Success, succession, paternalism and generations: the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson

FourFourTwo.com Editor Gary Parkinson reacts to the retirement of Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson 

The shock is a surprise. It shouldn't be unexpected to hear of the retirement of a 71-year-old who has achieved all he ever wanted. But soundbite after soundbite starts with "shock", as if Sir Alex Ferguson's departure were an unexpected seismic wave.

It may not have been unforeseeable but it will change the bedrock of British football, and may have far-reaching effects. Ferguson's reign wasn't just long, it was huge: Manchester United became the world's biggest football club (and brand) and dominated the English game in an almost unprecedented manner.

Now, much of that is under threat. The club no longer has the financial muscle to dominate the transfer market, instead being forced to pick its battles (and redraw the lines where necessary, such as the purchase of Robin van Persie despite a previous determination not to spend money on ageing players with questionable resale value).

But while nouveau-riche clubs like Manchester City and Chelsea have spending power, they have struggled to compete with United's allure of consistency and stability, radiating from Ferguson. The pull of working for Sir Alex has been enough to attract several players who could have earned more elsewhere. Now those players will wonder how stable Old Trafford is; how long the knight's replacement will last.

SUCCESSION CRISIS

From success to succession. It has long been said that only a fool would follow Fergie into the hot seat; it's never easy to replace a legend. Who followed Queen Victoria on the British throne? Nobody wants to be the Gordon Brown to Ferguson's Tony Blair.

And the new man will work under a shadow. Just as Matt Busby loomed over Wilf McGuinness – and Liverpool had to ban Bill Shankly from the training ground, where he was turning up to interfere with Bob Paisley's sessions – Ferguson may struggle to avoid the temptation to dictate from the directors' box. Even if he means to keep his distance behind the scenes, he'll have to maintain near-silence in public if his words aren't to be twisted into tabloid fodder – especially as he will no longer have the unveiled threat of the next press conference with which to keep the hacks in line.

None of the potential replacements feels exactly right. David Moyes is the closest to a continuity candidate, mainly by dint of being a slightly scary Scot generally accepted to have Everton punching above their financial weight. But Moyes's team have frequently underperformed for months at a time, with late-season runs saving face; imagine the media reaction if Manchester United were 14th in December, as Everton were last season, or won one game in two months, as happened this autumn. True, Moyes would have better players, but he would also have to up his game considerably against the better opponents: his Everton sides have failed to win in 45 away games against the traditional "big four", picking up just 18 points from 135.

Then there's Jose Mourinho, fluttering his eyelashes and suddenly ignoring texts from Roman Abramovich. Mourinho certainly has the stones to replace his good friend Ferguson, and the trophy-laden pedigree to match the job, but there are large question marks over his dominating personality and the club's subsequent stability: he hasn't lasted more than three seasons at any club, and tends to leave broken hearts behind him.

The decision is an incredibly difficult one for the club's hierarchy, and they will be criticised whoever they appoint: a promising young manager like Jürgen Klopp will be "unproven", while an older hand like Ottmar Hitzfeld or Jupp Heynckes would be "short-termism" and a pale imitation of Ferguson. And however the succession is handled, it will throw fresh spotlight on the running of a club which is already having to cope with replacing powerful chief executive David Gill in the summer.

Without the protective shield of Ferguson and Gill, the never-popular Glazers will find themselves increasingly exposed to public question. A club united – pun very much intended – by the unimpeachable knight may find itself pulled in different directions, with impatient rivals only too happy to capitalise. United have won 13 of the 21 Premier League titles and it's easy to forecast they won't match that rate, but it's to be hoped that the competition becomes more keenly contested rather than simply being dominated by someone else.

PATERNALISM AND GENERATIONS

There will be those who mourn the passing of an era by calling Ferguson the last great paternalistic manager. That's an understandable overstatement. While some are happy to concentrate on the first team, there are plenty of managers who want top-to-bottom control of their club – Moyes, Arsene Wenger and Sam Allardyce spring immediately to mind – and gradually gain it as their success earns them authority. If a manager brings glory to the first team and expresses an intelligent interest in improving the Academy or scouting system, the board will usually listen. Business sense and managerial structure doesn't end with one retirement.

In the end, we should be glad that Ferguson has retired, because there were fears that he wouldn't. Not just from embittered rivals – and there were plenty of those, for Fergie loved to ruffle feathers while knocking off perches – but also from those who remember the fate of his mentor, Jock Stein. Ferguson, who had recruited the former Celtic legend in the run-up to Aberdeen's 1983 European Cup Winners' Cup triumph, was again alongside the big man on 10th September 1985 when Stein died on duty, having suffered a heart attack during Scotland's crucial World Cup qualifier in Wales. Stein was 62, nine years younger than Ferguson is now, and although the outgoing Manchester United manager appears to have kept himself in good physical condition it has long been a worry that the ever-passionate Ferguson might suffer the same fate.

Football is a very different game to when Ferguson first took charge in 1974, as East Stirlingshire's part-time manager on £40 per week. In particular, the English top flight has changed immensely since his Old Trafford appointment in November 1986: that season, newly-promoted Norwich finished fifth, and you had to scroll past Wimbledon, Luton, Forest, Watford and Coventry in the final table to find United down in 11th. That's not to mention the enormous off-field changes – the Taylor Report-sponsored surge to all-seater stadia, the Premier League's concentration of money at the top of the pyramid, the wall-to-wall media coverage via Sky and the worldwide web (neither of which existed when Fergie moved to Manchester), and the huge increases in revenue which have changed the face of football.

An entire generation has grown up with Ferguson bestriding the English game. There are players, journalists and millions of fans who have known no other Manchester United manager, no other top man in the Premier League – for even when others won the title, and even when Mourinho first came to England, there was no doubting Ferguson's position as the grand old man of the game. He reached the standard retirement age of 65 on New Year's Eve 2006; since then he has won another five top-flight titles, a number only bettered in entire careers by Bob Paisley and Aston Villa's 19th-century secretary-manager George Ramsay.

Five league titles is also the total achieved by Herbert Chapman and Matt Busby, both managers with whom Ferguson has strong parallels. In the final analysis, it may be that Chapman changed football more than Ferguson – even Sir Alex can't have a claim to have introduced the concept of tactics, or changed the prevailing mindset to reflect alterations to the Laws of the Game – but Fergie relishes the comparison to Sir Matt, Old Trafford's previous legendary patriarch.

Like Busby, Ferguson is a hard-bitten son of the West Scotland industrial zone who, following a reasonably well-regarded but hardly spectacular playing career, arrived at Old Trafford intent on single-handedly shaking up an underachieving club – and did so, with extraordinary success. Both men did so by root-and-branch reform of an ailing club, with particular attention given to youth development, and both men reaped rich rewards from the fruit of that youth system, eventually conquering the continent.

When Fergie arrived at Old Trafford, nobody asked him to replicate Busby's success; the overarching aim was to end the 20-year wait for a league title. Ferguson delivered spectacularly, regularly and joyously – not every manager celebrates his team's goals with such obvious relish. The desire to entertain was topped only by the need to succeed. Now Manchester United need to find his successor, and the world will be watching with interest.

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