Fifteen years seems a long enough time to prepare for an event you know will happen. That is double the time countries hosting the World Cup or the Olympics get. But despite knowing about it for so long, and supposedly preparing for it, the fact that Manchester United has failed to manage the transition into the post Alex Ferguson age raises serious questions of how it went about this, arguably, the most crucial job the United management has faced since the 1960s.
That such a transition from the man who was, probably, the greatest manager in the British game was not going to be easy is a given. But that the successor should be sacked within ten months of being hailed as the ‘Chosen One’ says little for one of the biggest clubs in the world which has always been proud to advertise itself as being superbly managed. All the more so as United had a dress rehearsal for the event 12 years earlier. With United it seems despite having said the event was inevitable when the time came the club proved just as competent, or incompetent, as most clubs do when it comes to choosing a manager.
To be fair this transition had particular issues which added to the problems the United management had to cope with but since some of these problems were self inflicted there can be little sympathy for the Old Trafford board. And the depressing conclusion for United followers is the club appears not to have learnt any lesson. 2014 is turning out to be not that different from 1968 when another club legend Matt Busby finally called it a day.
I say 15 years because to judge how United have managed, or failed to manage, the transition we need to go back to 1999, the year Sir Alex Ferguson achieved what he calls the greatest feat of his remarkable Manchester United reign. That is when Ferguson not only emulated Busby’s 1968 feat of winning the European Cup, as the premier European cup competition was then known, but did the treble. If Busby had gone where no English club had gone before, Ferguson took United to a world that had been a fantasy before 1999, winning the Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League.
Even back then the people who ran United knew they would never again experience such a high and in the Old Trafford boardroom there was much discussion of what happens when Alex finally calls it a day. And, of course, within two years United were faced with the problem with Alex calling it a day only to change his mind when he heard that Sven-Goran Eriksson was to be his successor.
1999, as it happened, was also the time when I was writing my first of two books on Manchester United and during lengthy conversations with Peter Kenyon, then at the helm of affairs at United, it was clear how concerned were the United board members to make sure that they must at all costs avoid what happened when Busby retired. Kenyon had been wrestling with the issue of succession ever since he arrived at Old Trafford and more so when he became chief executive in 2000. In January 2001 at a soccer conference in Cannes he went public and assured the assembled football executives and the media that this time, unlike 1968, United would get the succession right. No United supporter needed to be reminded of what happened when Busby left.
Then the legendary United manager was allowed to name his successor, allowed to interfere with his successor’s work, the team he left behind was ageing, it’s talismanic player, George Best, could not be managed, and after a traumatic few years United, champions of Europe in 1968, had to suffer the humiliation of relegation.
So having had so long to prepare, and having had a trial run in 2002, why did United get it wrong?
It is abundantly clear what happened. The Glazers followed one part of the disastrous script of 1968 and then were hit by the economics of modern football where for a club like Manchester not qualifying for the Champions League is the modern equivalent of being relegated. It must also be said that the economics of modern football, and the need for Champions League football, presses particularly hard on the Glazers. That is because of the huge debt they incurred in buying the club and the resultant need to service the debt.
The disastrous script the Glazers followed is to allow their departing manager to nominate his successor. This is just what the United board allowed Busby to do in 1968. In 2013 the Glazers had even more reason to rely on Ferguson. Ever since the Glazer takeover Ferguson, to the surprise of many fans opposed to the Glazer ownership, has formed a close relationship with the Americans. He found them much more amenable than Martin Edwards who had always treated him as an employee. Ferguson has publicly documented the strain between the two and the problems he had with Edwards every time he wanted a salary rise. There were just as many problems when Ferguson wanted funds for players with Edwards pleading that as a listed company United had to observe strict limits on spending and cater to the needs of the shareholders.
In contrast, despite the fact that the Glazers make heavy demands on the company’s finances they always made sure Alex was happy. And, unlike Edwards, the Americans took the position the coach knew what he was doing and had to be backed. It is interesting to observe that the Glazers have completely transformed how United are managed off the field. So much so that, despite being a Manchester club, the corporate entity that is Manchester United is managed from London where the chief executive is based and almost all the crucial decisions regarding finances and sponsorship are made. But on field decisions remained in charge of Ferguson with Sir Alex directing operations from United’s training ground in Carrington.
However unlikely this alliance between the Scot and Americans bringing Harvard Business school management methods to English football may seem it worked only to come unstuck in the most important decision of the Glazer regime. Then the Americans relying solely on Ferguson to guide them accepted his choice without looking at the many other candidates who might have been more suited to the job. Had this been a management appointment for the corporate side of the business they would not have even considered following such a procedure. But in Ferguson they had total faith and with Ferguson not prepared to look beyond the narrow confines of the Glasgow world he knew and trusted so well the Glazers have paid a heavy price.
Even then it might just have worked had Moyes managed to make sure that United qualified for the Champions League which, in financial terms, is the most important tournament in the world for the Glazers. Moyes did not and from that moment he was doomed. The problem for the Glazers is who do they turn to now to help find a successor? And if they cannot get it right does that mean United are in for a period of transition, that dreaded football word, which means they will drift for years hoping to be in the top four every season but never sure they will make it. All the while Liverpool, who Ferguson worked so hard to crush, return to their glory days. This is, of course, just what happened post Busby and what a repeat of history it will be if Ferguson’s departure leads to the same result.
But while under Ferguson United could recover the Glazers face a more serious problem. Back in the 70s with football not needing much money the Edwards’s family could survive and eventually prosper as money came into the game. Glazers, who came into the game attracted by the money to be made, may not survive should United suffer the sort of slump they did when they botched the Busby transition.