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Alex Ferguson’s presence around Old Trafford is a constant reminder of how things used to be

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Former Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson. Photo: Rafal Oleksiewicz/PA

Former Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson. Photo: Rafal Oleksiewicz/PA

Former Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson. Photo: Rafal Oleksiewicz/PA

Alex Ferguson was at Manchester United’s Carrington training ground on Tuesday. He was not there to chivvy Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s squad, to read the riot act, to tell the hapless defence how to tackle.

Nor was he on site to apply the shears to Paul Pogba’s ludicrous blue hair extensions. In fact, he went nowhere near the players. Rather, he had turned up to his old haunt for an official function alongside Martin Edwards, his erstwhile chairman.

But his presence invariably creates ripples. Any time Ferguson pops up at his old workplace, a constituency on social media wonders whether he is ready to make a comeback – either to step in to clear up the mess at the club or to give temporary assistance as a “bad cop” to Solskjaer’s lovable good cop. That is romantic twaddle: his health these days is not up to such pressure, and he seems more than happy to leave the hard graft of management to others, scrupulous in his determination not to interfere.

Nonetheless, the very fact he is there creates a point of comparison which can, however unwittingly, only undermine his hapless successor. As when the cameras seek him out as he sits in the directors’ box at United matches, hoping to catch him looking forlorn or dispirited, reading into his every frown a stern critique of the manager, leading to the question: what would Fergie do? And the answer is: whatever he tried, he would do it more successfully than Solskjaer.

This is clearly not his intention. Ferguson’s support, his visible presence, is meant to deliver the opposite: a vote of confidence. In truth, his backing is a critical factor in Solskjaer remaining. He may not make the final call on appointments these days, but his influence is still significant. If he were to cut ties with Solskjaer, signal any doubt in public, it would be laughable to suggest his protege might be able to continue.

Clearly, what Ferguson is trying to do by making himself so visible is to provide the kind of moral support that he himself received from Matt Busby when he first arrived at Old Trafford. Busby was 78, a year younger than Ferguson is now. By then, the shadow he cast over his successors had thinned to the point of disappearing.

For Ferguson, Busby’s presence was far less destabilising than it had been for Wilf McGuinness, Frank O’Farrell and Tommy Docherty, the men who had immediately tried to fill the enormous hole he had left. To the newly arrived man from Scotland, Busby was an entirely benevolent figure.

Ferguson has often talked of the reassuring whiff of pipe tobacco percolating the corridors from Busby’s office. As a reminder of the good times, there was nothing more comforting.

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Time has yet to deliver a similarly distant hue on Ferguson’s era: it is eight years, not the 19 it was when he first arrived, since United last won the league.

He has no ambition to step in and sort things out. Yet, he was so successful, so skilled at the processes of management, his very presence acts as a counterweight to his floundering successor.

The Norwegian models his management system on the way his predecessor did things. He delegates to his team of coaches, preferring to intervene sparingly and occasionally, as Fergie used to.

The difference is he appears not to have his mentor’s ability to recruit the best assistants (Ferguson had Steve McClaren and Carlos Queiroz organising the day-to-day training). On the rare occasions he attempts to exert final authority, he entirely lacks the Ferguson aura.

For Solskjaer, Ferguson is a mentor, counsellor and support system. But for the rest of us, Ferguson is the point of comparison. Every time he walks into the training ground – albeit unintentionally – he issues a reminder of how things used to be. And they were a lot better. 

Telegraph Media Group Limited [2021]


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