United history may be about to repeat itself
Lack of succession plan at Old Trafford has echoes of former times, writes John O'Brien
Ah, so there he is, peeking away beneath an unfamiliar navy blue cap, as stern and forbidding as he ever was. Sir Alex. He hasn't left the building, it seems. All that fine and expensive claret in the basement? Well, it matures all by itself, you see. And the horses? Barely even a distraction. He's a football man to the marrow of his bones and what is it that football men do? They go to games, stupid.
But Ferguson was no ordinary manager and these are no ordinary games. So no surprise that any attempt to debate his present status at Manchester United is doomed to a frivolous exchange of spite and counter-spite. Here's a thought, though: Ferguson's seeming ubiquity at games isn't the high watermark of his successor's problems, but neither does that rule out the probability that it mightn't, you know, be helping all that much.
Frank O'Farrell, as perplexed as the rest of us, surveys the unfolding saga from his home in Torquay, the adopted town to which he eventually returned when unceremoniously dumped out of Old Trafford a mere 18 months after being handed the poisoned chalice by Matt Busby. Wilf McGuinness, the first charged with taking on Busby's powerful legacy, had lasted 14 days longer.
"There are similarities," O'Farrell says, reflecting on David Moyes' current plight. "It's the aftermath of a man who had been there for many years and in what condition he left the club in terms of players, whether they were over the top or not. Which was the case when Matt went. Looking at it from a distance, I thought Alex Ferguson had left it better than Matt Busby when he finished."
Now he's not so certain. Even that traumatic post-Busby era has become a topic of heated debate in itself: the sad story of McGuinness, the unsuspecting assistant anointed by Busby to a position he'd never coveted, the turbulent reign of O'Farrell, the Corkman's plucky and ultimately doomed efforts to escape the claws of Busby and become his own man.
Over 40 years on, the echoes resonate. Then as now, with Busby edging towards retirement, the sports pages were filled with speculation as to who would fill the void. Jock Stein and Don Revie topped the list. O'Farrell, like Moyes, had done well at a smaller club and was seen as a manager with a bright future.
For his first appointment, the story went, Busby hadn't bothered to ask McGuinness, merely telling the 31-year-old to turn up for work the following day wearing a tie. It's hard not to recall that story now and think of Moyes being summoned to Ferguson's house in Manchester, apparently fretting over his choice of attire, to be told rather than advised of the direction his managerial career was about to take.
Whether Ferguson had allowed United's resources to deteriorate in the manner of Busby is a moot point, but the club's unhealthy reliance on Wayne Rooney harks back to the way O'Farrell's fortunes seemed almost entirely bound in the mercurial feet of George Best.
Of course the game has moved on now, unrecognisable from 20 years ago, let alone twice that. Yet some things remain immutable. Successions are tricky things at the best of times, devilishly hard to get right when such iconic figures are in question. Six years after Busby stepped down, United were condemned to relegation. For Leeds after Revie, that spiral took two years longer and a lot more pain to rectify.
In contrast, Liverpool seemed to manage more seamless transitions. But at what price? When Bill Shankly finally stepped down after 15 glorious years in charge, he still couldn't quite tear himself away from the training ground. "Bill, you don't work here anymore," an exasperated Bob Paisley felt compelled to tell him one morning. "This is my team here. I've got things I want to do."
So Shankly was effectively shunted out of the club and resented it for the rest of his life. "I have been received more warmly by Everton than I have by Liverpool," he wrote in his autobiography, published a year after his retirement. He felt abandoned and contrasted his treatment to that of Busby by United. The Shankly Gates, the club's tribute to him, were only unveiled a year after his death.
Because he was such a popular figure, a true people's man, it was always easy to side with Shankly. Yet it seems harsh to criticise the board for wishing to make a clean break. Shankly had seemed to place himself on a war footing with his own directors ever since he arrived from Huddersfield in 1959 and found few friends when he needed them. He was a great manager and a huge presence. Ultimately, though, he couldn't be bigger than the club.
No man ever should, of course. And Ferguson, while nowhere near the autocrat Busby became at Old Trafford, should not have had the power to appoint his own successor. We are not privy to the true nature of his relationship with Moyes, but the publicity tours last year cannot have helped. A wiser course would have been to lie low for a year. But there was a book to plug, a reputation to burnish. A need, perhaps, to remain in the public eye.
Maybe it's a curiously British thing for men to remain in power long after you suppose their natural remit should have expired. It is both strength and weakness. Ferguson, through his passion and the sheer force of his will, brought huge success to United, but where was the succession plan? That a long-standing manager and CEO should leave at the same time suggests the club was lacking in this regard.
Ferguson is a known admirer of the Bayern Munich set-up where a galaxy of club legends serve the club in various capacities. There's no useful lesson to be applied here, though. For one, it took Bayern decades to achieve their current stability, enduring derision and "FC Hollywood" taunts along the way. For another, their success is part of a wider shift in German football culture where debt is controlled.
For Moyes, or whomever might follow in his path, there is an even tougher legacy to confront. A club leveraged steeply in debt in which fans, as Roy Keane once pointed out, are regarded as customers to be shaken down at every conceivable opportunity, wedded to corporate leeches who suck the money out of it that would once have been used to properly service the team. For sure, Moyes has made mistakes. But he has inherited a poor hand, a great club beginning to exhibit the first signs of decline.
It isn't a full-blown crisis yet, but that point doesn't seem that far off either. True, Moyes enjoys the apparent security of a six-year deal, but O'Farrell was given five years and still only lasted 18 months. What odds history repeating itself, Moyes getting the heave-ho and United turning to an old hand to re-steady the ship?
"I wouldn't have thought so," O'Farrell says dismissively. "His time was up and he realised that and he wanted to do something else. He wanted to enjoy his life, watch the horses running or something like that." Still, stranger things have happened. In an unending soap opera, even the corniest scripts seem possible and wasn't it one of the greatest ever characters who uttered the immortal line? "Football, bloody hell."
He hasn't gone away, you know.