Manchester United: Ferguson’s Poisoned Chalice

As much as it pains me to write about Manchester United – being a die-hard Liverpool fan – I feel that the almost, inevitable failure of David Moyes is a forgiveable topic. Whilst reading The 90-Minute Manager I stumbled across some valuable insight and historical analysis. It led to me believe that the recent below-par performance by Manchester United is not only expected, but it is set to continue. I may well be forced to eat my words one or two years from now, but if the day comes when Moyes gets the sack remember that you read it here first.

The 90-Minute Manager is a book written by David Bolchover and Chris Brady, it compares and analyses football management in relation to business management, concluding that successful football clubs should form the basis for how businesses are run. My inspiration for this piece comes from this book, and all quotes are taken from its pages, unless otherwise noted. I plan to write about this book in more detail in a later post, so for now let us just focus on the topic at hand. The current and future failure of Manchester United under David Moyes.

A key reason for success at any club is the independence of the manager. As long as that manager is of a certain standard and quality the only obstacle should be the opposition on the pitch. The independence of the manager encompasses the hiring and firing of players and staff of his choosing, the application of his favoured tactics and formations, and the unquestionable authority of his role and position. The 90-Minute Manager believes that a decisive factor for success at Liverpool when Bill Shankly left and Bob Paisley took over was that “Paisley’s new authority was not undermined by the former managers continued presence at the club”. The new manager, Paisley, needed to stand on his own two feet and make his mark on the team. If Shankly, with his in-your-face attitude and illustrious reputation, had stayed around then Paisley’s task would have been made incredibly difficult.

This is the scenario that occurred at Old Trafford when Sir Alex Ferguson handed control of the team over to David Moyes. In almost every single way Ferguson has been the perfect manager. His ruthlessness, his tactical knowledge, his motivation, his mind games, his loyalty and passion, there is almost no flaw to this man in terms of football management, and that is highest of praise seeing as it is coming from a Liverpool fan. However, right at the very last, on the final hurdle towards greatness, Ferguson has stumbled. He has not done what Shankly did for Paisley and that is going to cost Manchester United dearly in the short-term.

In order to be the perfect manager Ferguson needed to bow out gracefully. He needed to step aside and allow his successor to make a mark and stamp his authority on the team. If Ferguson was simply a great manager, and Moyes was simply someone who replaced him when Ferguson retired, then Ferguson’s actions would not be particularly important. But Moyes is not just a replacement, he was a hand picked successor, and Ferguson was not just a manager, he was an institution. He epitomised Manchester United, if you cut him he probably bled Manchester United. The appointment of Moyes and anything surrounding it should have been geared towards the continued success of the club. But it was not, and that is one of the only black marks on Ferguson’s entire illustrious career.

Ferguson regularly attends Manchester United fixtures at Old Trafford, and recently has been travelling to away games as well, with many news outlets commenting that this has heaped pressure on Moyes who must be aware that Ferguson is watching his every move from the crowd. Ferguson’s book release is another source of contention in my opinion, it came only a few months after Moyes had taken control as manager and in the midst of a Premier League season. The release of such a publication will undoubtedly gather huge attention, and with tales of the glory days written by the man himself, it was sure to evoke comparisons between the old regime and the new. Why did it have to be released at that time? Why not wait a year or two, until Moyes was comfortable in the job and Manchester United were stable, before releasing it? After all, it is not as if Ferguson needs the money.

At best Ferguson’s appearances at games mean nothing and his book release was bad timing, but at worst it is as Roy Keane believes; Ferguson is still trying to exert power at Manchester United and his ego is undermining any work Moyes hopes to do. In an article written by the Express Roy Keane, though admittedly not Ferguson’s biggest fan, stated that “everything is about control and power. He’s still striving for it now even though he’s not the manager”. Moyes is metaphorically, and sometimes even literally, living in Ferguson’s shadow, and that will only spell disaster for Manchester United and Moyes.

The successes of Manchester United in the last few decades have all been attributed to one man, and that is Ferguson. I believe that this attribution is both deserved and correct, but with one man holding such a reputation and being responsible for so much, anyone attempting to replace him will struggle if he remained in the picture.

As well as Ferguson’s determination to stay in the picture, he also tarnished his near golden managerial image by passing on a poor team. Whereas Shankly left Paisley with a team on the rise, Ferguson left Moyes with a team very much coming towards the end of its life. Moyes has the unenviable task of having to dismantle and break up a hugely successful team and attempt a difficult rebuilding process with great expectations on his shoulders. Ferguson initially looked to retire in 2002 but decided to postpone his exit from the game until last summer. If he had had the best interests of the club at heart, and he wanted his hand picked successor to continue the great success he had brought to the club, maybe he should have retired at a more favourable moment. Passing the torch at a time that benefited everyone.

