McClair and Keane in frame for bigger roles

Click to follow
The Independent Football

"I feel that he is someone who will come in and challenge the players." Thus did Sir Alex Ferguson welcome the fifth and most recent of his assistant managers at Manchester United, Carlos Queiroz, just over a year ago. The belief was justified, and a cosmopolitan squad took up the gauntlet from the polyglot coach with sufficient relish to ensure that his one season in English football finished with the Premiership title won.

The trouble with employing talented deputies, however, is the same in football as in any other field: they tend to develop a craving to have a go at being the main man themselves. If sufficient credit for their efforts - financial or otherwise - is not perceived to be forthcoming; if advice and recommendations are not acted upon; if the boss shows no sign of moving on; all these things can prompt a sense of frustration in the ambitious No 2. In Ferguson's case, he has again chosen wisely but too well, and been forced to acknowledge of Queiroz that when Real Madrid come calling, "it is too big a chance to turn down".

The relationship is a tricky one, that often seems to work best with contrasting characters. Thus, Arsenal and Liverpool have both gone for a cerebral outsider as manager, with an assistant (Pat Rice and Phil Thompson respectively) rooted in the club's traditions who will do the shouting but also put an arm round players when necessary. Ferguson has recently done the opposite, aware perhaps that it is not necessary for anyone else to throw the tea cups or kick football boots around.

On first arriving at Old Trafford, in the autumn of 1986, he brought with him the devil he knew: Archie Knox, a former assistant during Aberdeen's greatest days. The partnership worked well in laying new foundations for United until Knox was offered far more money to join Walter Smith at Rangers than the often parsimonious United were prepared to pay.

Ferguson accepted that decision with more grace than when his next choice, Brian Kidd, departed after seven successful years. Everton and Manchester City had previously tried to prise him away and Blackburn Rovers succeeded, only for Kidd to join the list of championship- winning coaches who proved to be nothing like as effective as managers.

Once again, Ferguson did not rush into appointing a replacement, asking two of his senior scouts to seek out the best man "in terms of coaching ability and work ethic". The name that repeatedly came up was that of Steve McClaren, at that time the little-known assistant to Jim Smith at Derby County. He joined United in February 1999 and three months later was celebrating a Treble that included the European Cup.

It was obvious that he too would want a crack at management, and when Middlesbrough offered the opport- unity in 2001, United took stock for a whole (trophy-less) season, promoting their former players Jim Ryan and Mike Phelan to more significant coaching roles.

McClaren had brought a new dimension, with his particular interest in sports psychology; Queiroz, widely travelled, multilingual and with vast knowledge of European football, offered new options. What else can Ferguson add to the mix now? His choice, essentially, is whether to continue broadening the outlook in a dressing room desperate to win the Champions' League by employing another foreigner, or to go down the home-spun route.

That would favour Phelan, a midfielder at the club from 1989-94, and his contemporary Brian McClair. The latter, committed and intelligent, is particularly well thought of by Ferguson, whose first expensive signing he was; having gained experience as Kidd's assistant at Blackburn, he was welcomed back to Old Trafford to win the Premier Reserve League and then last season's FA Youth Cup. At United, interestingly, the role of youth coach is more highly prized than working with the second team, which is why McClair is higher up the pecking order than the reserves' chief Ricky Sbragia.

Although Eric Cantona was once offered an opportunity to coach the youngsters on a part-time basis, a permanent position seems fanciful. A more realistic possibility is to offer greater responsibility and some practical experience with the younger players to Roy Keane, who is keen enough on a future in the game to have taken his Uefa "B" coaching badge.

As for Queiroz, he will certainly challenge Real's galacticos, David Beckham among them (522 journalists have been accredited for Beckham's first media conference on Wednesday). He may also find that the players - especially those who were loyal to his sacked predecessor Vicente Del Bosque - will challenge him.

Fergie's deputies

Nov 1986 to April 1991: Archie Knox (now Millwall assistant manager)

Aug 1991 to Dec 1998: Brian Kidd (England coach under Eriksson)

Feb 1999 to July 2001: Steve McClaren (Middlesbrough manager)

Aug 2001 to June 2002: Jim Ryan (Man United director of youth)

June 2002 to June 2003: Carlos Queiroz (Real Madrid manager)