Sir Alex Ferguson reportedly intervened during Manchester United crisis talks yesterday over the future of manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. The defining figure in modern club history argued in favour of his former player, and was apparently instrumental in the concoction of a plan to give the Norwegian the next three games to save his job. While it is understandable that the Scotsman would remain loyal to the player who rubber-stamped his greatest triumph on that manic Nou Camp night, his interference could be seen as detrimental. Which begs the question, how much influence should Sir Alex have on the modern Manchester United?
Some would say Ferguson has his DNA running throughout the current set-up. Solskjaer’s early months in the job were shot through with a healthy dose of ‘The Spirit Of 99’. The ex-Molde manager even went as far as not parking in his reserved managerial parking spot, as a mark of respect for a figure he still calls ‘The Boss’. To be fair to Solskjaer, the thinking behind his initially-temporary was to restore club values that were lost under Jose Mourinho’s bitter pragmatism and Louis van Gaal’s soporific nothing-ball. The caretaker manager preached a return to United’s core philosophies and, by extension, the philosophy of Sir Alex Ferguson.
On balance, much of this restoration project has worked. The football has been more attacking over the course of Solskjaer’s term, while United’s historic emphasis on youth has returned, bringing exciting talent like Mason Greenwood to the fore. But that famous Ferguson ruthless streak, that will to win when the big prizes are at stake, has not been a feature under Solskjaer. It is hard to envision Ferguson losing four consecutive semi-finals, or getting his late substitutions as embarrassingly wrong as Ole did in the Europa League final defeat to Villarreal back in May. This is where Solskjaer stands. He was absolutely the right man to rid United of their toxicity and restore their values. But he is not the right man to win the elite prizes.
Which makes Sir Alex’s intervention at this point all the more concerning. Ferguson knows what it is to compete for, and win, every trophy available to a Manchester United manager. He knows the uncompromising nature and relentlessly high standards needed to excel at the top of the game. Yet, it is doubtful that he sees those qualities in Solskjaer, and not solely based on the Liverpool defeat either. United have improved without excelling. They have not lifted a trophy since Mourinho’s Europa League triumph in 2017, something that a winner of 38 major trophies surely knows isn’t good enough.
Perhaps Ferguson’s intervention comes from a good place. Perhaps rather than misplaced faith in a treasured former player, the iconic former boss sees a genuine chance for the former Cardiff manager to turn it around. But is Sir Alex actually well-placed to make such a judgement? While his experience and expertise cannot be questioned, it is eight years since he held an active role in football. The sport he left behind is a far different ball game to the one we have today.
The days of the hyper-involved dictator-coach, of which Ferguson was the greatest example, are long gone. Nowadays, even elite managers such as Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp work within intricate football departments supplemented by sporting directors and vast technical staff. Ferguson was a master of reinvention, rejuvenating himself to succeed across four decades of football. But he has not needed to engineer such a transformation for so long, that you wonder if he remains stuck in the same mindset he held last time he managed a Premier League game in 2013. It is not Ferguson’s place to anoint a Manchester United manager, or protect one. The fact he still seems to have that privilege at Old Trafford is worrying, particularly after the Ferguson-led appointment of David Moyes ended in acrimony.
But Ferguson himself is not to blame, he is simply a man offering his views and input. Whether emotionally-led or driven by football reasons, his opinion is valid. But that does not mean the United hierarchy need to be influenced by it. The Red Devils board often seem to be indebted to the club’s past, something the Solskjaer appointment demonstrates and the Ferguson indulgence solidifies. But Ferguson, or any single individual, cannot be allowed to dictate the way forward. Decisions like the identity of the manager should be the result of careful planning and part of a long-term strategy. Unfortunately, this willingness to honour Ferguson’s wishes displays neither.
None of this is a criticism of Ferguson, or even Solskjaer. This is more a sad indictment on the way Manchester United are run as a football club. The Solskjaer appointment was one made with hearts not heads, as the whole red half of Manchester was swept up in the nostalgic positivity of 14 wins from 19 games. The decision to retain him has come not from a carefully-constructed roadmap to get the club out of trouble, but at least partially at the behest of a man who has not presided over a game of football in nearly a decade. This is not the joined-up thinking that has brought rivals Manchester City and Liverpool their recent success. This is a club making snap decisions for flimsy reasons, with no sign of a plan. The Sir Alex Ferguson era is not coming back. Instead, Manchester United need to put some proper thought into planning their next one.