Manchester United: Who will want to sip from the poisoned chalice?

EIGHT YEARS after the club’s most glorious and prolonged era of success, Manchester United are still looking for a manager that can live with the past while moulding a new, contemporary future. 

The departure of Ole Gunnar Solskjær, far from being a bolt from the blue, was always a case of “when, not if”. It would have been an uncomfortable decision to make, the dilemma of hiring favoured sons and then discarding them is never an easy situation once the goodwill and friendship tokens run out. Nobody ever wanted to criticise Ole too much, especially as coaches don’t always select their new squad members at some clubs, but the biggest problem was the cherubic Norwegian being one of United’s own. 

It’s a warning to clubs in this hire-and-fire world of instant gratification that employing guys that were once part of the furniture and much-loved figures is not a good idea. It invariably ends in tears, even if those tears manifest themselves in the form of emojis on social media that include multiple hearts and kisses!

And who do United turn to now? Succession has long been a subject to avoid at Old Trafford by all accounts, going back to the days of Sir Matt Busby. United took almost a decade to compensate for the loss of the guiding hand of Matt and it’s heading in that same direction now in the post-Ferguson years. Since Sir Alex retired in 2013, United have had four permanent coaches and have won three prizes. By their own standards, this is a lean period, although they did go from 1968 to 1977 without a trophy. Two of the three were won by that lovable pantomime villain José Mourinho in 2017, the last time anything remotely gilded was placed in the trophy cabinet at Old Trafford.

Solskjær’s future was judged almost on a game-by-game basis. His appointment had the look of an interim holding job, but United got carried away by six consecutive wins and rather hastily gave him the job full-time in March 2019. For a coach to be on the brink for so long and for a rabbit to be pulled out of the hat at the 11thhour so very often tells its own tale – nobody was ever too convinced about Ole. Watford 4 Manchester United 1 was never going to look good for him.

It didn’t help Solskjær that Manchester City have been harvesting trophies like over-zealous farmers. Since 2013, City have won 11, including four Premier League titles, six Football League Cups and the FA Cup. As Morrissey once sang: “We hate it when our friends become successful, and if they’re northern, it makes it even worse.” Certainly, as City have taken over, United have had more than a hint of Morrissey melancholy about them. Meanwhile, Chelsea, the other thorn in United’s side, have lifted six, Arsenal four and reborn Liverpool have won two in that period. 

When Ferguson left the job, he had won everything – 13 Premier Leagues, five FA Cups, four League Cups, two Champions Leagues and the European Cup-Winners’ Cup. It was always going to be impossible to follow such a record which, incidentally, was built on the back of 1,500 games in charge.

But United’s relative lack of success since Ferguson moved to the comfy seats is also down to their very average record in the transfer market. United cannot complain that they’ve lacked transfer market clout because since 2013-14, they have spent £ 1.22 billion gross and £ 855 million net. Only City and Chelsea have spent higher. Since 2018-19, United have spent more than City (£ 487m versus £ 474m) and are among the top six across Europe in terms of transfer activity.

But as well as some disappointing signings, they’ve also, rather curiously, become something of a retirement home for big-name players – Cavani, Ibrahimovic, Ronaldo – which hasn’t been a disaster but smacks of desperation and seems rather demeaning for one of the world’s biggest and richest football clubs. Cristiano Ronaldo’s signing now seems like a publicity stunt rather than part of a team-building strategy. He’s scored and kept his side of the bargain but United’s team doesn’t look better for his presence.

So who will want a job that should be one of the most coveted in world football? United have missed out on some big names who have recently found new employment, the most recent being Antonio Conte, but Allegri, Pochettino, Ancelotti, Benitez, Mourinho, Howe, Nagelsmann, Flick, Tuchel and Gerard have all moved into new jobs over the past year or so. Zinedine Zidane is out there, but apparently, he’s not interested. If United want or need a huge name, they may struggle, but others, such as Unai Emery, Roberto Martinez and Ajax’s Erik Ten Hag, will surely be mentioned in the coming days. Of these, Ten Hag may prove to be the favourite, but United’s board will be only too aware, they cannot afford to get it wrong and slip further away from clubs like City, Chelsea and Liverpool. Equally, they may decide to play safe and lure someone away from their club in mid-contract. Leicester’s Brendan Rodgers has been tabled as a possibility, but after leaving Celtic halfway through a season, will he risk being torn apart in the media for doing it again?

It’s not only United that have to make the right decision, the man who takes the job also has to be sure where he stands in terms of resources, transfer targets and long-term objectives. The club should not be as far away as it is from the main title challengers or lack the vision of most of its peer group at home and abroad. Not everything can continue to be blamed on an iconic manager’s long reign coming to an end. One possibility is that United’s success under Ferguson in the latter days of his career possibly masked other problems within the structure. In the coming months, United do not just have to make the right choice for the dugout, they also have to ask themselves what else is really wrong at Old Trafford?

Football management – it’s business, not personal

FOOTBALL MANAGERS at the highest level don’t seem to be too upset when the axe falls. For a start, you never get to hear about the end of a managerial reign, most victims undoubtedly sign NDAs (non-disclosure agreements), the tool of the employer who feels uncomfortable about sacking an employee. The corporate world has long used these documents to silence people that have been “terminated” because their face doesn’t fit anymore or the end of year headcount needs to be reduced. 

