Maintaining old aura the secret to success
David Moyes' best hope is to stay true to the Ferguson ethos, says Richard Sadlier
I played through four managerial departures in my career. On each occasion I would use the same couple of lines to answer questions on how I felt about the change.
"My contract is to play for Millwall, not for any particular manager. I give my all no matter who is in charge." I thought it sounded like something I should be thinking so it's what I always said. But it was only partly true.
My contract didn't stipulate who should be in charge of the team for me to stay at the club, obviously, but my effort was always influenced by the manager and how he worked. There would be no difference between good and bad managers if that wasn't the case. Supporters may read this as excusing a lack of effort, but the success of a team is down to far more than the talent of the players. The trophy count at Old Trafford over the last 26 years is testament to that.
The players at Manchester United won't deviate too much from this line when speaking to the press about the appointment of David Moyes, but Alex Ferguson's departure is such a seismic event that no comparison in the modern era is relevant.
You only have to read some of the insights about Ferguson by former players to grasp the total control he had of the club and its players. When he speaks about what is expected of players when they join United, Ferguson is talking about what is expected of playing for him.
It was Ferguson's personality that delivered their success. Of all the Ferguson quotes and anecdotes I read in the past week, his line about David Beckham stands out for me. "David Beckham is Britain's finest striker of a football not because of God-given talent but because he practises with a relentless application that the vast majority of less gifted players wouldn't contemplate."
He created a culture where that level of commitment was expected on a daily basis from everyone, and the challenge facing David Moyes is to ensure it remains.
But perhaps his greatest challenge will be dealing with Ferguson and his lingering influence. Bobby Charlton said last week that he doesn't expect any interference from Ferguson in team affairs. He will have no office in either Carrington or Old Trafford and told the players he would be going nowhere near the dressing room once he leaves.
But there will be after-hours contact as there always is between players and departed managers. It would be unnatural for it to be any other way, particularly in this case. Talk of a clean break from team affairs is one thing, cutting off contact with the players is entirely different. If you had the ear of Alex Ferguson and needed some advice, you'd be a fool not to ring him. Moyes will have to accept this.
He was appointed because of his resemblance to Ferguson and the similarity in their approach, but every player in the squad has been bought or promoted through the ranks by Ferguson. And many who signed for the club cited working with him as a main attraction.
Playing for Alex Ferguson is a different experience to playing for a manager who shares many of his values. Moyes may have similar ideas on how clubs should be run, but it's the response he gets from the dressing room that will determine how long he lasts. He may have a similar outlook on youth development and squad discipline, but a central component of United's success was Ferguson's ability to
motivate those around him. Moyes is not the only manager who falls well short by comparison, but there are others who come a lot closer to matching him.
Ryan Giggs will be competing for his 14th Premier League medal next season under the guidance of a man who has only won the Division Two title as a manager. For all the talk of philosophy and longevity, Moyes won't last if the players don't perform. United are judged on how often they win the major trophies, so appointing a manager who has never lifted one is not a decision you could describe as safe.
While he needs to gain control over the players immediately, Moyes will be the main beneficiary if Ferguson's aura continues to dominate the dressing room. Line up two teams of equal ability, and the one managed by Ferguson will succeed almost every time. The club's success was not achieved because of its structure or its policy on youth. It was delivered by the sheer force of Ferguson and his personality.
Doing things the Manchester United way meant doing things the way he demanded. It's been a long time since there was a distinction between the two. Moyes' best hope is that it continues to remain that way.