How David Moyes will follow a legend at Manchester United

As Sir Alex Ferguson's successor prepares for his first day in charge at Old Trafford, Tim Rich talks to three men who all replaced icons

This morning David Moyes drove along a single-track road, passed through the two sets of barriers that lead to the Carrington training ground and become the manager of Manchester United.

The training ground itself did not exist when, in the bleak November of 1986, Sir Alex Ferguson was paraded at Old Trafford. The following morning would be Rio Ferdinand's eighth birthday. The men in the brown-panelled home dressing-room have known no other voice. Ferguson has gone but his shadow remains.

Frank Clark was 49, a year younger than Moyes, when he inherited the ruins of Brian Clough's long regime. Nottingham Forest were where Clough had found them 18 years before, in the second tier of English football. Clark had been part of the side that had won Forest's first European Cup in 1979. His past would buy him some time with the fans but it would not help when dealing with Clough's players.

"I can't say it helped with the dressing-room, a footballer can be frighteningly quick to see through you if you don't know what you are doing," he said. "Brian was not well. He kept a very low profile and himself out of the papers, which helped a lot. But there was an air of depression around the City Ground and we needed to clear it quickly."

It lingered. Nottingham Forest won three of their first dozen matches that season and lay 20th by the end of October. That they were promoted was perhaps down to the fact that the team were becoming recognisably Clark's own.

"Roy Keane was determined to go and Nigel Clough could not stay because of the internal politics, but I signed six players and there was Stuart Pearce. He was the leader of that dressing-room, a tough, commanding presence, and he could have made trouble for me. In fact, he supported everything I did.

"I suppose Ferguson was the last dictator, the kind we will not see again, but in his later years Alex became a very good delegator," added Clark. "David Moyes has something that a lot of very good managers possess, which is an unshakeable belief in themselves – even when they are wrong."

Wilf McGuinness believed in himself absolutely when he was asked to succeed Sir Matt Busby at Manchester United. The Cliff, the club's then training ground, had been his home for all his adult life, as a player and then as a coach. Busby was eight years into his term as manager when McGuinness signed schoolboy forms at 15. He was now 31, which in retrospect seems astonishingly young.

The players were his friends and he had Busby's blessing. "Manchester United would back me, they were that sort of club. Nobody at Old Trafford was a non-trier," he recalled. "I still had the old back-room staff who were United loyal. There was nothing to be afraid of. Maybe it would have been better had I been a complete stranger to them."

What McGuinness saw was plenty of ageing, talented footballers who played golf with Busby, who still had an office at Old Trafford. "There were too many grey areas between us," said McGuinness. "I was never sure what was his responsibility and what was mine but they were not the reasons I failed.

"The main reason was a lack of transfers. I signed one player, Ian Ure. I wanted to bring in Mick Mills from Ipswich and Malcolm Macdonald but I was told that the fees were too big."

Busby ruled for 24 years; McGuinness was given 18 months. George Best was at his glittering peak but the two other members of the trinity, Denis Law and Bobby Charlton, were in decline and dropping them hurt. On Boxing Day 1970, McGuinness was fired and Busby returned to his dressing-room.

"David Moyes will find this is a special club," McGuinness added. "The lesson of Manchester United is the longer you manage, the easier it becomes."

As Terry Neill remarked, he grew up in Belfast, "so I knew what a fight was, even if it was likely to end in tears". Like McGuinness, he was very young – 32 – when he succeeded Bill Nicholson, who had run Tottenham for 16 years.

It was not an easy inheritance. Neill had played for Arsenal, Tottenham were in freefall and Nicholson had backed Danny Blanchflower or John Giles for the succession. "But I was young and I wanted to test myself," said Neill. "But my playing career with Arsenal was a factor. I got hate mail and abusive phone calls.

"When I was appointed, Bill was brilliant. After we had done the media duties we spent half an hour discussing the playing staff. I knew I was not his choice but he treated me with the greatest of grace.

"My first impressions were looking around the training ground, they had so many excellent staff that I couldn't believe they were in this position. Something at Tottenham was fundamentally wrong. Some, like Jimmy Neighbour, needed an arm around the shoulder. He had no self-belief. I told him, 'You can be my Garrincha'.

"The squad was getting on and there was some really promising talent that needed to come through, but I don't take any credit for giving Glenn Hoddle his first-team debut," Neill admitted. "You just needed a grain of common sense."

The season finished with Tottenham needing to beat Leeds, who were preparing for the 1975 European Cup final, to survive. Spurs won 4-2 and the same fans that had jeered his arrival called for Neill to take to the pitch. Instead of milking the applause, Neill headed for Heathrow instead. "The season had shattered me. I needed a break. David Moyes comes to the job thoroughly prepared and he is 50, not 32."

None of those who succeeded a football dictator lasted long – Clark's three and a half years was the longest tenure and both Manchester United and Tottenham were relegated before the ghosts of the old masters had properly cleared. Moyes might imagine his future differently as he drives through the gates.

Moyes makes three signings in one day

New United coach's profiles

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