James Lawton: A great manager will always be worth more than a money man

Ferguson and Robson fight to retain their influence in a game that increasingly places more importance on boardroom executives
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The Independent Football

There was always going to be a day when the perilous place of the football man in the game he shapes, and which he knows inevitably so much more deeply than all those who attach themselves to its glamour and profit like flies around a midden, was going to be defined beyond any smudge of doubt.

Today might just be the day as the Premiership's two working knights, Sir Alex Ferguson of Manchester United and Sir Bobby Robson of Newcastle United, fight more desperately than ever to impose their wills and explain their value to both their sport and the Stock Exchange.

The edge they inhabit, at respectively Goodison Park and The Valley, has been sharpened by the extraordinary reaction to this week's move of United's chief executive Peter Kenyon from Old Trafford to Chelsea. But for isolated pockets of resistance to the absurd idea, you might have gathered from the overwhelming response in both the City and the media that the most important men in football no longer dress up in track suits and undying passion but pin-striped business suits.

This is an idea that can only be strengthened by the situation of the resident football man at Kenyon's new place of work, Claudio Ranieri. Graeme Souness is the latest name to be placed alongside that of the England coach, Sven Goran Eriksson, as a potential new Chelsea manager if the Italian should show signs of submitting to the growing pressure of his position as the working guardian of Roman Abramovich's vast football budget. With every day that passes in this infant season, Ranieri's job security seems to have eroded a little further.

It is part of a process which is beginning to cast Ferguson and Robson in the role of football dinosaurs....Old Contemptibles who continue to fight, Robson at 70 and Ferguson nine years his junior, for the old concept of the football man at the top of any club's apex of decision and influence.

Kenyon (right), an accountant who made his name selling sports goods, has been heralded as the man who has signalled the shift of power in English football...and the status of chief executives and those embattled men who select and train the players who win or lose matches. The point has been made so baldly that one exasperated old pro said on the eve of Newcastle's difficult away game at Everton, and Ferguson's need to repair the damage inflicted by United's defeat at Southampton when he faces Charlton, "Anyone who knows anything about the game knows that the great football men have always been under-valued.

"Bill Shankly died of a broken heart, Sir Matt Busby, at least in terms of the modern game, was virtually penniless, and Jock Stein was driven out of Celtic Park by an insulting suggestion that he should run the club's pools office. Football men carry this around with them like an old wound, but it has surely never been more out in the open.

"Now they read that the really important people sit in the executive office and don't know a thing about how the game works at grass level. We're told they know about marketing. But let's face it, given the results Ferguson has achieved over the last 10 years or so Micky Mouse could flog United shirts...and sponsorship deals."

Ferguson's claim that he had an early overture from Kenyon's new employer, Abromavich, has been dismissed with some contempt by the man who is widely seen as the Russian billionaire's key adviser, the Israeli football agent Pini Zahavi. But why would Ferguson let slip to his local media outlet, the Manchester Evening News, that an approach, however roundabout, had been made? Perhaps because in his current contractual talks with Old Trafford, he is fighting the football manager's oldest fight, the one that demands respect and proper rewards from the boardroom.

Several contract negotiations ago, Ferguson was told by the then chief executive - and chief shareholder - Martin Edwards that his hopes for a substantial rise would have to be referred to the pay sub-committee of United plc. Around about the same time Edwards had made public his view that Ferguson was "bad with money". A conservative estimate was that the manager's work had increased the value of the club, which Edwards had proposed to sell 10 years earlier for around £13 million, to near £1 billion. The manager was embroiled in another bitter battle with the directors two years ago when he discussed the terms for his proposed shift to the role of club ambassador.

At Newcastle there are increasing fears that Robson's reign will die, probably by his own hand, before the end of the season if there isn't a swift recovery from a poor start to the Premiership campaign and the disaster of elimination from the riches of the Champions' League. Robson's avuncular charm has been in much less evidence these last few weeks in several "crisis" meetings with the Newcastle chairman Freddy Shepherd - and as he has attempted to close a developing rift within the dressing room, apparently caused by divisions of opinion between senior pros like Alan Shearer and Gary Speed and such younger men as Kieron Dyer and Jermaine Jenas.

Behind Robson's battle, which has been complicated by the poor form of his controversial signing Lee Bowyer, which has come at the expense of the popular Peruvian Nolberto Solano, is the growing sense that the football man, however prestigious, is at the mercy of short-term results - and executive whim.

The sheer affection with which native-son Robson is regarded around Tynecastle would seem to preclude any quick snapping of boardroom patience, but his own awareness of the new priorities of the game will no doubt bring him renewed pressure at Goodison Park this afternoon.

Ferguson knows better than anyone that in today's hair-trigger environment the football man, however great his past success, is only as good as his last few results. He also knows, as he immerses himself in his latest contract discussion, from where the men in the suits draw their business success in football. He will no doubt have smiled a little icily when he noted in the list of Kenyon's successes this week one of his key achievements at Old Trafford. It was to establish that United had an estimable 53 million fans world-wide. How were they acquired? It might just have had a little to do with the work of a couple of football men, Sir Matt Busby and himself.

Maybe, he will tell the board, the time of one football dinosaur or another has not quite passed. And that, for all the current headlines, it perhaps never will.