A Manchester United fan criticising Sir Alex Ferguson is tantamount to sacrilege. After all, this is the man who brought unparalleled success to the club during his twenty-six years at the helm.
Regardless, it’s impossible to survey the current shambles at Old Trafford without attributing a portion of the blame to The Treble winning Scot. Below, we examine the five main reasons why Ferguson should accept a degree of responsibility for the club’s demise:
1. MAGNIER AND MCMANUS FEUD FACILITATED GLAZER TAKEOVER
Sir Alex’s infamous row with Irish racing tycoons John Magnier and JP McManus over the disputed rights to stud fees for the racehorse Rock of Gibraltar cast a huge shadow over Old Trafford back in 2003. Magnier, and his business partner McManus, jointly owned a 25.49% stake in the club when Ferguson decided to take them to court.
In response, the pair sent a list of ’99 questions’ to United’s board, criticising the secretive way transfers were conducted by agents and the failure to disclose amounts paid to them. At the time Jason Ferguson (Sir Alex’s son) was heavily involved in United’s transfer dealings. The resulting investigation saw Jason banned from representing any further players at the club.
When the row began halfway through 2003, a certain Malcolm Glazer owned a 3.17% stake in Manchester United. Over the ensuing months, the American billionaire substantially increased his shareholding.
When the first whispers of a Glazer takeover began circulating, Ferguson was resolute in his opposition to any such move, telling a fan’s forum: ‘We don’t want the club to be in anyone else’s hands’. However, by the time Glazer had acquired a majority shareholding in early 2005, Ferguson’s position at the club was at its weakest since 1990. On the pitch United were going through a transitional period with no league title for a second successive season. Off it, Ferguson’s feud with Magnier and McManus had brought a great deal of scrutiny on the club’s financial dealings.
If the anti-Glazer movement thought Sir Alex would be spearheading their campaign, they thought wrong. Ferguson knew a Glazer takeover would rid him of Magnier and McManus once and for all and so, when Glazer purchased the stake belonging to the Irish racing tycoons in May 2005, the silence from Fergie was deafening. And the man who masterminded Glazer’s hostile takeover? One Edward Gareth Woodward.
2. ALLOWED HIS SQUAD TO AGE
It’s an accusation that’s been levelled at Ferguson before and one he’s vehemently denied. The man who won more trophies than any other manager in the history of the game will argue he left his successor with a squad of champions.
It’s true that Moyes inherited a side with an average age of 26.1 (which won the league by an eleven-point margin) but that only tells half the story. The foundations upon which United’s recent successes had been built were crumbling.
The previously indomitable centre-half pairing of Nemanja Vidić and Rio Ferdinand were a spent force. The injury-ravaged Serb had signalled his intention to leave the club at the end of the season, while Ferdinand, once described as a ‘Rolls Royce of a player’, now 34, was more like an old banger heading for the scrapyard. Even the marauding left-back, Patrice Evra, was beginning to show signs of wear and tear at the age of 32.
And if the defence was over the hill then the midfield was surely approaching nursing home status.
Ferguson’s refusal to replace United’s ageing stars is best summed up by the Paul Scholes debacle. Coaxing the Salford-born midfielder out of retirement in 2012 bordered on arrogance. You cannot replace the irreplaceable but the point-blank refusal to find Scholes’ heir was a major mistake.
Even at 37, Scholes still had a contribution to make but the whole episode is indicative of Ferguson’s shortsightedness. The fact that a 40-year-old Ryan Giggs was still the best midfielder in David Moyes’ squad perfectly encapsulates the entire situation. People will point to the relatively young average age of the squad Ferguson left behind. However, age is one thing. Ability is another entirely, which we’ll discuss in the next point.
3. POOR PLAYER BUYS
Ferguson’s title-winning squad of 2013 was his last and undoubtedly his worst. Pipping City to the signing of Robin van Persie was the Scot’s final successful foray into the transfer market as the Dutchman’s thirty goals propelled the Red Devils to the title. However, in the seasons preceding that triumph Sir Alex’s buys were questionable to put it mildly.
The true origins of United’s demise can be traced back to the summer of 2009. United had appeared in back-to-back Champions League finals but were resigned to losing talisman Cristiano Ronaldo to Real Madrid and Carlos Tevez to ‘noisy neighbours’ City. The club received a world record £90M fee for the Portuguese star and fans wildly speculated about who would have the unenviable task of filling his boots.
Star-names such as Ribery and Benzema were frequently linked but in the end Ferguson settled for Antonio Valencia from Wigan Athletic. An injury-plagued Michael Owen was signed to replace fan-favourite Tevez while the unknown Gabriel Obertan completed United’s underwhelming transfer business.
Over the course of the next few seasons, dependable stalwarts such as Gary Neville, John O’Shea, Wes Brown, Ji-sung Park and Dimitar Berbatov left the club. Their replacements came in the form of Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, Alex Büttner, Nick Powell, Ashley Young and Bebé. The quality of these players was never truly exposed until they were asked to make the leap from able deputy to full-time replacement.
The same could be levelled at some of United’s established first-team players. Fletcher, Nani and Anderson all played their part in United’s success between 2007-2009 while surrounded by the talents of Ronaldo, Giggs and Scholes. But when the star players either departed or retired, the aforementioned trio were found seriously wanting.
4. RETIRING AT THE SAME TIME AS DAVID GILL
Everyone understands Ferguson’s reasons for retirement and no one could begrudge him it. In fact, he admitted several years later he would have stayed on as manager, but for the death of his wife Cathy’s twin sister, Bridget Robertson, which persuaded him to retire to be by her side.
However, it beggars belief that both Alex Ferguson and David Gill knew nothing of each other’s decisions to retire until three months before the end of the season. Why did these two colossal figures, who’d such a successful relationship, decide to keep their retirement plans such a closely guarded secret from one another?
I’m certain if one had made their intentions clear earlier, then the other would have postponed their retirement to facilitate a smoother transition. Ferguson later admitted Gill’s decision to step down made him question the timing of his own retirement. ‘It gave me a terrible quandary because you start thinking about leaving the club in the lurch’, he confessed. As it was, the two most influential men at the club left together and handed the reins to David Moyes and Ed Woodward.
5. HANDPICKED HIS SUCCESSOR THEN REFUSED TO BACK HIM
Moyes’ brief disastrous reign at United could be summed up in two banners. ‘The Chosen One’, placed at the Stretford End at the start of the season to show support for the man who replaced Sir Alex Ferguson. And ‘Wrong One – Moyes Out’, in seven-foot high red lettering which was flown above Old Trafford using a plane just ten months later.
It would appear David Moyes was as gobsmacked as everybody else when he was chosen to be Sir Alex’s successor. The Everton boss was summonsed to Ferguson’s home and told ‘You’re going to be the next Man United manager’. It was an unprecedented move and one that’s unlikely to be repeated, given the outcome.
At the end of Sir Alex’s last ever game at Old Trafford, he addressed the crowd and demanded they ‘get behind their new manager’. It was an interesting choice of words from Ferguson. As the 2013-14 season went from bad to worse, Moyes cut a forlorn figure on the touchline. United’s brattish fans, still drunk on the success of the Ferguson era, were calling for his head before Christmas. The press and in particular social media were cruelly mocking the 50-year-old Scot.
It’s clear that Moyes was out of his depth at Manchester United and the sack was an eventuality. But if Sir Alex had publicly backed Moyes, the man he personally chose to succeed him, it could have afforded his compatriot a stay of execution at the very least. But you get the impression Ferguson was putting as much distance between them as was possible to protect his legacy.