Imagine the devil tells you he (or she) will give your football club a manager capable of winning nearly every piece of silverware the sport has on offer. There is only one catch—all that success will follow the manager out the door when they inevitably leave.
This appears to have been the nature of Manchester United’s relationship with their erstwhile leader, Sir Alex Ferguson, who in his 26 years in charge led the club to 13 league titles, 5 FA Cups, 4 League Cups, 10 Charity/Community Shields, 2 European Cups, 1 UEFA Super Cup, 1 Intercontinental Cup and 1 FIFA Club World Cup.
Though he retired in 2013, he left a crater in his wake—the club has one trophy to its name since then, a Charity Shield won in David Moyes’ first game in charge. Now with Louis van Gaal the club is on its second manager in three years, and may be shopping around for a third.
If the issue under Moyes was that the results were poor, under Van Gaal it’s that the team is boring, stringing together slim, pragmatic wins lacking in the club’s signature style. Former Man United midfielder extraordinaire Paul Scholes spoke to this following the club’s recent 1-0 FA Cup win over lowly Sheffield United.
“There are too many square pegs in round holes and you see too much boring, negative football,” Scholes said while on pundit duty for BT Sport. “The players looked bored, there’s no spirit, nobody having a go at each other, no entertainment.”
Last night, Van Gaal appeared to respond with a gangbusters approach against a very bad Newcastle United. Yet that only led to a 3-3 draw, which won’t silence Van Gaal’s critics.
The problem however isn’t Van Gaal. It’s Sir Alex Ferguson. In criticizing Van Gaal, Scholes, without quite knowing it, was simply repeating the same, unconscious questions asked by pundits, fans and players since he left two and a half years ago—why couldn’t United play more like they did under Ferguson?
The answer is that Ferguson is gone, he’s not coming back, and though many in the football universe would have you believe otherwise, his dominant, near invincible style is irreplaceable. Ferguson was a one time deal. Now United have to get on with it. The devil held up their side of the bargain.
The problem is the glory of winning is the same thing that makes it a curse—it feels the same no matter the circumstances that led to it. One team may win as the result of years of investment in its youth program, refining a club philosophy that extends all the way from the first team staff to the tea lady, while another will win as the result of simply pouring as much money into the first team as owner equity will allow. The result in the end is the same—try as fans might, a trophy does not gain greater lustre from the purity of the means which won it.
In the case of Manchester United, it’s clear that it was neither money nor sound philosophy alone that led to the club’s extended run through the 90s and 2000s, but rather the unmistakable leadership of the man from Govan. Though he may not have left the club in great shape, fans already nostalgic for Fergie can’t look back in anger over his failure to rejuvenate the first team or set in stone principles which would have preserved the club’s natural dominance in England.
That’s because he circumstances which have led to the club’s current malaise were necessary for the incredible success that preceded it—a less powerful, more deferential Ferguson would not have been as effective as the one who regularly laid waste to his rivals through brute will. United didn’t need a comprehensive core philosophy to help hire brilliant scouts and excellent youth team coaches, because they had Ferguson. He was all the ‘philosophy’ they needed.
Now he’s gone and United have to figure out what kind of club they want to be. The way they do however can be a lesson or a warning to all football clubs, but especially those teams who have known the bitter chaos of getting knocked off their perch about a few extended turns at the top.
Right now, the way many big clubs will deal with the inevitable losing that comes after years of winning is to simply spend more money. There’s nothing wrong with this—there is after all a strong correlation between where you finish in the league and how much more you spend than other clubs on wages and in the transfer market. The problem is that the margins of difference between clubs at the top of the table are smaller than those that can be accounted for in the team budget alone. When the spending strategy fails to produce a trophy, many teams are apt to sack the manager and try it all over again (this time with feeling!). This approach is best exemplified by clubs like Chelsea, Real Madrid and Manchester City.
This approach can work brilliantly when the clubs inevitably win something—remember, winning always feels the same no matter the circumstances—but is dismal for fans when they don’t. That’s because the constant cycle of spending, sacking managers and replacing players muddies a club’s inherent identity—it is exhausting to support a club that spends every other season mired in a tinpot, media-inspired crisis. When any club loses, whether for one season or ten, a clear, consistent identity—an effective way of doing things—is sometimes all fans have to hold onto.
Man United’s identity under Sir Alex Ferguson was Sir Alex Ferguson. He and the club were indivisible, one and the same. When former United players go on TV to talk about the way they want United to play, they’re talking about the way they played under Ferguson. The problem is that once you decide your club’s identity will be a living, breathing person, you’ve already set the timer on its demise. He’s not coming back.
So what is the club to do? Right now, it appears they’re is going down the “spend more money” path enjoyed by the other big clubs, forever signing big name managers to three year deals, winning a little here and there, then losing again and repeating the cycle of sack and spend all over again.
Yet the club have a rich enough history to try something else which, in time, could be as equally effective. Legendary Man United coach Sir Matt Busby for example was eager to give younger players a chance—in the late 1950s, his team of players in their early twenties known as the “Busby Babes” won two league titles. Busby’s approach was echoed years later by Sir Alex himself with “Fergie’s Fledglings,” including the infamous Class of ‘92 which included the likes of Paul Scholes, David Beckham, Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs. Surely there is enough there for an enterprising club executive to set in place a club-wide ethos which values youth development and skill, and set in place a clear club philosophy. This philosophy wouldn’t prevent the club from using its considerable financial resources to bear, but would give them a better focus in the transfer market.
All big clubs will eventually lose—after all, they can’t all win all the time forever. Nevertheless for some clubs the response to losing will always involve blowing everything up and cutting bigger cheques. For others, it is more a question of refining core principles and maintaining a clear, effective philosophy. Though rigidly adhering to a club ideology is a danger—this has been a major issue at Arsenal over the years—it is arguably better to have sort of core philosophy in place to provide a sense of stability in the lean years.
Ferguson is gone. United need to accept that so they can decide with open eyes which path they want to go down.