Manchester United Should Look To Liverpool For Fergie's Exit Strategy
Retirement speculation may have been dismissed with imperial disgust but the countdown to the end of Sir Alex’s reign as United manager continues remorselessly.
“Unfortunately for you lot, I'm in rude health,” Ferguson advised a press conference, sounding like Margaret Thatcher circa 1987, when she insisted that she would go “on and on.”
Unwisely, Ferguson could not refuse the temptation of fate.
"You can be left to suffer me,” he added. “You'll be gone before I'm gone, don't worry."
It may be that Ferguson was just being playful. Sir Alex, who will be 69 next December, must hope that unlike Thatcher, he will be able to leave United on his own terms.
This is the fantasy of every high achiever with a long career in public life who is forced to grapple with the simple truth that command of events is rarely in one person’s possession.
Ferguson cannot last forever. Each passing year only heightens the anxiety attached to his eventual departure.
This explains why the latest ‘Fergie to quit’ story has generated significant gossip and confusion.
Did it emerge from a boardroom source or was it just newspaper kite-flying, a classic media stunt executed with perfection to manipulate the news cycle towards reaction and denial and to deliver a boost to sales?
The belief that Ferguson intends to step down from the United hotseat in 2011 has credibility because the manager has spoken previously about next year being his last in football management.
The suspicion that he has earmarked Everton’s David Moyes as his successor has been a staple of the football rumour mill for months.
Whilst United continue to thrill in the manner of last weekend’s 3-1 home victory over Spurs, few will discuss critically the manger’s continued stewardship of the team he has built and rebuilt since 1986.
The spectre of league defeats, early elimination from prestigious tournaments, the transfer of football power to ‘nouveau riche’ neighbours or to north London and media whispering that the manager has lost the trust of his players, would be game-changers that Ferguson should dread.
It may be that all that separates great managers from unflattering final reviews and a blemished legacy is a poor sense of timing.
Ferguson, the consummate football man, must be aware of how this premise is upheld most poignantly in the demise of the late Brian Clough at Nottingham Forest.
Relegation, alcoholism and increasingly erratic public behaviour have served to tarnish Clough’s reputation as a giant of the game for all times.
With hindsight, the Forest board retained Clough’s services long after he was a spent force.
In fairness, they could not do otherwise. Clough presided over Forest like a feudal monarch.
Having brought unexpected domestic and European glory to the east Midlands, it was unthinkable that Clough could be summoned to the boardroom and given his marching orders when results and performances went astray.
The club’s destiny thus passed into the hands of a drunkard with deep personality flaws. Behind gritted teeth, board members stayed loyal until Forest’s relegation and Clough’s retirement were confirmed in 1993.
Ferguson appears not to be afflicted by the demons that so beset his nearest rival for the title of England’s greatest-ever manager.
Yet Sir Alex’s age and significantly, the state of his health, do require the club to put in place a ‘Plan B’ or risk becoming a hostage to events.
Mindful of the Forest disaster, the United board would be prudent if it prepared for the succession by discreetly sounding out possible candidates whilst publicly supporting the manager.
It is certainly in the interests of the club to insist that Ferguson keeps it informed of his intentions on a year-by-year basis.
For example, it is tempting to think that tempers would explode if Jose Mourinho was announced as the new manager of Manchester City or Liverpool a month before Sir Alex declared that poor health had forced his retirement.
Understandably, the process of recognising the interests of both parties is fraught with tremendous pitfalls.
It is a high-wire act which could escape the attention of a ferocious media and a relentlessly inquisitive blogosphere only in the most unlikely of circumstances.
The worst possible outcome for the Glazer family, which owns the club, would be for its ‘Plan B’ to become public knowledge, accompanied by tabloid headlines of the ‘Fergie: Stabbed In the Back By The Board’ sort.
That leaves the Glazers and Ferguson praying for a different outcome and a mutually satisfactory exit strategy.
Of the available models, the manner of Bob Paisley’s departure from Liverpool offers the most comfort.
Paisley, the ‘old man in a cardigan’ cut an unlikely figure in an era of Bling-addicted Champagne managers, but his genius is represented in bold type in every statistical analysis of the game.
Paisley managed Liverpool to six League triumphs, three European cups, three League cups and a UEFA Cup in the nine years between 1974 and 1983.
He retired after 44 years service to the club with immense dignity and appreciation, his achievements rightfully earning him recognition as Liverpool’s greatest-ever manager.
Unlike Clough, Paisley left his club with a roster of players who could still perform at the highest level. It was a rare and crucial blessing, capitalised upon by Paisley’s successors Joe Fagan and Kenny Daglish.
Paisley’s retirement should be studied closely by Sir Alex and the Glazers.
Indeed, Ferguson’s last great service to United will be to demonstrate Paisley-ite reserve and ensure that the manager who replaces him is given every chance to succeed.
This may mean Ferguson cutting his links entirely with the club once he has stepped down. Sir Alex would be well-advised to refrain from any public comment on his successor’s team, so as not to be seen as the back-seat driver that Thatcher became for the Conservative Party’s refuseniks over many years.
Certainly, Ferguson, like Paisley, must ensure that his successor can build on a squad boasting players with the commitment, the hunger, and the talent to compete at the highest level.
Having come down from Scotland with a mission to knock Liverpool from their perch, Sir Alex may find his gaze returning to Merseyside at the close of his managerial career, if United are to have a fighting chance in the post-Ferguson era.
As it was in the beginning, so shall it be in the end.
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