Offside, 15 April
On Fergie's sackability.
Society’s most venerated institution is facing a succession crisis. No, not the Catholic Church, I’m talking about Manchester United FC. After a second successive season without Premiership or European silverware United’s chief executive David Gill has publicly admitted that Sir Alex Ferguson is ‘sackable’.
In any other circumstances it would stating the bleeding obvious to say that a football manager is ‘sackable’. In the fiercely competitive world of professional football the tenure of a manager is, on the whole, nasty, brutish and short (quite literally so in the case of Millwall’s Dennis Wise). But to contemplate the dismissal of Britain’s most successful football manager is to think the unthinkable. Fergie is the personification of unsackability, as Iain Dowie might say.
Football writers have penned Fergie’s managerial obituary many times before only to be proved wrong but, as United’s title challenge fizzles out, rumblings of discontent among the Old Trafford faithful are growing more audible. After United’s lacklustre 2-0 defeat at Norwich on Saturday, former players have been voicing their disquiet. ‘They did not play with any grit, passion or zest’, complained Lou Macari. ‘I am alarmed and concerned.’ Former United goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel blasted Ferguson’s squad rotation policy. ‘I still don’t know what Fergie was thinking about’, said the Match of the Day pundit. ‘I don’t think some of the players he put in are good enough in terms of their mentality. The squad is just not good enough to do that.’
Roy Keane, who once claimed that Rolex watches, cars, and mansions had diminished the players’ hunger, again questioned the commitment of his team-mates. ‘Everyone at this club needs to look at themselves and ask whether they are giving 100 per cent to the football club’, fumed Keane. ‘I am not sure all the players can say they are.’ Ironically, Ferguson’s unsackability has been undermined by his botched attempts to resolve the Roy Keane succession problem. Neither Eric Djemba-Djemba nor Kleberson were ever going to be the new Roy Keane, but neither was particularly convincing as the new Nicky Butt.
Every great manager can make mistakes in the transfer market but too many of Fergie’s signings have underperformed. Juan Sebastien Veron, Diego Forlan, Tim Howard, Louis Saha, David Bellion, and Liam Miller have all failed to make an impact. That’s not to say there haven’t been good signings but Fergie has blown his transfer budget on big money signings like Wayne Rooney and Rio Ferdinand at the expense of ensuring that the squad has sufficient strength and depth to meet the exacting demands of the Premiership and Champions League. The goalkeeping errors against Porto and AC Milan that led to Champions League elimination in the past two seasons are the price Fergie has paid for failing to invest in a capable successor to Peter Schmeichel.
Ironically, Ferguson’s decision to dispense with the old 4-4-2 system and deploy a more fluid attacking formation, with forward players interchanging positions, has been blasted by former United stars. ‘This is a club based on attacking football and flair, balls into the box and goalmouth scrambles’, said Lou Macari. ‘If you want to just keep the ball and never win anything, go and play for Tottenham’, he added witheringly. Former striker Jimmy Greenhoff concurred. ‘We don’t want to go the way of boring Italian football with five in midfield and one up front’, said Greenhoff.
While reverting to route one football would undoubtedly be a retrograde step, United seem to have lost the ability to switch to a more direct style of play when required – a tactic that got United out of jail in the 1999 European Cup Final. Chelsea, in their 4-2 victory over Bayern Munich at Stamford Bridge, showed that there is still a place in the modern game for the long ball, providing that is not the only weapon in your armoury.
United have won only one knock-out round of the Champions League since they lifted the trophy in 1999. That one statistic tells you all you need to know about United’s stagnation. Until last season United’s slow decline had been masked by their continued ability to dominate a mediocre Premiership. But Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea have thrown United’s lack of progress into stark relief.
David Gill has played down his comments about Ferguson being sackable. ‘There is nothing in our plans about changing the manager. The issue has not even been discussed’, insisted Gill. One wonders whether the United board have the bottle to axe their manager. Fergie himself appears unlikely to quit of his own volition. ‘We have some of the best talent in the world and some youngsters who will be sure bets in this game and also this business. Why would I retire?’ he recently said. Maybe United should think of hiring Sir Alan Sugar. His pockets aren’t as deep as Roman Abramovich’s but at least he’s not afraid to say ‘You’re fired!’.
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