In the 2007/08 season Manchester United, with Ferguson in charge, won the Premier League title and were crowned kings of Europe after defeating Chelsea in the Champions League final. This, perhaps, should have been the last hurrah for Ferguson. He would have left on the ultimate high and would have handed over a squad in their prime. Patrice Evra had just hit his peak at the age of 28, Rio Ferdinand was still a top defender at the age of 31, Gary Neville was still playing, Nemanja Vidic was only 28, as was Michael Carrick. Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes still had a few years ahead of them, and Manchester United’s strikeforce consisted of Wayne Rooney, Carlos Tevez, Cristiano Ronaldo and Dimitar Berbatov. It was a world class team and it had potential to keep going.

Ferguson did not retire that year though, he waited, and delayed, and as mentioned, decided to go last summer. Ferguson did Moyes no favours with the team he left behind. Evra, Vidic and Carrick were all 32, Ferdinand was 35, Tevez, Ronaldo and Berbatov had all gone, as had Scholes, Neville and Giggs, and Rooney was now 29. It is true that in the years preceding the hand over Ferguson did make signings but these were not quality replacements, they were fresh blood, inexperienced and they were not adequate to replace those that had gone, or were coming to the end of their careers. Nani was 27, Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young were both 28, and the one major signing of the years leading up to Ferguson’s retirement was older still. Robin Van Persie was not bought by Ferguson with one eye on the future, it was not a signing in aid of a long term plan, it was made for instant success, and though it worked, it is cruel on David Moyes. United’s capture of the league title last year “was not a launch-pad for further success but rather the swansong of a great team which had reached its peak two or three years previously”.

The current predicament at Old Trafford has a fair few similarities with what occurred in the late 1960’s after Matt Busby was replaced by Wilf McGuinness. To illustrate my point here  is a paragraph from The 90-Minute Manager that could just as easily be about Ferguson as it is Busby; “Busby had been manager at United for 24 years, had built three great teams, was idolized by the clubs supporters and held in reverential esteem by the players, many of whom had played for him a long time… There were not too many around who could clearly recall a United without Busby, let alone a successful one. In short Matt Busby was Manchester United”.

The successes and the skill of Ferguson makes him perhaps the greatest football manager of all time. He deserves all the praise attributed to him, but he is not without fault. Though he may be considered a god at Manchester United, we should not forget that gods are not always benevolent.

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7 thoughts on “Manchester United: Ferguson’s Poisoned Chalice

  1. I read this when it was first written and saved it and watched 2015 implode, then 2016 ditto. The toxic handshake still exists in 2017. United fans are waiting for Joe to take the team to the Promised Land and today 2/4/17 he missed with a draw at WBA, end of Champions League hope and another year in the Europa looming. I will re-save this blog and pull it out next year about this time to see where United are. Fourth at best. Had United taken Klopp instead of Joe, I think they would be contending with Spurs for second right now. If he can do what he has done with an under-strength ‘Pool squad, imagine what he could have done in Manchester Red. See you next year. As for Moyes, he will bring Sunderland back to the Prem at the chance of first return with a squad of his making and turn them into a respectable mid-table team, which is what he does best.

    1. It seems this piece has staying power. I think Jose’s time at the top has come to an end. As you say with Klopp, and hint at with Tottenham under Pochettino, a new breed of manager is here. The worrying question for United is, who do they turn to in a seasons time when Jose decides he has had enough or when he upsets enough players that they go on strike again?

      1. I think about this often as United went through this kind of patch before Ferguson and after Matt Busby. Some fair football managers took over only to be dashed against the rocks of his success. Same with Ferguson. My hope was that Moyes would be the answer but he was not given a fair shot (late appointment to the job and a panic buy of Fellaini). Rooney’s decline and several players’ locker room poison who refused to play or had minor injuries that “kept them out” did not help. I think Chelsea were lucky to get their new man.

      2. Yeah, I think Chelsea have appointed well in Conte. He should stick around for four or five years at least, bring some stability and silverware. Likewise, Liverpool with Klopp, City with Guardiola, and Tottenham with Pochettino. Only Arsenal and Man Utd are in that rebuilding phase, and I am not sure either Wenger or Jose are the answer.

        Unlike you, I didn’t ever see Moyes as the solution to Ferguson retiring. He had an awful record against the top four, had never won any silverware, and I think his performances since being sacked justify that move in the first place. Fellaini was never a United player, and panic buy or not, it has been just one of a number of awful signings for the club.

        Pogba (£89.3m), Martial (£36-58m), Schneiderlin (£24m), Depay (£16-£21m), Di Maria (£59.7m), Shaw (£30m), Fellaini (£27.5m)… none of these could be considered value for money. And for those seven players, its an expenditure of at least £282.5m. Though the managers have to take some criticism, the transfer committee at Utd, or whoever is in charge of buying players, deserves some attention too. Would be interesting to think what Ferguson makes of these transfers and their fees.

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