Football seems to have adopted a similar approach, issuing bland statements that include terminology like “mutual consent” and empty messages of gratitude for what the manager has done. However, we can all see through it – if the club was that grateful, they wouldn’t be writing press releases along those lines in the first place.

Managers know that nothing lasts forever. They are also aware the cycle of tolerance is getting shorter and shorter. When Martin O’Neill walked into the City Ground a few years ago to take over Nottingham Forest, he hinted his appointment was short-term and that nobody has a lengthy period to build anything lasting these days. O’Neill is an intelligent man, he knew the score better than most.

Building dynasties, that great myth in football, and committing to the long-term, are things that just don’t happen, no matter how many times a club says their current manager is the man they’ve always been looking for. And not too deep down, the manager knows he’s not got much time to make an impact. Everyone talks about José Mourinho’s three-year cycle, but that’s about average these days, Mourinho is no different from the majority of club managers in the Premier and Football League or even the non-league structure. For every Arséne Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson there are hundreds of Antonio Contes.

Chelsea is a case in point. When Maurizio Sarri arrived with his so-called “Sarri ball”, you read plenty about a breath of fresh Neopolitan air and how the players loved his style. But just a few months later, with Chelsea struggling to hold on to a top four place, Sarri spoke-out about the difficulty of managing his squad and there were rumblings of problems behind the scenes. Sarri was destined to go before the two-year cycle is up, and Chelsea started again. But we never heard much about the mechanics or why things went wrong, because the lawyers will ensure the coach is shifted out of view in the dead of night. Chelsea are not alone in taking this approach, but it is a cynical, short-sighted way to do business.

Right the way through football, the manager is the centre of attention when it comes to the well-being of the club. In non-league, there’s an added ingredient and that’s over-familiarity. In the big time, supporters and officials can turn their backs on the manager when things are going wrong because it is a business decision. They all know the manager will be well compensated for his time and inconvenience of being sacked. Some managers make a living out of being hired and dismissed in a fairly predictable series of events. But in non-league, it is hard to be anonymous although the same culture of impatience exists – one thing is certain, the manager will get sacked at some point.

That’s why it’s important to retain some realism about the role. A manager that hits on a bad run has not become a bad person, he’s simply run out of juice, contacts and ideas. Supporters and club officials will give the manager the benefit of the doubt if they like him as a person because sacking “good guys” is not an easy task and they will retain loyalty up until the last moment. But even the manager has to realise that loyalty does not win points and as everyone knows, football is a results business and if those results are sub-optimal, it is far easier to dispense with the manager than a group of players.

Often, sacking a manager doesn’t mean the club will necessarily obtain a better replacement, but it can provide fresh impetus and enthusiasm for an ailing team. It has been proven that managerial changes do sometimes prod a team to produce better results, but that does depend on the tools the manager has to work with. If the squad is so bad that the team looks doomed, then only a last-ditch rebuilding programme can prevent the drop.

How long should a manager be allowed to remain in his job? The days of Wenger and Ferguson are over and we have to acknowledge these were two exceptional men. Brian Clough stayed too long at Nottingham Forest, despite winning two European Cups, and left with the club relegated and tears running down his cheeks. It was a shabby finale for a legendary manager. All through football’s history, great managers have often bowed-out with their reputation-making triumphs long in the past. Knowing when to go has always been hard for football people, whether they are players, chairmen or managers.

But that’s because human nature tells us that it is difficult to look people in the eye and say, “time to go, mate”, because the person on the end of that comment sees any lapse in loyalty as utter betrayal. But actually, the manager’s acolytes are precisely the people that should be telling him the party is over  –  the individuals that will, at every turn, give their manager the truth. It’s often overlooked, but loyalty is not just about telling your pal that he’s great all the time – like the Emperor’s New Clothes –  it is also about saving someone you respect from humiliation, reputation erosion and, at its worst, ridicule. The trouble is, there are not many folk around who will speak the truth when the situation is eye-to-eye, and not many managers want to hear it, largely because football is a simple game where the narrative is black or white (one goal completely changes an afternoon!). It becomes very personal, but perhaps they need to take a leaf out of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather. “It’s business, not personal.”

A manager who stays too long runs the risk of using-up all his cards and ending up like a desperate poker player trying to turn things around. In any walk of life, creativity is not infinite, there is a build-up, a peak, a plateau and a slope. The secret is knowing how to prevent a long decline and to time the end to perfection. Sir Alex Ferguson went out with a title, Wenger departed with his reputation still largely intact, although Arsenal were a long way off their best days under the Frenchman. It is maybe more difficult to measure what success really means in the non-league football world – is it silverware, financial management, community engagement or perhaps just consolidation?

Whether it is in the higher echelons of the game or in local non-league football, the manager stands or falls by his record, but it will always be the most recent results that will dictate the mood around a club. That’s why loyalty only has so much value – if a team is losing, doing the same thing time after time is rarely going to transform a club’s fortunes. To overcome bad results, fresh ideas have to come to the fore, either from the incumbent or from a new man. That’s not football speak, that’s just plain common sense.