Week 39 – Successful succession (Premier League column for Goal.com Japan)
“I’d also like to remind you that when we had bad times here, the club stood by me, all my staff stood by me, the players stood by me. Your job now is to stand by our new manager. That is important.”
Given the size and success of the empire that Sir Alex Ferguson has built at Old Trafford over the past 26 and a half years, it was always a no-brainer that he would stick around to offer his expertise as club director and ambassador post-retirement. As such, it made perfect sense that his final task as manager of Manchester United was to choose a replacement. The new man would require the ability to carry on the 71-year-old’s good work plus the strength of character to work alongside him, and despite murmurs in France that Paris Saint-Germain boss Carlo Ancelotti had been sounded out too, from the start there were clearly just two strong candidates. In the end, David Moyes was a vote for minimally disruptive long-termism over the brisk, brilliant, and brief love affair that José Mourinho would have promised.
The concept of dictating one’s own successor while continuing to exert significant influence in the background thereafter is nothing new. For over a century in the late Heian Period, Japanese imperial authority was defined by it, as the insei system of cloistered rule saw a succession of emperors abdicate to ensure stability and consolidate their own positions of power. Ferguson would need to live to 113 in order to match the exploits of Emperor Shirakawa, who perfected the insei practice by surrendering the Kyoto throne to his son, Emperor Horikawa, in 1087 only to carry on pulling the strings as family patriarch for another 42 years until his death in 1129. But United need not look anything like as far, either geographically or historically, for a warning over the dangers of applying similar thought to football.
It took the Red Devils a long time – many would argue until the appointment of Ferguson in 1986 – to emerge from the shadow of their former great manager, Sir Matt Busby. Taking the reins after the cessation of World War II hostilities in 1945, Busby narrowly survived the Munich air disaster that killed eight of his Babes in 1958 to rebuild and finally win his desperately-coveted European Cup ten years later, before retiring in 1969.
But his continued presence in the corridors of Old Trafford and even on the touchlines of the training field as general manager served to overshadow his immediate successor, Wilf McGuinness, from day one. Aged just 33, the former wing-half was so stressed that he was well on the way to complete baldness by the time of his sacking in December 1970, with the team placed 18th in the old First Division.
When Frank O’Farrell arrived as McGuinness’s permanent replacement in June 1971, he was asked to take a smaller office down the hallway as Busby was still yet to vacate the big one with ‘Manager’ written on the door. The former Leicester City boss refused, aware of the need to underline his own authority, but still found himself heavily compromised by the close relationship Busby enjoyed with the players who had brought him continental success.
In an interview with the Daily Telegraph in 2011, O’Farrell complained, “He was always about somewhere where the players could find him. 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 [O’Farrell’s first signing] was responsible for letting in all these goals, when it clearly wasn’t his fault. He was interfering.” The Irishman only lasted a season and a half, too, and though the club went back to Scotland for his successor, Tommy Docherty was unable to stop the rot and United were relegated to the second tier in 1974 – just six years after their famous 4-1 victory over Benfica in the European Cup final at Wembley.
However, the good news for United fans today is that while Ferguson has always sought to maintain the traditions of Busby – such as attacking football, discipline, and youth development – and even enjoyed a close relationship with the man himself, latterly club president, until his passing in 1994, he has already demonstrated his preparedness not to repeat the mistakes of his old mentor. In effect, the process through which Busby unconsciously laid traps for his successors began with the tired and aging state in which he left the United squad. By contrast, Ferguson has continued to lay the foundations for the team’s future right up until the final years and months – with signings like Phil Jones and David de Gea, the development of players like Rafael da Silva and Tom Cleverley, and finally the deal for 20-year-old Wilfried Zaha to join from Crystal Palace next season.
In a similar fashion, Ferguson knows that he must now step back and allow Moyes to be his own man. The 50-year-old carries with him an excellent reputation from 11 years at Everton – not least for the respect he commands from his players, his precise tactical awareness, and his ability to get the very best from a squad pieced together with very limited financial investment. There are clearly various concerns, too; from his inexperience in European competition or title races to a certain indecisiveness in the transfer market and a less than perfect record with strikers. The key for United’s continued success will be to develop an efficient relationship whereby Moyes can – and does – willingly call upon Ferguson’s wealth of knowledge to supplement the areas in which he is initially lacking without the threat of pressure coming the other way.
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