James Lawton: Wisdom prevails for Ferguson and United

Greatness never came to any football club by committee. It comes from the force and vision of a man allowed to get the job done
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The Independent Football

It does not matter whose lunacy it was in the first place, but a vital lesson appears to have been relearned at Manchester United with the extension of Sir Alex Ferguson's contract and the cancelling of a departure which always seemed proof against logical analysis.

Everyone can see it now. United's share price has shot up. The fans are reassured. The players know who is boss, which represents a wonderful concentration of their competitive minds even in the age of Bosman and salaries which could clear the national debt of a banana republic. The plc board has had a glimpse of the effect of the loosening of Ferguson's command which came with his original announcement that he would be walking away at the end of the season.

United have been to the edge of the abyss and now they have stepped back. It does not matter so much about the precise circumstances of Ferguson's change of heart and the club's eagerness to comply with his wish to stay in charge of the club he rebuilt with such great passion and fundamental knowledge of the basis of a winning team. The fact that Ottmar Hitzfeld withdrew his candidacy was the kind of development which was always liable to confound United's hopes of a smooth transition, and, it is suggested persuasively, may have seriously darkened Ferguson's anticipation of a fulfilling and reasonably contented semi-retirement.

The fact is that football men of Ferguson's type do not walk away from the game and into the sunlight. They condemn themselves to life in the shadows. Bill Shankly tried it, in what amounted to a prolonged fit of pique, and it broke his heart. Bobby Robson, even after a year on the emotional rack of Barcelona, refused to contemplate it and the effect of his decision to battle on, a defiant old soldier with all his wits still about him, has been nothing less than radiant for both himself and the supporters of Newcastle United.

Now Ferguson will step back into trenches of the game as a fully committed operator rather than a superannuated lame-duck manager facing the anguish of seeing all his best work dwindling before his eyes.

He, too, is clearly a wiser man in the matter of his own needs. His idea of spending more time with his family, and in the racing environment he finds so convivial and stimulating, has plainly been tempered by a degree of self-discovery. It is the one that Robson knew so instinctively. It is that football for some men will always be as much a drug as an occupation.

What also came into the equation, no doubt, was Ferguson's own sense of responsibility in the destiny of the club he had restored beyond even its own wildest hopes of touching again the splendour of Sir Matt Busby's old empire. If he could not have his own anointed successor in Hitzfeld, a man whose values he shared and whose European-Cup winning work with Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich he had come to admire so deeply, he could guard against an appointment much less guaranteed to preserve his own extraordinary legacy of success.

In this, in an odd, even perverse way, Ferguson's premature announcement of his intended retirement from the team managership has had the value of shock therapy in the Old Trafford boardroom.

As the club reeled in the early season going, as the team's effort became so flawed Ferguson's angrily announced his doubts about their continued commitment, the United board was given a glimpse of what the future might be without the man whose achievements had so often been conceded almost grudgingly. It may have reflected deeply on the irony of the statement of its former chief executive Martin Edwards that Ferguson was not good with money. It may have looked back with a little disbelief on the foot-dragging which had been the club's reaction to his demand for a scale of personal rewards more in keeping with his achievements, the whiplash conviction with which he had turned the club into world sport's richest franchise.

In the last few months such reflection has surely been sharpened by a sense of crisis which threatened to become all-engulfing, before the extraordinary restatement of power dramatically represented by a flood of goals from the manager's latest darling protégé, Ruud van Nistelrooy.

The stalled negotiations with the under-performing superstar David Beckham were never going to be totally within Ferguson's sphere of influence, but the England captain's situation did provide an anvil on which the manager could again beat out the priorities of a winning football club. One of them is the demand for acceptable performance on the field. That is something, Ferguson's reasserted, that flies beyond the power of celebrity and the calculation of "image rights".

As far as Ferguson was concerned, the image being projected by Beckham, at a vital point in the club's history, was of someone distracted from his basic requirement to deliver consistent performance, and the player paid for it with his first-team place. In United's current situation only Ferguson has the authority, moral and real, to impose that kind of decision without necessarily creating new instability within the club.

Now that authority has been reinforced by the old certainty of a manager looking beyond one last triumphant hurrah, an ambition which was always at grave risk because of the time limit he had imposed on his own control.

But if United and the man who did so much to recreate their high place in the game have come to an accommodation tailored to their own needs, they have also restated a truth that is as important today as it was back in the days when someone like Herbert Chapman made his own dynasty at Arsenal. It is that greatness never came to any football club by committee. It comes from the force and the vision of a man who is allowed to get the job done, and is then treated with proper respect. United, over the most successful years of their history, have flirted dangerously around the edges of this reality.

That they have seen the hazards of this is probably as important as Ferguson's realisation that at 60 he is too young to abandon the passion of his life. The result will be seen by many, in and out of the club, as a matter for celebration. So it is. But the champagne needs to be gulped not with hubris but with relief. Disaster came stalking too purposefully for any other reaction.

What A Difference A Year Makes

'I will certainly not be team manager. I think I've picked the right moment to retire but equally so I would love to stay on in any capacity which does not interfere with the football.'
Ferguson, 9 Dec 2000

'Sir Alex is committed to stepping down as manager, but he is very happy to stay on in a capacity that will satisfy both parties. '
A Man Utd spokesman, 9 Dec 2000

'It's wonderful news for everyone.'
Dwight Yorke, 9 Dec 2000

'I'm actually looking forward to watching the team without any managerial pressures'.
Ferguson, 9 Dec 2000

'I'm definitely going. I won't be making comebacks like singers do. I look at Bobby Robson [still coaching Newcastle at 67] and think: 'Good luck to him'. But it's a decision me and my family have made. I want to enjoy a lot of other things.'
Ferguson, 26 Dec 2000

'The club are engaged in a programme of development to operate academies in places like South Africa, China and other parts of the Far East. I'll visit these places and make a contribution, but it will probably take up only about 30 days a year. That suits me, because it will leave me free to do other things. '
Ferguson, 17 Jan 2001

'The decision has been taken. I'm going to leave the club. '
Ferguson, 19 May 2001

'I had hoped there would be another role, but that's gone now. '
Ferguson, 20 May 2001

'The way I feel just now I don't think I'll change my mind about going at the end of the season. But you never know what might happen. '
Ferguson, 30 Dec 20001

'At the moment my mind is fixed on retiring.'
Ferguson, 30 Dec 2001

'As was always planned, we are about to embark on our search for a new manager. Nothing has changed.'
Paddy Harverson, Man Utd's Director of Communications, 3 Jan 2002

'I'm going. That has been settled for some time now. I was asked by a reporter about my retirement and I said, as I would about anything, that you never know what might happen. That's true, but it doesn't mean I was thinking about changing my plans.'
Ferguson, 3 Jan 2002

'I've said before that it's my intention to give up managing at the end of the season. That still goes. There are powerful reasons for the decision and those haven't changed'.
Ferguson, 3 Jan 2002

'The Board has entered into discussions with Sir Alex and his advisers on a new contract. '
Man Utd Statement, 5 Feb 2002