Peter Corrigan: The old school stay behind for retention

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The Independent Online

Blows were struck on behalf of the old and slightly worn when Sir Alex Ferguson, aged 60, called a halt to his impending retirement from the driving seat of Manchester United and Graham Taylor, aged 57, exhumed a dead career to take a chance on the poisoned Ovaltine at Aston Villa.

These weren't the only events of the past week to provide ample evidence that the essence of leadership in sport is less about age than it is about appetite.

At 55, Graham Henry did not walk out on Wales because he felt his joints beginning to creak but because he suddenly found that he had no further desire to tackle the substantial task of keeping the fires of Welsh pride burning brightly.

What has happened to those fires has happened to him. After leading the Lions to a series defeat in Australia last summer and returning from Ireland last week at the head of a beaten and bedraggled army, he admits to being victim to the burn-out factor. Had the Lions been successful in Australia, and they didn't fail by much, he would have carried a glow of confidence back into his guidance of Wales and the susequent gloom could have been avoided.

But you sense that once Henry has rinsed the ignominy out of his soul he will reappear, probably on the other side of the world from whence he came, and when he does he might have even been inspired by Taylor's resurrection at Villa.

If Henry thinks he's had a pounding from the Welsh media and disgruntled fans he should study Taylor's experience as manager of England. Derision is in its infancy in Wales compared to what that poor man went through.

I've always had a soft spot for Taylor. He might not have been fully equipped to surmount the problems of managing England – who has been since Sir Alf Ramsey? – but when he was appointed in 1990 he brought with him a refreshingly open and honest attitude.

There was a certain naïveté about his eagerness to hold frank discussions with reporters about various aspects of the job but it was probably based on the premises that a problem shared is a problem halved and that if you looked after the press they would look after you.

They responded with a lack of mercy that brought them no credit apart from the immortality achieved by the sub- editor who thought of the headline "Swedes 1 Turnips 0". Then there was the ill-advised documentary that brought "Do I not like that" into our glossary of well-used sayings and Taylor was merrily consigned to the scrapheap of celebrated failures.

Since then, he returned to Watford with less success than in his first incarnation at Vicarage Road in the 1980s and then joined Villa as a non-executive director last year.

When John Gregory vacated the Villa manager's job two weeks ago, Taylor was mentioned as a possible caretaker. Vilified chairman Doug Ellis, who at 78 will confirm that it is better to be a chairman than a manager, decided to offer him the full-time position and Taylor has the fascinating opportunity to redeem his good name once and for all.

Cynics say that Taylor's presence in the boardroom dissuaded one or two experienced managers from applying in fear of him adopting a supervisory role. It's been known to happen but it won't happen at Villa because Taylor has decided to return to what he calls the "circus" in order to seek a high upon which to finish. It is a courageous move and, perhaps, he is fortified by the feeling that Ellis has had such a bad press for his record of getting rid of managers that he would hesitate before sacking an old man.

Taylor's explanation for the ageing manager phenomenon is that the older a leader gets the better he is able to get on with the football and keep the other issues separate and in their place. Younger managers, he says, are too easily drawn into the peripheral stuff.

You may well think that remark is particularly apt in the case of David O'Leary, a much younger man who looked to be heading for a great season until it erupted in ways he couldn't forsee or handle.

There's no doubt that Taylor would have been emboldened by the example of Bobby Robson, who is heavily engaged in piloting Newcastle United towards the Premiership climax at the age of 68.

I've known Robson since the 1960s when he hit a hard time in his first managerial experience at Fulham and his career has been a long, tough road, thankfully well-rewarded by success on the way. When he accepted the challenge of managing Newcastle many thought it was merely an nostalgic stop-off on his way to the old folks' home.

He has emerged as a genuine force in the exacting task of maintaining a championship assault and, although the reported misbehaviour of some of his players in mid-week is a setback, no one can question the skill with which he has assembled and motivated his team.

I can't vouch that Robson's pioneering work in pension-land was behind Ferguson's decision not to retire after all at the end of the season. I never understood his intention to quit in the first place, let alone why he gave a season's notice.

As I have theorised before, this prolonged farewell led to a dilution of Ferguson's authority and caused the slowing of momentum that saw United's results take a downward trend. Had their rivals taken full advantage of the gap that thus opened up United could have been out of it by the turn of the year.

As it happened, they have been tripping over each other and the way United snatched back the initiative would not have supported any suspicion in Ferguson's mind that he was all washed-up.

I don't pretend to know what has transpired in the Old Trafford boardroom in the past month or so but, obviously, they have not found it easy to earmark a replacement who isn't tied up for the next season or two.

It is difficult to deduce whether this is the main reason behind Ferguson's decision to delay his visit to the knackers' yard; that neither he nor the club wished to see a vacuum being created. There are also persistent rumours that Ferguson's horseracing friends, the multi-millionaires J P McManus and John Magnier are preparing to mount a takeover bid at the club.

It wouldn't be a surprise if he wanted to stay and be part of that. I prefer to think that there is a far more simple reason. Ferguson is reacting to a discovery that many of his generation are sharing, that the age barriers fixed in their minds while young don't exist. Ferguson reached the age of 60 at the beginning of the year and once you try it on for size it has no feel of a watershed about it.

He is fit and vibrant and functioning perfectly in all those areas in which a manager needs to function in. It is a welcome move and will in some way compensate for all those decrepit old administrators who hung on for years past their usefulness. We've been cursed with plenty but Juan Antonio Samaranch of the IOC is probably easiest to remember.

They gave being old a bad name. Managers like Robson, Ferguson and Taylor are there on merit and since we are all going to have to work longer to eke out our shrinking pensions they are laying down an inspiration. What else is sport for?

Welsh all at sea

Wales may not have a rugby team worth waxing over at the moment but their supporters are without doubt the champions of the Six Nations. They didn't flinch to cross the Irish Sea last week despite frightening storms.

Those who did get there were not less than handsomely rewarded. When asked how the trip went, one Welsh fan said: "Sea-sick on the way over and pig-sick on the way back."

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