, both on and off the field,” said Joel Glazer, co-chairman in a rare statement from the family.
“I am very pleased he has agreed to remain on the board, so that his experience and counsel are not lost to us. I hope that the decision he has made will be to the benefit of the game in Europe as a whole, as he seeks election to Uefa’s executive committee.”
Meanwhile, Woodward called his appointment a “great honour,” adding that he is “humbled” to work with Ferguson. Yet, the obsequious words can do little to mask the new chief executive’s remit, which is to drive home the club’s profit goals, generating ever greater margins as the Glazer family seeks to extract equity from the business.
It is an objective that, as one reporter put it on Wednesday, completes the ‘Glazerfication’ of Old Trafford; an entity that now exists primarily to extract profit for its owners, and to be a football team as a by-product.
This process was once anathema to Ferguson, the socialist ship worker’s son, now working for the game’s most commercially geared organisation and under the leadership of the Glazer’s prodigy.