Sam Wallace: Sir Alex Ferguson looks to be haunting David Moyes at Old Trafford – so why does he do it?

United legend has a strange idea of retirement if it involves travelling to Sunderland on a January night

It was almost an hour after the end of the game on Tuesday night when the door in the corner of the Sunderland press room opened and Sir Alex Ferguson walked in, preoccupied with buttoning his coat and following the official leading him out of the stadium. When the old boy clocked where he was, his face set to stony non-engagement and he was quickly across the room and out.

The journey home to Cheshire, if he was heading back immediately, will have topped two hours and the weather was cold enough for his travelling companion Sir Bobby Charlton to be wearing his big winter hat. For a multimillionaire retiree who has spent his life working relentlessly, one would have assumed Ferguson would be more tempted by the Caribbean in January than Tuesday evenings at the Stadium of Light.

It posed that old question: why is Ferguson now turning up for United away games as well as those at Old Trafford? And if he cannot see that his presence is diminishing David Moyes as the new man wrestles with a nightmarish run of results and form, then is it about time that someone told him?

No one would doubt that Ferguson is among that group of individuals who have done more for United in their 136-year history than any other. He has the right to be at every United game for the rest of his life. But having the right to be there, and it being the right thing to do, are two very separate things. Especially for a manager who knows better than anyone how these things play out.

After every goal conceded by Moyes' team, every setback, and then in the aftermath of every defeat, the cameras pan to Ferguson and his poker face. It may not be fair and it is not the Scot directing the television coverage, but it is the way it has always been. Ferguson knows that all football matches follow a narrative – and that narrative is about more than what takes place on the pitch.

Of course, being United manager in 2014 encompasses many more challenges, above and beyond being constantly compared with one's virtually ever-present, ultra-successful predecessor, that Moyes must overcome. But Ferguson attending games? For all the hurdles United currently face, it is one the club can do something about.

Why does it make a difference? To divine that, Ferguson only needs to look back at what made him successful. He always grasped the power of the way he was perceived. It was why he insisted on trying to win his public battles with players, rival managers, the game's authorities, the newspapers and, latterly in his career, the 24-hour rolling news cycle. He did not win them all, but he won enough to build and preserve the reputation that served him so well. The reputation was a crucial tool in marshalling his players, signing big names and then in engaging with the wider game that he sought to dominate. However much he may support Moyes in private, Ferguson's presence at games – especially those as relatively innocuous as a Capital One Cup semi-final first leg on a Tuesday night in January – is damaging the way in which the new United manager is perceived.

In short, the results have been bad enough for Moyes without him looking like the apprentice, trapped in an eternal, hellish assessment by the 72-year-old behind him. A 72-year-old who said last May that he had finally reached the point where he no longer needed football yet, seven months on, just does not seem able to walk away.

Yes, when Ferguson took over a United team in a bad way back in November 1986, Sir Matt Busby was still attending games. But Busby had quit the manager's seat for the second time 15 years earlier. Ferguson was not being compared with Busby in those days. He was being compared with Ron Atkinson, whose record, not to mention whose aura, were nothing like that of Busby.

And while Ferguson has not made the well-chronicled errors that Busby did when he handed over to poor old Wilf McGuinness in 1969 – keeping an office at Old Trafford, continuing to meet with players – that alone does not mean Ferguson does not have the power to damage Moyes. History does not have to repeat itself in every detail for United to botch another managerial handover.

If Moyes' team were top of the league and the summer had brought to the club the likes of Cesc Fabregas, Robert Lewandowski and Leighton Baines it would matter little. But the situation is what it is and now Ferguson looms over Moyes, creating the kind of distraction that Ferguson himself would have swept away without thinking twice, were he still in charge of the club.

What happened to the Ferguson who once said that in retirement he was going to learn Italian, travel more and take piano lessons? Instead he finds himself compulsively retracing his old steps, following United obsessively. And, in doing so, casting a long shadow over a successor who just cannot catch a break.

News
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
Sport
Danny Welbeck's Manchester United future is in doubt
footballGunners confirm signing from Manchester United
Sport
footballStriker has moved on loan for the remainder of the season
Sport
footballFeaturing Bart Simpson
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
New Articles
Olivia Colman topped the list of the 30 most influential females in broadcasting
tv
News
Kelly Brook
peopleA spokesperson said the support group was 'extremely disappointed'
News
The five geckos were launched into space to find out about the effects of weightlessness on the creatures’ sex lives
i100
Life and Style
techIf those brochure kitchens look a little too perfect to be true, well, that’s probably because they are
Sport
Andy Murray celebrates a shot while playing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
TennisWin sets up blockbuster US Open quarter-final against Djokovic
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
booksRiddling trilogy could net you $3m
Arts and Entertainment
Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand performs live
music Pro-independence show to take place four days before vote
News
news Video - hailed as 'most original' since Benedict Cumberbatch's
News
i100
Life and Style
The longer David Sedaris had his Fitbit, the further afield his walks took him through the West Sussex countryside
lifeDavid Sedaris: What I learnt from my fitness tracker about the world
Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
booksUnlike 'talented mediocrity' George Orwell, you must approach this writer dictionary in hand
News
i100
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering