The end of most eras can only be identified with the perfect clarity of hindsight but, occasionally, there comes a moment when it is possible to realise change is taking place in front of one's eyes.
This lunchtime threatens to be one such juncture. At Villa Park Arsenal, a team of liquid ore fashioned by the urbane, cosmopolitan Arsène Wenger, are poised to confirm their ascendancy over Manchester United, a hitherto all-conquering locomotive which, despite Sir Alex Ferguson's furious stoking, is finally running out of steam.
It will signal the completion of the latest stage in the evolution of the English club manager. The old-school martinets, red-faced loud-voiced men, usually from Scotland, who controlled their players with an iron rod and ran their clubs as fiefdoms, are in decline. Like their predecessors, the manager-secretaries who deferred team selection to chairmen, they are going into history, as dated as universal Saturday afternoon kick-offs and baggy shorts.
In their place come the modern executives, armed with clipboard, stopwatch and cholesterol readings. Educated, multilingual sophisticates, they treat their players as adults and the game as a science. Today's contest typifies the contrast. Ferguson and his hairdryer are destined to be museum-pieces. Wenger and his coaching badges are the future.
So, at least, is the popular perception. Fergie epitomises the old school. A tempestuous centre-forward in his playing days, whose elbows were as sharp as his tongue would become, Ferguson is famed and feared for his disputes with players, officials and journalists. A noted workaholic, with an acute sense of his own worth, his word is law at Old Trafford, and woe betide anyone who forgets it.
Wenger would represent the modern simply by being foreign. That he has worked in Japan, rarely raises his voice and has an economics degree from Strasbourg University gilds the lily. United's players call Ferguson "The Boss", the Englishmen at Arsenal christened Wenger "Le Professeur". As a player he was, inevitably, a sweeper.
Except these caricatures are simply that; the reality is less clear-cut. Take, for example, those coaching badges. Wenger was 32 when he completed his coaching diploma, by which time he was looking after the youth academy at Strasbourg. Ferguson, though a better player, had decided much earlier that his long-term future lay in teaching others. He was 23 when he attended his first coaching school. At 24 he took his full badge and thereafter attended annual refresher courses. He backed the formation of the FA's Coaching Association and, like Wenger, is involved in coaching symposiums held by Uefa, the sport's European governing body.
Wenger may be the graduate but Ferguson's old schoolmaster at Govan High, Bill Dobie, recalled: "He was very, very clever and if he'd been born into a different background he'd have gone on to university."
Instead of further education, Ferguson went into a trade, tool-making, and as a teenage shop-steward organised a successful strike. He later combined playing with running two public houses in a rough part of Glasgow. Classic old school.
But Wenger was no stranger himself to licenced premises. His parents ran an auberge which was used as a base by the local football team. Like Ferguson, whose father was passionate about the game, Wenger grew up in a football environment rather than an academic one.
When Wenger arrived at Highbury, much was made about his insistence on clean living. Ian Wright would mock his promotion of "grilled broccoli". In an early interview he told me he could not understand why English people constantly filled up on tea, coffee and biscuits, all day long. Steak was banished, alcohol frowned upon. Gérard Houllier, at Liverpool, preached a similar philosophy, complaining that putting alcohol in a footballers' body was like refuelling a petrol car with diesel. Ruud Gullit, Glenn Hoddle (English but a Wenger disciple) likewise.
They were the new Europeans. Old-school management was different. "Win or lose, on the booze", "a team that drinks together, wins together", were the catchphrases. Alcohol was the lubricant of team bonding.
So it was at Manchester United when Ferguson arrived. But not for long. Two core members of the fabled drinking club, Norman Whiteside and Paul McGrath, were eased out and Bryan Robson only survived because he was indispensable as a player. And steak was banned, a decade before it disappeared from the Highbury menu.
Ferguson was also one of the first English managers to bring in dieticians. When Lee Dixon, a former Arsenal player, wrote of Wenger, that he "revolutionised football management in this country", he was falling for the perception, not the reality. Change was already under way, Wenger just made it fashionable.
During his time in Scotland, and his first decade or so at United, Ferguson was obsessed by football and, more specifically, winning football matches. One of the aspects of life which suffered was family. He admitted of his sons, when he first contemplated retiring a few years ago, "I did not see them grow up". In recent years he has compensated by helping his sons, Jason in particular, where possible in business, although he admits his relationship is as much that of friend as father.
Again, very old school, but Wenger is no different. He and his long-time partner, Annie, have a young daughter who, according to one authoritative source, "bemoans papa's long working hours".
For it is Wenger, now, who puts in the longest hours. When he moved into his new home in Totteridge, north London, the fixtures and fittings were already in place. He had no time for the distraction of furnishings. Annie has since been left to adapt the off-the-peg finish to her style, Wenger's only intervention being the installation of a high-tech satellite system, VCR and huge television so he can watch football from across the globe. Which he does, continually.
Wenger's knowledge of the game is encyclopaedic even by the standards of football management. The chief scout, Steve Rowley, once mentioned a player in Africa, knowing only half his name, and Wenger replied "that would be Bonaventure Kalou, he's 17 and from the Ivory Coast. A good player but there could be work permit problems".
Wenger has often said he knows only three parts of London, the journeys from his house to the training ground, to Heathrow, and to Highbury. David Dein, Arsenal's vice-chairman and a long-time friend, occasionally drags him to the theatre but even he had to use subterfuge to get him to attend the BBC's Sports Review of the Year when Wenger won the coach's award.
Ferguson, meanwhile, has acquired broader interests. He took up playing the piano, has built up a huge wine cellar, cooks for family and friends and, with mixed consequences, developed a passion for horse racing. He has also been involved in a string of charitable and voluntary activities.
Should Wenger overcome Ferguson today, it will not be a case of the new superseding the old, it will be one football man defeating another. The presentation may be different, but the individuals are more alike than either usually admit. In a candid moment Wenger confessed: "I think there is a common link. We both want to win and we are passionately determined to win. He's lasted a long time. I've lasted a few years. To survive in this job you need a big passion because you need to recover from disappointments."
One of them will be disappointed today, but no one should bet against them recovering.
Sir Alex Ferguson
Age: 63 (born 31 Dec, 1941).
Born: Govan, Glasgow.
Player (centre-forward): Queen's Park, St Johnstone, Dunfermline, Rangers, Falkirk, Ayr; Scottish League XI.
Coach: Falkirk (player-coach), Scotland.
Manager: East Stirlingshire (1974), St Mirren (1974-1978), Aberdeen (1978-1986), Scotland (1985-86).
Managerial honours: 11 League Championships (3 Scotland, 8 England), 16 Cups (1 Inter-Continental, 5 Europe, 5 England, 5 Scotland).
Started current job: Nov 1986.
Age: 54 (born 22 Oct, 1949).
Born: Strasbourg, France.
Player (sweeper): Mutzig, Vauban, Mulhouse, Strasbourg.
Coach: Strasbourg (youth coach), Cannes.
Manager: Nancy (1984-87), Monaco (1987-94), Grampus 8 Nagoya (1995-96).
Managerial honours: 3 League Championships (1 France, 2 England), 6 Cups (1 France, 2 Japan, 3 England).
Started current job: Oct 1996Reuse content