We all know the history, Sir Alex Ferguson arrived at Manchester United and couldn’t believe the shambles the club was in. The Reds’ first team squad was engaged in a constant beer festival, the training ground resembled an allotment and the youth policy was miles behind neighbours City. It’s telling that in the late 80s while City could point to the likes of Andy Hinchcliffe Paul Lake and David White as academy graduates now providing a strong nucleus for the first team, Russell Beardsmore was the only new home grown player troubling United’s starting eleven. Talking of the starting eleven, United’s was its weakest for almost a decade as it wasn’t just alcohol that had decimated the squad, but also poor investment and injury which ultimately led to Ron Atkinson’s departure.
Peter Davenport and Terry Gibson were two of the strikers the new manager singled out as being far below the standard he desired when he looked to move the club forward, while the likes of Paul McGrath and Norman Whiteside would need to drastically change their lifestyles to placate the new boss- a change that never really came while either were still at Old Trafford.
Ferguson set about addressing the various problems with gusto – the number of United youth scouts was trebled, new players were signed and less reliable ones moved on, while the drinking culture at the club was dragged to the kerb and given a thorough beating.
Fast forward 26 and a half years from when Sir, or just Alex as he was known then took over the drunken, sleeping giants with the cabbage patch of a training ground and neglected youth policy and things were immeasurably different. As the most-successful manager in not just the club’s, but also British football history announced his retirement, United were unrecognisable from the outfit he’d taken over all those years ago. The club had a training complex that was the envy of the world, an academy that had produced a conveyer belt of stars and a first team who were the reigning Premier League champions.
Why then, less than three seasons after Sir Alex retired does the club seem closer to the shambles of the mid 80s than the dominance of the late noughties? Are fans being melodramatically pessimistic when we talk of ‘replicating Liverpool’s years in the wilderness’? Or are we really witnessing the beginning of the end of United as one of Europe’s top clubs? On the surface things aren’t quite as gloomy as many of us have been suggesting. The team are six points off the top four with more than three months of football left to play, they’re a win over a lower league side away from the last eight of the FA Cup, with a home tie against a team below us in the Premier League if we do manage to beat Shrewsbury on Monday. As for Europe, we’re a goal down in a tie against Danish minnows in the Europa League- hardly the end of our European campaign.
Yet despite on paper things not looking too shabby, scratch beneath the surface and all is not well at Manchester United, the ship isn’t quite sinking but there’s a bloody great big hole in it that needs filling. The results have been lacklustre, the football has been awful and the natives are restless, throw into the mix a reported power struggle at board level between the old and new guard over who’s the man to succeed the seemingly doomed Louis Van Gaal and it all looks a bit late 1980s. All that’s missing is Michael Knighton and his ball juggling.
Even the clubs precious youth academy which has seen a player amongst the first team ranks in every game since the 1930s, is beginning to show signs of weakness. Until recently United’s under 18 squad endured a run of 13 straight defeats, it’s taken over a year to appoint a successor to Brian McClair as head of the Reds academy and recent stories of the Glazer family cutting youth funding only add to the sense of pessimism surrounding the club at the moment.
Couple United’s recent struggles with the fact that over in North Manchester, City continue to invest millions in their academy and it’s infrastructure, while it’s only a matter of months before Pep Guardiola takes over their first team and it doesn’t make pretty reading for Reds. Even perennial comedy providers Liverpool are in danger of getting their act together under Jurgen Klopp. It’s not the greatest of times to be a United fan.
The Reds need to bounce back from the recent disappointments and remind the world that the club is still capable of winning more than just big money sponsorship deals. A new manager would be a step in the right direction as long as he’s the right man for the job, someone who as Ferguson did all those years ago, could clear out the dead wood, bring in the right signings and get the club challenging again. According to reports the club is faced with two choices to replace Van Gaal- Ryan Giggs or Jose Mourinho. One is a club legend who reportedly has the backing of Sir Alex Ferguson, the other who Ed Woodward apparently favours is an arrogant, egotistical, agitator who just happens to be one of the most successful managers in Europe.
