It was said of Frank O’Farrell that he arrived to manage Manchester United in July 1971 as a stranger and left 17 months later as just as much of a stranger. And that has pretty much been the fate of every manager of the club since, bar Alex Ferguson. A Manchester United manager, the man supposed to be at the epicentre, can find himself a fringe figure soon enough.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has the wheel now, on a three-year contract, and nobody could say he is a stranger to the club. After all, a hopeful swing of his right foot in the Nou Camp delivered the most transcendental moment in the club’s history. He had already been taken to hearts the moment, coming on as a sub for his debut, he poked home an equaliser against Blackburn in August 1996, and produced the same smile every fan thinks they would wear on scoring for United.
“You know when people get a new job and they say it’s a dream job?” he said on Thursday. “That’s more true to me than to anyone.”
Ole: "This has been my ultimate dream, maybe a naive dream, but I've always had that dream in my mind; to have this responsibility for this huge fantastic family of a football club. I'm so honoured to be given this fantastic responsibility to lead us forward." #MUFC
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) March 28, 2019
Is loving the bones of the club enough? Of course not. Roy Evans loved Liverpool with every sinew of his body, but could never revive the fallen giant. His club’s fans look back on that period with regret. At Real Madrid this season, Santiago Solari, a beloved loyalist, was given his turn, only for Florentino Perez to be forced to get down on bended knee and beg Zinedine Zidane to return. Zidane, though, and Pep Guardiola, have proved that someone who understands a club can succeed, though it does help to have generational talents like Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi to call upon.
Whatever happens now to Solskjaer, and a tearful, defeated goodbye in the next 18 months cannot be ruled out, he will always be cherished for his United goals and probably for this winter’s dreamy revival of a club languishing in a doldrums of self-loathing and faded grandeur. That last-minute mugging of PSG was a moment to remind of the glory days of the time before Ferguson hung up his hairdryer.
Those who followed on from Ferguson have melted in his wake. Jose Mourinho behaved like he never wanted to be in Manchester and the feeling was mutual for much of the time he spent camping at the Lowry Hotel. Few, bar the staff at Chinese food emporium Wings and his wine merchant, could find Louis van Gaal’s wavelength. David Moyes’ face bore an expression of barely concealed panic right from the moment his big opportunity arrived.
Ferguson predecessors like Dave Sexton and Ron Atkinson were good managers who could never crack the code of Manchester United. Tommy Docherty looked like cracking it, but was offed when it was discovered he had been seeing the physio’s wife. As “The Doc” put it, he was “sacked for the crime of falling in love”.
Where Ferguson and Matt Busby before that succeeded was making the club about them and what they wanted. Manchester United without them became unimaginable, and for those who came in next, unmanageable. More by accident than design – Solskjaer was never meant to be more than a sticking plaster – United have struck upon a manager who at least understands a little of what made Ferguson successful. All three of Moyes, Van Gaal and Mourinho could not – or would not – find that thread.
Like Real Madrid, Manchester United can chew a manager up and spit them out, no matter their pedigree or budget. Van Gaal and Mourinho are modern coaching greats, historic football figures, and both were granted vast fortunes to turn the ship around. Both walked the plank after the grandest failure of their careers.
“Unfortunately, we are talking about a commercial club, not a football club,” Van Gaal said this week in an interview with the BBC. “I spoke to Ferguson about this and in his last years, he also had problems with it.”
This is the reality that Solskjaer, the ‘permanent’ boss, rather than the temporary sunshine boy charged with lifting the mood, must now face down. It is no longer so possible to bend the club to a manager’s will as it was when Busby and Ferguson were building their empires. The Glazer family, those absentee landlords, remains, despite rumours about a Saudi Arabian buy-out, and so does Ed Woodward, the executive vice-chairman for whom having Solskjaer around has been almost as sweet a honeymoon as it has been for the Norwegian.
Woodward has been vilified since the day he stepped in for David Gill to steer the club’s off-field affairs, right at the time Ferguson had decided to retire. He has presided over three failed managerial regimes, and pumped hundreds of millions into the transfer market during the last two. The talk on Thursday, which began with the announcement of Solskjaer’s new contract, was that he would be backed like the others in the market.
Transfers are what have broken the last three managers. Woodward and Moyes made a terrific mess of their only off-season in tandem, with Marouane Fellaini a tousle-haired monument to a summer spent chasing Cesc Fabregas and ending up paying over the odds for a player from Moyes’ former club, Everton, and one wholly unsuited to the rest of the team Ferguson had left behind.
This week, Van Gaal walked through the deals that did not work out for him. Bastian Schweinsteiger “was injured”, Radamel Falcao “was injured”, Di Maria “could not deal with the continuous pressure on the ball”. Mourinho is yet to go into too many specifics but seemed to go off everyone he brought to the club bar Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Jadon Sancho is the player being readily linked with United now, a signing harking back to the days when Ferguson would try to hoover up the best young players around: Paul Ince, Roy Keane, Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney. But there is still serious business to contend with before the summer of speculation begins.
Off the field, the question of a director of football seems has been in play all season, with that trail going dead to the point where it has been suggested the position might not be even filled in this calendar year. That would suggest the structural issues that both Van Gaal and Mourinho complained of, with too much power in Woodward’s often fumbling hands, are not close to being corrected.
This week’s announcement came in the wake of the first serious reverse of Solskjaer’s caretaker regime, the FA Cup exit at Wolves a fortnight ago that all but closed off chances of silverware, barring a Champions League miracle. And defeat at Arsenal slowed United’s climb into the top four. A chaotic slide from contention and a disappointing end to the season would be very much in character for post-Ferguson United.
Solskjaer, a more determined, flinty and tough character than his glint of a fan-boy smile can often suggest, is no longer sheltered by his club legend status, of being the one who came in during an hour of need.
The novelty has gone, now for the real stuff to begin.