MANCHESTER UNITED are going through what amounts to something of an identity crisis. The astonishingly high standards set during the Ferguson era meant that whatever followed him would be an anti-climax, but the club has made a series of poor judgement calls, partly in desperation to return to winning ways – and that means league titles – and partly because of the need to maintain “alpha club” status. The wealth of Manchester United means that sooner or later, they will once more find a bottle of the magic elixir they need, but for the time being, the phrase “work in progress” has become the new mantra at Old Trafford. Ole Gunnar Solskjær is now being compared to Wilf McGuinness, and that’s not being unkind as young Wilf was thrown into a role that he was far too inexperienced to fill.
There have been only two consistently successful United managers in 50 years – Sir Matt Busby and Sir Alex Ferguson. Together, they have created a legacy that is virtually impossible to live up to: Ferguson won 29 major prizes (title, cup and Europe) in his career, Busby in a different time eight. It took almost three decades for United to get over the departure of Busby, and so far, they haven’t done a very good job of replacing Ferguson.
In both cases, United did not handle succession well. In the 1970s, they succeeded in making the job an unattractive and thankless task and with Moyes, Van Gaal and Mourinho all falling short, they’re repeating the error of their ways. The difference is, today’s environment and the corporatisation of football will not allow United to go 26 years without a league title.
But who will take on a job that will, almost certainly, leave a small, hard-to-remove stain on the rest of your career? If United sits at the peak of the football world, along with Real Madrid and Barcelona, then surely it is downhill from being shown the door in Salford? Look at David Moyes, a capable man with decent credentials who struggled at United and stood and watched as light aircraft flew past with instructions for the board. Since then, his career has floundered and he’s almost disappeared from view. Former United managers don’t tend to do that well after leaving the club, their stint at Old Trafford tends to be the high point and then life starts to get more mundane.
It’s easy to fail at a club with no resources, but it’s also easy to seen as a failure at a club with financial clout
Consider that post-Busby, Wilf McGuinness ended up at York City after a spell in Greece and was out of the management game by 1977. Frank O’Farrell, after leaving United in 1972, went to Cardiff and had two spells with Torquay after sampling life in Iran. Tommy Docherty, sacked after admitting to having an affair with his physio’s wife, tried his luck at QPR and Derby County, but was never as compelling as he was at United.
Dave Sexton had a good long period in the England set-up, but his club career had effectively peaked when he left Old Trafford in 1981. And then there was Ron Atkinson, who departed the club in 1986 after failing to break the Liverpool monopoly.
Mourinho’s win rate of 58.33% was better than all of these men, indeed better than Busby’s (50.45%). Ferguson, with a win rate of 59.67%, was the most successful in so many ways. But whereas Ferguson was given time (five full seasons and half of 1986-87 before winning the title), nobody enjoys the benefit of patience any more.
United appear to be somewhat unique in being a damaging experience – it will be interesting to see how Mourinho fares when he eventually gives up on sombre punditry and TV advertising.
Sensitivity and patience
Traditionally, United haven’t installed a revolving door at Old Trafford, unlike Chelsea where Roman Abramovich’s regime appears to operate with all the sensitivity and patience of a Wall Street investment bank. You often wonder if managers are only aware of the sack when a security guard enters the office, with the head of HR, equipped with a black bin liner for his personal possessions. Managers have become wise to the temporary nature of their appointment and the last two, Antonio Conte and Maurizio Sarri have almost been relieved to get out of Stamford Bridge. Nobody is in any doubt, regardless of what clubs say, it’s not about building dynasties, it’s all about instant gratification.
Given that Chelsea’s business model is now well understood – not a single appointment has lasted 200 games since Mourinho arrived in 2004 – their managers have not turned left out of the stadium and ended up in the managerial equivalent of Brompton Cemetry. Conte, Sarri, Carlo Ancelotti, Luiz Felipe Scolari, André Villas-Boas and even dear old Claudio Ranieri have all been well employed since leaving London SW6. Roberto Di Matteo, the unlikely hero who won the Champions League, has not been so lucky. In some ways, OGS is United’s RDM.
Chelsea are among a handful of clubs who trawl through the A to Z of management’s top names every time they decide that one trophy-less season in two is too much to bear. Basically, nearly all Chelsea’s appointments actually win silverware and if they don’t look like they are going to, they are shipped out mid-season – witness, Scolari and AVB. The others are Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid. The three managers that appear to have no problem in getting a top job are Mourinho, Pep Guardiola and Carlo Ancelotti. The latter’s CV is remarkable: Juventus, Milan, Chelsea, PSG, Bayern, Real Madrid and Napoli. Nobody, though, lasts too long for various reasons. In the past decade, only men like Guardiola at Barca, Max Allegri at Juventus, Sir Alex at United and Arsène Wenger at Arsenal have had a 200-game single stint at the leading clubs.
It’s only natural that elite organisations need an elite stadium and an elite coach to match their ambitions. United will doubtless have an expiry date on the OGS project and it is probably approaching. Will there be plenty of takers? Absolutely, for United is the pinnacle, one of the most sought-after jobs in the industry. But it has changed. United no longer has the potential of a “job for life” such as in Busby and Ferguson’s case. When the latter retired, that really gave the board license to adopt a new approach, but it has yet to be productive.
There’s a temporary look about United at the moment, and that’s not what people expect. But then, they didn’t expect that at Liverpool and it took 30 years to move on from the cult of the Boot Room. Despite the burning desire for immediate success, people have to acknowledge that mostly, clubs with stability in their DNA are generally more successful. United have not just tipped out of the top four and the title chase, they’ve also moved into the “slightly unstable” category. It has been a long time since they were last in that position.
And let’s not forget, OGS, where will he go next should he be given a one-way ticket to see the Northern Lights?