Saturday, 26 April 2014

United in Grief

By Shane Thomas

As the postmortems and retrospectives of David Moyes' compendiary spell as Manchester United are written, I had to join the punditocracy by penning my own thoughts.

While I feel sympathy for Moyes, who despite his travails at Old Trafford, is a capable manager - and seems a relatively decent person - there's no doubt that his time in charge at United had become terminal. And while the buck will always stop with the manager[1], there was an additional factor that couldn't have been predicted.

The reason why it could not have been forseen is that there's no recent precedent for it in the English game. Who could have fully comprehended just how the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson would have affected those still at United?

While great managers have departed from clubs before, there's no-one who was as successful - and as dominant - for as long as Ferguson. The closest comparison that springs to mind is Bill Shankly, and he had the luxury to hand the reins over to Bob Paisley[2], but the most accurate coach I can think of comparing Ferguson to is the NFL legend, Vince Lombardi. To give a brief explanation of Lombardi's legacy, how many coaches leave such an impact that the most prestigious trophy in their respective sport is named after them?

Because Ferguson wasn't just a winner for United. He was everything to them. Journalist, Martin Samuel wrote a good piece on the extent of the Scot's reach at Old Trafford. As the figurehead for an unprecedented reign of success, the chasm left by his departure went further than the loss of a highly skilled employee.

It was a sporting death (of sorts) with Ferguson being the most beloved of relatives. And United's subsequent reaction felt like one of abject grief.

It's the only way I can comprehend what has been arguably the most wretched title defence in a generation. In my preview of the title race back in August, I felt United would fail to retain the Premier League, but their experienced names would use their savvy and nous to keep them competitive for the majority of the campaign.

But with their father figure no longer running the ship, they were unable - or unwilling - to do what Chelsea have managed during times of managerial upheaval, and form a sturdy nucleus to maintain success. As for the newer players in the squad, (especially Robin Van Persie) they seemed to be at United in part due to Ferguson's presence. With him gone, the club was no longer what they signed up for.

None of this excuses their pitiful level of performance this season, but it's the best explanation that I can muster. Whatever one's opinion of Ferguson, it's clear that most of his players - current and present - adore(d) him[3]. And the Scot's reign was so enduring that it can be easy to get into a comfort zone, thinking that he would go on for ever.

Much in the way King Hamlet's death sent the Danish prince into extreme emotional unrest, the same seemed to be the case with Ferguson's retirement. While many have said United missed a trick by not hiring Jose Mourinho, I wonder whether any man could have functioned effectively under these unique circumstances.

While the likes of Mourinho, Pep Guardiola or Carlo Ancelotti would likely not have comitteed some of the errors of Moyes, Manchester United appear to be a club in mourning. One that will be likely exacerbated if Liverpool go on to win the Premier League as expected.

I remember an old episode of The Simpsons when Lisa refuses to play dodgeball because, "she is sad". Well, this season United appeared the take their metaphorical ball home and become a shut-in; "Come on guys, Premier League's back. Let's go for title number 21!" "No, don't want to play. I'm sad."

[1] - We're yet to be in line with the more streamlined nature of North American sport-management, who often spread accountability over the General Manager and Head Coach.

[2] - Which was the formula Ferguson was following by anointing Moyes.

[3] - And before you mention Roy Keane, he pretty much hates everyone. He deems Brian Clough the best manager he played under. A man who once punched Keane in the face.

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