Manchester United’s next coach will have Britain’s most successful soccer manager, Alex Ferguson, watching his every move. It may not always be a comfortable experience.
Ferguson yesterday announced the end of a 26-year reign that brought 38 trophies, including 13 Premier League titles and two European Cups. The 71-year-old will remain as a director and advise on the choice of his successor, with Everton’s David Moyes the bookmakers’ favorite.
United has been here before. Matt Busby retired a year after bringing the team its first European Cup in 1968. Like Ferguson, he became a director after his 24-year tenure ended, though came back temporarily when his successor Wilf McGuinness struggled. McGuinness said the pressure of following Busby at Old Trafford caused his hair to fall out.
“Sir Matt came back and changed a few things around and got us back into a reasonable position in the league,” United’s first European Cup-winning goalkeeper Alex Stepney said in an interview. “There’s no substitute for the respect we had for the boss and we just got on with it.”
Former United midfielder Paul Ince, who’s now manager of Blackpool, said that while Ferguson’s presence could be of benefit to his replacement, it could also be a burden.
“Replacing Alex Ferguson is such a massive, massive job,” Ince said. “Whoever goes in will need the help of Alex Ferguson. If it doesn’t go well, you’ve got Sir Alex Ferguson upstairs and it can put added pressure on you.”
The last of Busby’s five league titles came in 1967. As its fortunes declined in the early 1970s, United even dropped out of the top division in 1974-75 as Busby watched on from his director’s seat. While there were F.A. Cup successes, it took Ferguson’s arrival in 1986 to set United on the way to winning the league again, the first coming in 1993 after a 26-year gap.
Ferguson led the club to a record-extending 20th English championship this season. He’s built winning teams through a combination of nurturing talent from the club’s youth academy, including midfielders David Beckham and Ryan Giggs, and signing foreigners such as Eric Cantona and Cristiano Ronaldo.
The Scot helped to turn United into England’s richest team. Its American owners, the Glazer family, raised $233 million by selling 10 percent of the 135-year-old club in 2012. United had revenue of 320 million pounds ($497 million) last year, and from July 2014 it will have General Motors Co.’s Chevrolet brand on its shirts as part of a $559 million agreement.
Jim O’Neill, the outgoing chairman of Goldman Sachs Asset Management, said the new manager has nothing to worry about with Ferguson watching on as a director.
“The Busby thing was badly dealt with, but it’s a different era, different issues,” O’Neill, a former United board member, said in an interview. “I know he won’t try to interfere.”
Even so, Ferguson’s successor shouldn’t try to emulate the retiring coach, O’Neill added.
“If you’re wise you’re not going to think of replacing him,” he said. “How can you replace Alex? You have to try and do it differently.”
O’Neill described Ferguson’s longevity as “staggering” and said his success as a manager was down to his adaptability and “preparedness to take a risk and not worry about getting things wrong.”
“It reminds me of some of the best traders I know,” O’Neill said. “We’re in an era of the cult of the high-earning footballer, with salaries of ginormous proportions, and yet they’re all scared of him.”
F.A. Cup Turnaround
It wasn’t easy for Ferguson in his early days at United. He initially struggled to win over the fans, and some called for him to be fired after a losing streak that included a 5-1 defeat at local rival Manchester City in 1989. He kept his job after United improved and won the F.A. Cup the following year, the first of his trophies with the club.
Stepney said the revival followed a conversation Ferguson had with Busby prior to a crucial victory over Nottingham Forest on the way to the Cup triumph.
“When Sir Alex was under pressure from the press, a man put his arm around him and told him not to worry about what they were saying and to ignore it all,” Stepney said. “That was Sir Matt Busby, and that changed everything. That’s probably the best piece of advice he’s had as a manager.”
O’Neill said the timing of Ferguson’s exit made sense because there’s little short-term likelihood of United winning the two European Cup titles it needs to tie Liverpool’s U.K. record of five.
“I know the kind of issues you go through when you have to leave a top job,” he said. “I’m pretty sure Alex thought about those too. He’ll have thought, ‘What’s the point of hanging around with the risk of decline when I could leave with a championship?’”
Whatever United’s financial firepower, there are no guarantees of continued success, whoever the manager is. In its share-sale prospectus, United told potential investors it was “highly dependent” on key individuals.
“Any successor to our current manager may not be as successful,” it warned.