Maybe there was a signal. After Manchester United were forced out of the European Cup this year by a pathetic Cuneyt Cakir, Sir Alex Ferguson refused to attend the post-match press conference, saying he was too distraught. He always bemoaned Uniteds modest success on the continent under him and desperately wanted to set the record straight this time. He wanted to win his third European Cup title before walking into a golden sunset. Nanis red card changed everything and the United manager realised that his last chance was gone. The official announcement at Fergie time notwithstanding, he might have made up his mind long before. Perhaps before the start of the season.
After Manchester City won the Premier League last season, Ferguson was under the threat of losing his control over English football. It was a challenge for him to wrest back the power to his half of the city. Having also lost the Champions League finals twice in the last four seasons, he wanted to go the distance this time before calling it quits. He reinforced his attack, bringing on Robin van Persie for 24 million.
England was won with four matches to spare but another Champions League winners medal remained elusive. A bad refereeing decision spoilt his dream. Maybe that was that. A hip replacement surgery, booked in for July, might have also prompted the 71-year-old to declare this is the right time.
Fergusons achievements as United manager are well documented. His longevity and success have made him the greatest football manager ever. When he came to Old Trafford in November 1986, Margaret Thatcher was still in her pomp. Soviet Union was a superpower, Checkpoint Charlie was pretty relevant on world map and Nelson Mandela was languishing in a prison at Robben Island. United used to be among the also-rans in English football, vying for a top five finish. The Matt Busby culture was on the wane and the dressing room had become an assembly of hard drinkers and party animals. There were exceptions, like Bryan Robson, but most players were taking their tasks lightly. Sir Bobby Charlton brought Ferguson to change that. A young Ferguson was appointed not just to win trophies on the field, but, more importantly, to rebuild the culture. Fergusons honesty, work ethic and dedication convinced the board that eventually, after so many trials and errors, the right man was found. And contrary to the reports, he was never under pressure to lose his job despite early reverses.
It took 16 years for the club to choose Busbys successor. In between, Wilf McGuinness, Frank OFarrell, Tommy Docherty, Dave Sexton and Ron Atkinson were appointed. All failed to imbibe the United culture. Their focus was short-term. Ferguson, on the other hand, always thought and looked long-term.
It is important for me to leave the organisation in the strongest possible shape, Ferguson said in his statement. He did that and a lot more. In 27 years, he made United the biggest football club and also, arguably, the biggest brand in the world without sacrificing the clubs soul.
Its impossible to replace the irreplaceable, but the show must go on. David Moyes served as Fergusons heir apparent for more than a decade. Way back in 1998, Ferguson asked his fellow Glaswegian to take up the role of his assistant at Old Trafford. Moyes wanted to make his own identity instead and did that wonderfully well during his 11-year stint at Goodison Park. Interestingly, he has won nothing with Everton but football is not only about winning. It is heartening to see that even in this age of silly money, kamikaze spending and instant results there are people who still believe that. Moyes should be perfectly fit to United ethos.
This is the biggest job in world football and the United board could have easily preferred celebrity over substance to placate the clubs 659 million fans. Jose Mourinho was just a phone call away. But the problem with the likes of Mourinho is that they are mostly about the first team and big stars. A United manager needs to be different. He needs to know even the canteen boys by their first names. Ferguson had to ensure that his club remained true to their faith and instinct and Moyes was his only choice.
The new man, however, has an enormous task at hand. Theres a difference between managing The People's Club and a global giant. It is even harder to step into the shoes of a legend who will watch everything from the boardroom. Also, Moyes is coming with a credibility deficit, at least by Fergusons standards of 13 Premier League wins and two European Cup titles. But a six-year contract indicates the clubs desire to build on with the new man. Moyes has a great record of building with the youth at Everton despite working on a shoestring budget. He brought European football at Goodison, took the team to the Cup final and made his unit a serious force to reckon with in the Premiership. Most importantly, he never allowed discord and negative vibes to upset team spirit.
At his new club, Moyes will get a gold mine to work with but he has to ensure whatever he does, he does it the United way. He needs to buy well in the transfer market. The team needs replacements for Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs with an eye on the near future. But the biggest challenge for Moyes would be to solve the Wayne Rooney conundrum. The two never got along well despite the fact that Moyes gave Rooney his debut at Everton as a 16-year-old. The latter left for Old Trafford in 2004 for 23 million. In 2008, Moyes took Rooney to court over the claims in the players autobiography. They later settled the matter out of court and Moyes accepted an apology. Now, Rooney has informed United that he wants to leave and it would be interesting to see how Moyes deals with the issue.
Football will never be the same again without the great man from Govan. But the club and fans have to move on. Hopefully, Moyes stint will ensure that the club doesnt have to face the travails of the post-Busby years again. It will be imperative for the fans to support the new man. Gary Neville has described Moyes appointment a victory for sanity in football. The new manager must keep in mind that at this club sanity can never be compromised. Moyes will always have his mentor by his side. Life is expected to be comfortable for him at the Theatre of Dreams.