United needed a Bill Clinton but got a Jimmy Carter
Alex Ferguson was supposed to have plans for an enjoyable retirement, largely centred around wine, horses and travel, yet it appears as though he has chosen pain and misery ahead of pleasure by becoming a big black cloud forever hovering over David Moyes.
It is unintentional, of course, but the defining image of Manchester United's new-year slump is proving to be that of Ferguson sitting uncomfortably in the posh seats as his old team's form and results go from bad to worse.
Perhaps Ferguson has cottoned on to the suspicion that he is becoming an unwanted distraction, judging by his attire at Sunderland, semi-disguised under a navy blue flat cap. But as United slumped to their third defeat in three games in this Capital One Cup semi-final first-leg, Ferguson once again hovered like the ghost of seasons past while Moves' turmoil continued in the manager's seat.
There is a growing debate as to whether Ferguson's omnipresence in the directors' box on a weekly basis is proving a help or a hindrance to the man he hand-picked as his successor. Having been handed a directorship by United's owners, the Glazer family, Ferguson is quite entitled to enjoy the boardroom hospitality at Old Trafford, the Stadium of Light and whichever other ground he chooses to visit as the club's former manager.
Yet Ferguson's aura has not dimmed in retirement and he is proving a magnet for television cameras and photographers whenever United concede a goal or the final whistle blows on another defeat.
It is becoming a recurring theme. Moyes shakes his head on the touchline and offers his hand to the victorious opposing manager and the camera cuts away to Ferguson, shuffling out of his seat with a face like a member of the Politburo staring down on Red Square from the Kremlin.
Ferguson has no executive powers in his new role, but that hardly matters. The first time he offers a glimmer of annoyance or frustration, it will carry one hundred times more weight than a shrug of the shoulders from Joel, Bryan or Avram Glazer.
Moyes could do with the 72-year-old booking himself on a three-month cruise and disappearing from the scene until the storm clouds disappear from United's horizon.
But there is a counter argument which suggests that Moyes simply has to get on with it and regard Ferguson as part of the Old Trafford furniture. Moyes has made all the right noises to suggest that is his approach to dealing with Ferguson, but he is probably acutely aware that competing with his predecessor's star quality is a battle he is never going to win.
Ferguson came as close as any football manager to assuming the persona of an American president, striding the stage with awe-inspiring presence. As a result, United needed a Bill Clinton to follow in his wake -- a young, bold contender ready to make his own history -- yet at times, they appear to have ended up with a Jimmy Carter in Moyes.
Carter could never quite escape his background as a peanut farmer from Georgia and Moyes is having his own problems stamping his personality on the United job after his modest beginnings at Preston and Everton.
There is still time, however, for him to emulate Clinton by becoming the Comeback Kid and make up for the false start he has made in his first six months.
Crucially, the United supporters remain full square behind him, with the majority accepting that he inherited a squad in urgent need of renewal when he took charge last summer.
The backing Moyes received from the 6,000 travelling supporters on Wearside was impressive, with defiant chants barked out throughout the game.
"Every single one of us, will stand by David Moyes," was aired repeatedly, particularly when the manager strode out to the technical area to issue instructions to his team.
There is no doubt that Moyes is showing the strain of United's uncharacteristically turbulent campaign, however. The grey flecks in his hair, weather-worn complexion and heavy eyes were evident whenever he was in full focus, but it would perhaps be more of a concern for those supporters offering their backing if the Glaswegian appeared as fresh as the day he arrived last July.
Yes, there have been some dismal days for United this season, but Moyes has been bold enough to promote the teenaged Adnan Januzaj to the first-team and the Belgium-born winger once again rewarded his manager's faith with a courageous performance against Gus Poyet's team.
But there have been too few reasons to be cheerful in recent weeks and this defeat was another low blow. On this occasion, a questionable decision by an assistant referee, rather than a poor team display, proved decisive in his United's downfall, so that may offer Moyes some solace.
Solace is not much use to Moyes now. He just needs results. (© Daily Telegraph, London)