Manchester United have not sacked a manager since 1986. There have been eight England managers appointed since then, 15 permanent occupants of the same role at Manchester City and five Prime Ministers since the day that Martin Edwards told Ron Atkinson his time was up after a League Cup defeat to Southampton. Other than a bumpy ride around the late 1980s, this is a club that had convinced itself that sacking managers was something other people did, while they tutted and nodded sagely in the direction of their much-vaunted, seldom-replicated “continuity”.
As of the recent decision not to stand by David Moyes through a series of results that have gone from the bad to the disastrous, it turns out that, contrary to what you might have been told, United are just like all the others. There is no magical quality that insulates them against the possibility of managerial failure, and when push comes to shove they have no solution other than the one everyone else resorts to in the end.
So where do they go now? Eleven months ago they had already made the move for the man who would succeed Sir Alex Ferguson. As of now they once again find themselves in the market for a manager. They are offering a job that is a little less attractive than it was one year ago, but still one of the biggest in world football, and a prize that many great coaches would take in a heartbeat.
This time, United cannot afford to get it wrong. And this time they cannot treat the opinion of Ferguson as the first and last word on the appointment.
In terms of the big hitters, the field is as limited as it was even last season and it felt limited then. Pep Guardiola had already committed to Bayern Munich by the time Ferguson quit. Jose Mourinho – whether United wanted him or not – was already a long way down the road with Chelsea. Carlo Ancelotti may be available – he usually is – but that would be very much the conservative option.
You could make an argument for saying Jurgen Klopp is the stand-out high-achiever among the younger generation of foreign contenders – and United have never had a non-British or Irish manager – although his rise has been stalled somewhat after the heights of last season with Borussia Dortmund. Frank De Boer is top of the Dutch league with Ajax, although he contrived to lose a cup final this weekend in spectacular fashion, 5-1 to PEC Zwolle. Diego Simeone has been deeply impressive at Atletico Madrid. But, still, what a risk.
Louis Van Gaal, the man most strongly connected to the job, with reports of a meeting with United representatives, was not even a consideration this time last year. He last managed a club side in 2011. The Champions League victory with Ajax, which was the making of his reputation, was in 1995, four years before Ferguson won his first. In what has become ever more a younger man’s world, Van Gaal, at 62, looks a strange choice.
Giving the job to Ryan Giggs has its attractions. Taking it off him, as Liverpool found with Kenny Dalglish second time around, could be painful.
The consideration for United is that there is no outstanding, obvious candidate, and consequently they will have to reassess what it is they want from their manager. Another man to build long-term, as was clearly the plan with Moyes and his six-year contract last year? Or the acceptance of a more regular turnover of coaches working under a director of football might be more applicable in the new era?
United tried to replicate what they had with Ferguson once and failed. Mistakes like that happen - in sport, as in business. But it is inconceivable that the venture capitalists at the helm of the club will permit the same mistake to be made twice.
The notion of a manager with less power than that which Moyes temporarily inherited from Ferguson, was unthinkable a year ago. Now it seems inevitable. United have been wounded this season, deeply so. All the old certainties that they had come to take as part of the landscape at Old Trafford have been challenged, in some cases shattered.
It is not that that they cannot be a success again, of course they can. It is more that, post-Moyes, they are having to re-learn what it is to be a football club in the 21st century, one that sacks managers rather than enjoying the comfort of being led by a man who, ultimately, proved a bulwark against failure. What assurances can they give their new manager? Nothing like those they gave Moyes. Nothing beyond his first season in charge, perhaps even less than that.
It reminds me of a conversation with the hierarchy at Chelsea, the club who have become a byword for hiring and firing while maintaining their success. The lesson they learned from Andre Villas-Boas’ short-lived reign was not that it was best to give a failing manager more time but rather to act quickly. They did so the following season when doubts arose over Roberto Di Matteo, replacing him in time for Rafa Benitez to ensure Champions League qualification and snare a trophy into the bargain.
It may be the case that the next United manager is the man who reigns for a decade, who gives the club back its confidence in the principle of continuity. It may be that they go through another ten until anyone stays in charge for as long as that. But with the sacking of Moyes, 28 years on from Atkinson, United have demonstrated that they as a club have no secret formula for making a manager successful.
As they recognised with Ferguson, the success flowed from the manager, not the other way around. The trick is getting the right man which, as they now know, is harder than it looks.
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