It’s a romantic notion that Giggs will “do a Guardiola” and emerge from the shadows to make United the dominant force they were whilst he was a player. The only problem with the Giggs as a saviour idea is it’s one that seems born out of faith rather than actual evidence. Giggs was a great player but so far as a coach he’s been part of two backroom teams that have bordered on disasters. Giggs came out of the whole Moyes mess almost blameless, to the point where he was tasked with steadying the ship after the former Everton boss almost ran it aground. This season Giggs hasn’t quite been as Teflon-esque as he was during the Chosen One’s tenure but by-and-large most of United’s problems have been laid at Van Gaal’s door. You can’t help but wonder how much influence the former winger has over first team affairs and whichever way you look at it, something’s not right. If Giggs does have an input into tactics and selection then why hasn’t he helped the manager identify what’s been going wrong and if he doesn’t have much say then what exactly has he been doing the past three seasons?
Why is Ferguson so keen to see Giggs – with only four games managerial experience- succeed Van Gaal over Mourinho who has managed his sides in more than four cup finals? The idea seems to be that Giggs would be more willing to give youth a chance, based presumably on him giving James Wilson a debut in the four games he was in charge for. There’s also the idea that Giggs would be less egotistical and cause less friction with the media, he wouldn’t drag the club’s name through the mud in the way Mourinho would. This point is a ridiculous basis for hiring a manager. He doesn’t upset people?! Since when do United covet being liked by the media? Since when do the fans want other clubs to love us? We don’t. Imagine if in 1986 United had convinced the lovable Sir Bobby Robson to leave the England job and take over at United. Would the club have won 13 titles and 2 Champions Leagues under him? No, but we may have made a few more friends along the way.
The more ludicrous argument being put forward is the one about attacking football, Mourinho doesn’t favour it, while presumably Giggs does. Under Mourinho Chelsea managed 71 goals and 73 goals in his last two full seasons, during the same time the Reds managed 64 and 62 goals. It’s a convenient excuse to label a manager who was often adept at grinding out a result – 0-2 at Anfield for example to stop Liverpool winning the league- as being negative. While we all look back at Fergie’s time at United with reverence as some form of perpetual attacking display, the truth is the reason the Reds won so many titles and cups was the team’s ability to not just sweep sides away, but also dig deep and bag the last minute wins too- “Fergie time” anyone?
It seems Sir Alex wants his former player rather than his former adversary to succeed Van Gaal, as Sir Bobby Charlton himself -another Mourinho detractor- commented a few years back: “He [Ferguson] doesn’t like him [Mourinho] too much, though.
Towards the end of Sir Alex’s reign, United failed to invest properly in the long term security of the squad, young players brought in such as Wilfried Zaha and Nick Powell proved well below what was needed, while the one midfielder who could’ve had the team built around him for years to come- Paul Pogba- was allowed to leave. Buying Robin Van Persie papered over some pretty huge cracks and yes, Sir Alex left the club as Premier League title holders, but it’s becoming clearer by the day just how much rebuilding was needed. Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra couldn’t be replaced by the likes of Phil Jones, Jonny Evans and Alexander Buttner- only Chris Smalling and Rafael Da Silva seemed up to the job of being United’s long-term defenders. Players that Sir Alex had been able to get the best out of such as Nani, Tom Cleverley and Anderson were almost useless under the new regime and there seemed to be huge amount of dithering over which players were actually available and willing to come to Old Trafford. Thiago Alcantara was apparently lined up to come to Old Trafford, but a bid never came, Cesc Fabregas was chased for the Summer before it become obvious he wasn’t going to come to M16, while the Ander Herrera deal ended up taking 12 months to get right.
Ferguson left the club in a much better state than he found it, of that there can be no doubt, but right now his legacy is in increasing danger of being undermined by the shambles that’s succeeded it and things could get a lot worse. Should Arsenal win the league then even the one manager who stuck around during much of the Ferguson era and even managed to outlast him will have something of the last laugh, while it would be beyond a joke if Liverpool were to do as Klopp promised and win the title during his reign. United need to steady the ship, strengthen the squad and become title challengers again. All that comes from a manager who’s used to success, not sitting on the bench looking pensive while the season disintegrates. We all love Giggs as a player, but as a manager he’d be a gamble too far for a club that’s becoming a shadow of the behemoth Ferguson created. Although Sir Alex could never publicly undermine Van Gaal, if he is lobbying for a replacement in the Summer, it needs to be Mourinho he gets behind, before we look back at the Ferguson era as one that delivered so much but failed to preserve it.