It is always worth pointing out the mitigating circumstances under which a man had to operate when writing any sort of obituary, and it would be fair to say that he had some genuine difficulties with which to contend at Deepdale. Firstly, while the football played under Alan Irvine immediately prior to his dismissal was neither scintillating nor successful, the sudden nature of his sacking still rankled with some supporters who remembered how he had saved the club from relegation in 2008 and then gate-crashed the final play-off place a year later. The popular notion was that Ferguson was the choice of Trevor Hemmings, the long-running benefactor of the club whose friends on the horse racing circuit included a certain Sir Alex. Having seen his predecessor unceremoniously thrown on the scrapheap by the board at Deepdale, there was an expectation of immediate impact that was understandable on the part of paying customers, but placed an unfair burden on young shoulders.
Having scrambled to survival in the Championship, the club was eventually taken over by Hemmings in the close-season following a winding-up petition over an unpaid bill from HMRC. The full extent of the damage done by North End’s chase of the ‘promised land’ finally started to come to light. Hemmings, who had funded £4 million of player purchases during Irvine’s tenure, was owed a total of around £13 million, and expenditure had exceeded turnover to such an extent that he was now paying the tax on a swollen wage bill out of his own pocket. Shareholders who had taken up Bryan Gray’s issue in the mid 1990s may well have been upset as Hemmings saw the winding-up petition to justify dictating the terms of sale. However, the club now faced two clear choices – accept the full control of Hemmings and move back from PLC to being a private company, or face administration, relegation and from there, who knows?
So ahead of their eleventh season in the second tier of English football, North End and their supporters had less cause for genuine optimism than they had in any summer of the previous decade. David Moyes had worked a miracle to bring the Lilywhites to within one game of the Premier League in 2001 (their opponents that day, Bolton Wanderers, have been in the top flight ever since). This fed an expectation that remained after his departure, and upon realising he was unable to bring superhuman efforts out of the same personnel, Craig Brown called for investment in new players. While Billy Davies had two successive near-misses in 2005 and 2006, the clubs total liabilities were slowly creeping up, and the substantial funds given to Irvine had represented a last throw of the dice by previous chairman Derek Shaw. Now Hemmings was determined to cut his losses, and Ferguson’s remit included slashing the wage bill by a third while retaining Championship status in 2010/11.
So one could understand the view that the job was impossible, and coming to the conclusion that this was an unfair sacking of a man with one hand tied behind his back. The reasons why this writer would ultimately disagree with that analysis come from having watched a lot of Championship football this season, and noticing the same issues with North End that were occurring on a weekly basis.
Games dominated but drawn or lost, the loss of winning positions, often to late goals that were utterly avoidable and conversely the failure ever to turn a losing position into a winning one. Players looking lost on the field, with little of no grasp of the gameplan under which they have gone onto the field, and post-match interviews that bemoaned this week’s kamikaze moment while limply imploring supporters to ‘keep the faith’. Good teams do not make the scale of individual mistakes that those in a lilywhite shirt have this season.
Moreover, people in all walks of life are less inclined to get something wrong when they have an intuitive confidence in what it is they are being asked to do. As for the vital commodity of faith, only a string of good results can buy that, and such a sequence occasionally threatened to materialise but ultimately did not. North End have had some good performances this season, but it is logical with hindsight to dismiss the 4-6 win at Leeds as something of a freak result. On the other occasion where their attacking play genuinely excelled, old habits contrived to turn a 1-3 lead at Burnley into a 4-3 defeat.
There is sympathy from this writer for the hand that the manager was dealt in the close-season, but it would also appear that there are players at Deepdale who have either stalled or gone backwards. Sean St Ledger, a regular starter for the Republic of Ireland, is the most notable instance of a one-man decline in a white shirt this season. Wearing the emerald of his country, his anticipation and understanding of where the ball will be at a given time remains. In the league, however, a lack of confidence and uncharacteristic blunders have punctuated what has been a poor season on a personal level as well as for his team. A niggling groin injury may explain a dip in form, but could not possibly account for moments of hari-kari such as the back-pass that gifted Barnsley a 1-2 victory at Deepdale.
Players like Andy Lonergan and Billy Jones have proved themselves to be top performers at this level in the past, and are capable of more than they have shown. Neither would be doing themselves justice playing in League One. Add to this the arrivals of Richie De Laet, Danny Pugh and Michael Tonge on loan and it is not unfair to expect better from the roster at Ferguson’s disposal.
Preston will need a manager to come in and hit the ground running as they lie five points away from safety and appear to be sinking. The familiar members of the Football League merry-go-round have of course been touted by the bookmakers and in the media, but one gets the feeling that a truly inspirational and possibly left-field appointment may be required to lift the gloom and enable all at Deepdale to draw a line under a pretty traumatic 2010.
Whoever he is, he will not have the benefit of loans from Old Trafford on tap, but it is a fair question to muse if this is the right way to go in the long run anyway. For Ferguson, the misfortune is that even now his previous successes with Peterborough are being cast in a different light. The achievement of successive promotions is now tempered with a reminder that he got a free hand in the transfer market as well as greater spending power than many of his rivals. This is unfortunate, and it would appear that he has to go back to the drawing board and begin the journey all over again. If one positive has come out of this, maybe it is that supporters of clubs he managers in future will not be tempted to speculate that they have another incarnation of his father on their hands. That is a weight on the shoulders you one would not wish on any man.