The recent rumours that Sir Alex Ferguson intends to step down as Manchester United manager at the end of next season have been met with a swift rebuttal from the man himself that must come as a blessed relief to the Glazers and United supporters alike.
The fact that Sir Alex has said that ‘his health is paramount’ and that he would stand down should it deteriorate is obviously the sort of detail that is likely to be the catalyst for intrigue and gossip. The insistence that “It is rubbish. There is no truth in it” is the sort of firm and emphatic response that people crave but comes with a problem of which the seeds were sewn almost a decade ago.
In 2001, Sir Alex announced that the 2001/02 season would be his last as manager at Old Trafford. This had an effect on performances and results that can only be described as horrendous. United were well out of the title picture early in the season and had their heaviest home loss for 10 years when Chelsea ran riot in a 3-0 massacre at Old Trafford in December 2001. Shortly after that point the retirement plan was reversed and the United players began to look themselves again. With the sense of urgency and immediacy restored, they rose from their mid-table position to eventually finish third. Three years later, Sir Bobby Robson made a similar announcement that the 2004/05 season would be his last as Newcastle manager. His team then proceeded to start the season in a disorganised fashion, lacking the edge that had seen three successive top-five finishes. Poor results and a squad that was descending into petty indiscipline meant that the decision to stand down was taken out of Sir Bobby’s hands altogether. The form line is not good in this area.
Announcing in advance that you will not be in charge for much longer seems to send the modern player into a comfort zone. The necessity to prove oneself over a prolonged period of time suddenly disappears and the effect on results is evident. Having been in this position himself, Sir Alex will be aware of this more than anyone. Perhaps the only time at which we will know for certain will be at the end of next season. It sounds unfair to question whether or not he is being completely honest, but Sir Alex has plenty of reasons to keep any retirement plans to himself, and not all of them are directly related to football matters. Ill-feeling towards the Glazer family from a large section of Manchester United’s support has intensified this season following the revelation that the sale of Cristiano Ronaldo was sold essentially to balance the books and service the debt loaded onto United by their leverage buy-out of the club. The reason no big-money direct replacement was brought in is because the funds to do so appear simply not to have been there. The green and gold scarves donned by fans in the colours of Newton Heath and the ‘Love United – Hate Glazer’ banners you see at games are visual aids to the sense that their club has in some way been violated by a mercenary owner.
Sir Alex has been one of the most respected individuals amongst United fans to stand up and ask the supporters to give the Glazer family a chance. One can only imagine the effect had he refused to publicly support them or worse, walked out in protest. What is more, Ferguson has done a remarkable job given that he lost arguably the world’s second best player last season. His ability to coax Wayne Rooney into more inspired, match-winning performances and draw efforts from Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs that defy the laws of age remind us what a great manager he is and always has been. In an age where fans talk about needing a £20 million player to strengthen the team, we often lose sight of what a manager is supposed to do. By definition, it means managing the resources at your disposal in the most effective way. Sometimes this means getting more for less. Before he came to United and had the benefit of substantial transfer funds, he demonstrated an ability to squeeze every last drop out of a player with St Mirren and Aberdeen and this talent has remained with him well into his sixties. Whoever gets the keys to 10 Downing Street on May 7 is going to have to make real cuts to some sacred cows. This means getting more for less. There are much worse people than Sir Alex to whom they could turn for advice.
So the Glazers in particular have an awful lot for which to be grateful to the best club manager of his generation. Not only has he kept his team punching slightly above their weight, he is probably the difference between a lot of discontent and full-blown revolution at Old Trafford. It is a lot more difficult to organise a boycott of a winning team with a manager adored by the supporters, and it is very likely that this is the real reason that genuine anger towards the Glazers has amounted to little more than scarves and placards. A new manager may struggle to keep the Ferguson ethos at United going and would be less popular with the supporters as a result. Then the Glazers would be in huge trouble, and one suspects that they know this. The other issue that has become evident over the years is that a viable successor to Sir Alex has not really emerged. The retirement story carried the suggestion that Jose Mourinho may be the man to step in as and when the situation required a new man. Now ‘the Special One’ has indeed got a great track record, and the stories of his frustration and boredom at Inter Milan appear to have been accepted as fact. United have a tradition of playing a certain way – a positive, attacking style which aims to entertain and win at the same time.
Mourinho is a great coach in many ways, but he has never sent a team out with exciting the crowd as a high priority. Indeed he once stated his mantra when his team was ahead was to ‘park a bus in front of the goal’. Throw in the friction with United that stems back to a Champions League tie with Porto, and this writer just cannot see it happening. Successive former United players have periodically been touted as future managers at the Theatre of Dreams and it is worth briefly examining their post-playing careers. Steve Bruce became a ‘possible’ after his work in twice winning promotion with Birmingham City and establishing Wigan Athletic as a solid Premier League side. However, the early evidence is that he has found his level as a manager at Sunderland, who look like a mid-table side who may challenge for Europa League qualification in an exceptional season. Is Bruce a good manager? Yes. Up to the challenge of managing one of the biggest clubs in Europe? There is no real evidence that this is the case. Mark Hughes was a real contender in the not-too-distant past after his excellent work as coach of Wales and then with Blackburn Rovers. The way it all ended for him at Manchester City is an unfortunate black mark on his resume, given that the ‘not enough time’ defence carries at least some validity.
Here was a chance to gain a club entry into the Champions League and that would certainly have done his career prospects a world of good. When Roy Keane managed Sunderland to promotion in 2007, he was another whose ‘destiny’ was said to be the Old Trafford dug-out. Subsequent struggles and a mixed record at spending clubs’ money seem to have put kicked that prediction into the long grass. Perhaps the only manager who you could realistically see stepping into the breach is David Moyes. Everton have been a strong Premier League side despite never having the cash injections of some of their rivals and their manager has an attitude to the task that could be described as Ferguson-esque. In the age of modern player power, keeping a calm authority over a dressing room can be a difficult task. Moyes does this, and does not suffer fools gladly. He spends a club’s money as if it is his own, he does his homework on players. Moreover, he gets the most from the