Will Ferguson Regret Staying For Too Long?

Whether he was right to anoint David Moyes his successor is only one question Sir Alex Ferguson must be pondering. He will also wonder if he should have left sooner...

Last Updated: 10/04/14 at 16:18 Post Comment

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Bang goes one pound. In the aftermath of Swansea's draw at the Emirates, I threw into office conversation the scenario whereby Everton pipped Arsenal for fourth, only for David Moyes's Manchester United to emulate the Liverpool of 2005 and Chelsea of 2012 in becoming domestically poor European champions. A Gooner took the bait, offering 250-1 at quite a premium on the bookies, but thanks to Mario Mandzukic, Thomas Muller and Arjen Robben I have lost my quid.

At least I got a run for my money and, as I count the financial cost of my decision, the Glazers are doing the same with a rather more expensive one. Barring a remarkable burst of form and lamentable collapses from both Everton and Arsenal, one of those two will finish fourth. Even crisis club Tottenham are a point closer. It would be a miracle to surpass any in football should Moyes's side qualify for the Champions League now and the manager was writing off the prospect after defeat in Munich, for fear of being thought a Mailbox reader.

For the Glazers it is a question of counting beans - more a mountain range of them than a mere hill - but for Sir Alex Ferguson it is something else, knowing that if he wants to watch United in Europe next season it will be on Thursday nights - if he is lucky - but more likely in friendlies. How that must burn. He has two obvious decisions to consider regretting: whether he was right to anoint Moyes his successor, and whether he should have stayed on another year or more rather than finally retiring.

Fergie would be far from alone in asking: "Would United be in a better football position this season were he still in charge?" And not even Moyes's biggest fan - assuming he has one - would answer in the negative. But here's another question, one the former manager will like even less: is part of United's problem that Ferguson clung on too long?

It has not been all bad for Moyes. Only Chelsea, by a narrow margin, have outlasted United in Europe. Though a lead turned into defeat at Bayern, as Sarah Winterburn's stats feature pointed out yesterday, that has not happened once in the league, an achievement matched only by Spurs. And United do have that best Premier League away record to cherish. But even that apparent success on the road is belied by a failure to beat anyone higher than ninth-placed Newcastle (with only Everton and Southampton to come). It seems possible, too, that some of the vanquished sides would have settled for draws in the past but instead were punished for trying to exploit weaknesses that were exposed so often at Old Trafford.

The transfer windows have not gone well, to which Ed Woodward's inexperience and the departure of David Gill contributed, both in terms of who arrived and who did not. Moyes built his own backroom, which seems to have been along the lines of a flat-pack shed bought in a bank holiday sale. His tactics have been picked apart, and he seems to have transmitted his lack of confidence to the team. Above all there is a lack of that quality Ferguson acquired down his long years, an aura that affected not only his players positively but weighed down the opposition, rival managers, and the match officials.

It is increasingly clear that the Fergie factor elevated United's squad last season, aided by Roberto Mancini's eccentric approach to City's title defence and the brittleness of Chelsea after their fine start under Roberto Di Matteo, and Arsenal's persistent refusal to compete. What Ferguson could not have anticipated when he stood down is the way that Brendan Rodgers would revive Liverpool, but resurgence from the two teams in blue was always likely.

The 2001-02 season was supposed to be Ferguson's swansong. Plainly, his decision to stay on then was a correct one. After it he faced two big new challenges: the first from Roman Abramovich at Chelsea, the second from Sheikh Mansour at City, copying the Russian's template of squandering squillions of natural resources on football.

Aided by Abramovich's mistakes and José Mourinho's self-destructiveness, Ferguson was able to bring United back from the lows of 2004 to 2006 and, around Cristiano Ronaldo, rise to new heights with the Champions League winners of 2008. Clearly Fergie was needled by subsequent developments at Eastlands, something that City explicitly sought to do by signing Carlos Tevez and by employing stand-up comic Garry Cook as chief executive. The Scot was never one to walk away from an argument and he was ready, even eager, for the fight against the noisy neighbours.

It wasn't only about City. There was the pursuit of Liverpool's 18 titles, matched in 2009 and surpassed in 2011. Had Ferguson stood down in 2009, after reaching 18 and bettering Rafa Benitez in a rare title challenge from the other end of the East Lancs Road, then his legacy would have been far stronger. A new manager in the summer of 2009 would have had a problem in goal with an ageing Edwin van der Sar to replace sooner or later, but in front of him Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra with some of their best years in front of them, and the experience of Rio Ferdinand and Gary Neville. The invaluable veterans Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs would still have been regularly available, rather than just the latter who, however golden his best moments, is very much winding down. And Wayne Rooney was clattering in 26 in 32 games in 2009-10, backed up by Dimitar Berbatov. Had Ferguson retired in 2011 then the squad would still have been a far stronger one than that of 2013.

Any football legacy will have its weak spots and Ferguson did add Robin van Persie in 2012. But there is also a sense that he squeezed not just everything but perhaps too much out of his players as he conducted his victory lap. Moyes has mishandled his inheritance but much of it proved mere silver plate, and thinning at that, rather than solidly precious metal.

There will always be regrets in retirement but rather than wishing he was still there, perhaps Sir Alex Ferguson should be conceding that he shouldn't have been there so long.

Philip Cornwall

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