Dion Fanning: Losing Ferguson was bad enough, but Man United also lost the fear of being beaten
Published 13/12/2015 | 17:00
Last weekend, there was a touching display of loyalty from an unnamed source within Manchester United who let it be known that the club had no interest in replacing Louis Van Gaal with Pep Guardiola.
This was loyalty as preached by Alex Ferguson, although it might not have been loyalty as practised by Alex Ferguson.
The club was doing its duty and standing by its manager, as Ferguson instructed Manchester United fans to do at Old Trafford on that fateful day in 2013.
Guardiola may have decided to go elsewhere anyway, or it might have been a genuine act of devotion towards a man they believed in, but it certainly had nothing to do with the ethos developed by Alex Ferguson.
There are comforting bromides in football and then there is the truth. No man is bigger than the club, they say, but that was something Ferguson's actions disputed during his time at Manchester United. Ferguson acted in the club's best interests but they chimed with his own instincts too, instincts which may have valued loyalty, but which believed most profoundly in survival.
There was one overarching philosophy, 'Get rid of the c***s', and an attendant message, delivered in a thousand different ways, but which could be distilled into a simple phrase: 'Lose and you're a c***'.
Manchester United's abandonment of their traditional attacking football has been noted by many, but their relentless commitment to attack under Ferguson didn't come from a romantic attachment to cavalier football. It would be simplistic to say it came from terror, because there was more to Ferguson than that, but it stemmed from him, from his ambition, from his desire to win and his fear of losing, which wasn't a fear as much as an existential dread.
Ferguson's genius was his ability to transmit this to his players without paralysing them. Yet they understood. They understood when they went behind that there was only one acceptable thing now, and that was to win. They understood when a game was scoreless that the manager expected them to win. It was nice that these things were achieved with some extravagance, but there is really no other way when everything depends on it. United had verve the way a man running into a burning house to save his family has verve.
The contrast is what will bring Louis Van Gaal down, unless he can win the league this season. These days Manchester United are always thinking ahead as they engage in an actuarial process, a slow and methodical assessment of the opposition. They are always worried about the consequences. They worry about the opposition, and perhaps it can be no other way.
Ferguson provided certainty. That was his philosophy, while his legacy is uncertainty, the anxiety that comes when the man who is telling them everything is going to be all right - as long as they don't lose - retires and a succession of inferior leaders try and replicate the role.
Ferguson could tell his players before they played Bayern Munich in the Champions League final 1999 that Bayern weren't "as good as Arsenal" because United had already beaten Arsenal, and Ferguson believed Manchester United could beat anyone.
It wasn't boring on Tuesday night when Manchester United lost to Wolfsburg. The game was full of errors, but it was exciting. At the end of it, however, Manchester United had lost, which was a betrayal of the most important tradition from Ferguson's time.
Ferguson's time ended only two years ago. In some ways, it is not a surprise that Manchester United continue to find it difficult. They have spent £250m, fired one manager and are on the brink with another. But they have lost the most fearsome, the most dominating and the most powerful figure English football has seen. In time, people might wonder why they were expected to recover from that so quickly.
Of course, they may never recover from it. Louis Van Gaal appeared to be the right choice when he was appointed. He was dictatorial and knew his own mind. He was fearsome and bold, and all those traits were familiar. But, like Winnie the Pooh in search of honey, United may be looking at Van Gaal now and thinking, 'these are the wrong sorts of bees'.
Maybe they still believe in their plan which, like many unworkable plans, contains a succession element which will see Ryan Giggs appointed manager when Van Gaal retires.
Meanwhile, they continue to think extravagantly in the transfer market. During Ron Atkinson's time at United, it was said they were trying to sign Michel Platini "in case they get a free-kick on the edge of the box".
On Friday, sources were again letting it be known that United were pursuing Neymar, Gareth Bale and Ronaldo as they channel the spirit of the Atkinson age off the field, while Van Gaal replicates the Dave Sexton era on it.
United, it could be said, have legacy issues, but they should be worrying more about the future than the past.
Maybe next summer they will sign Bale, Neymar or Ronaldo. Maybe Ed Woodward will be congratulated then as he was congratulated before when Angel Di Maria signed, or when he managed to get Juan Mata without directly negotiating with Chelsea because he was frightened they might make him sell Wayne Rooney to them.
But it might be better if United looked as if they hadn't spiralled out of control in the years since Ferguson retired, engaged in an endless search for a guru like a bored heiress who might finally discover through psychoanalysis that she has issues of abandonment with her father.
All of these things could be overcome if they hadn't lost one thing more than all the others. Ferguson romanticised his roots and his own story but he never lost his ruthlessness when he was on club business.
Perhaps Guardiola has decided to go to Manchester City, but United should make sure he can't be tempted. They may like their plan of giving the job to Giggsy, but if they went through with it, they wouldn't be demonstrating loyalty, they would be in danger of becoming sentimental.
Sunday Indo Sport