Manchester United never finished outside the top 3 of the Premier League whilst Sir Alex Ferguson was manager. And now, they have never finished inside the top 3 without him. His long, cold shadow over the past four seasons blocks the warmth of success historically taken for granted at Old Trafford.
Louis van Gaal delivered the FA Cup – but was promptly dismissed before the champagne had warmed at Wembley. Jose Mourinho led United to the EFL Cup earlier this year – but it is hardly a resounding success in a first season riddled with underperformance. United could still win the Europa League after narrowly seeing off Celta Vigo and secure back door entry to the Champions League. Anything other than victory in Stockholm would mean this season has been a total failure for Mourinho. His biggest success to date is helping United to the most underwhelming unbeaten record in living memory. Whatever happens against Ajax – this season is an addend to a total of four inglorious seasons since Sir Alex Ferguson retired.
This is hardly surprising. Replacing a seemingly irreplaceable leader is one of the most difficult challenges faced by any organisation. To do it well they must choose the right successor. Not a carbon copy – but someone who can prompt the same amount of trust and loyalty from both fans and players alike. Continuity must be maintained. Unlike when managers are sacked and change is required immediately, United always knew Ferguson would retire – they had the opportunity to support the transition and ensure it happened with ease.
Manchester United is a club that has always had huge financial advantages over rivals. This reaches back to decades before the inception of the Premier League. But money does not bring long-term success – as neighbours Manchester City have found out. Despite years of financial power – only 3 managers have ever led United to the league title.
There are few clubs in world football where the manager is given such wide-reaching power and control. United managers like Ferguson and Busby were able to steer the entire philosophy of the club towards their own vision. In recent years, other clubs have pulled power from the manager so if they are ever to leave – because of dismissal or acceptance of a better offer – they can be replaced without having to rebuild every aspect of the club from the bottom up.
Manchester United fans do not want a manager. They want a leader of an all-conquering empire – that is what they are used to. Ferguson and Busby devoted themselves to an ideal of taking young homegrown players who committed their intentions to the club for the long term and complemented their development by signing carefully selected players to enhance a gap in a skill set amongst existing personnel.
In the modern footballing era we have only seen this ideal stunningly and fully realised at United under Sir Alex Ferguson and Barcelona as a culmination of the La Masia project. Another case to be argued could be the development of the youthful German World Cup winning squad of 2014. A project devised by Dietrich Weise in the aftermath of a disastrous France 98 for German football. But what happens when a visionary leader and winner leaves an organisation?
David Moyes faced the challenge of bringing instant success whilst Ferguson’s presence never diminished from Old Trafford. Everything Moyes did was viewed with one leering eye back to Ferguson – who sat and watched from a stand named in his honour. Did the appointment of Moyes secure continuity of a legacy – or was it merely the start of its deconstruction?
Characters as big as van Gaal and Mourinho would never blink at the prospect of standing in Ferguson’s shadow. But by the time they both came to power, United had fallen from champions to seventh-placed underwhelmers. In the appointment of Moyes, van Gaal and Mourinho – the United board should have felt secure the incoming leader had the capacity to surpass the achievements of the outgoing predecessor.
Employees face great change and uncertainty when a leader leaves. All they are concerned with is that times will be just as good, if not better, than before. If matters take a downturn – the support of the critical mass can quickly be lost. This is why rumoured dressing room rebellions in sport are no surprise.
In an ideal world, Ferguson would have held on for another year and tutored members of the Class of 92 to lead the club into the future. It would have maintained continuity, provided a handover period, and effectively communicated the club’s intentions for the coming years. With Ryan Giggs at the helm and the likes of Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt by his side, a plan would be installed for the next decade and beyond. Instead, Ferguson departed along with David Gill and left a boardroom more interested in quick big money status signings instead of recruiting personnel designed to enhance weaker areas of the side.
Mourinho is, without doubt, a great coach – but on an operational level, he only offers short term success. As illustrated by the fact the longest he has stayed at any club is 3 seasons. At a strategic level, he does not have the solution for United’s long-term future. And neither do the Glazers. The repeated recruitment of franchise signings are not investments. Mourinho has a track record of neglecting young talent and leaving players emotionally exhausted – a strategy already established with Luke Shaw. This summer could be a defining moment in the development of Marcus Rashford. Mourinho has the choice to nurture his talent, or sign Antoine Griezmann, and neglect his future.
Regardless if he wins the Europa League and secures Champions League football next season – nothing of what Mourinho has done before or during his time at Manchester United suggests he is the man to reignite their now lost dominance.