Di Matteo’s demise underscores Ferguson’s enduring value
It has been quite a week for managers; one which has often reminded Manchester United supporters just how fortunate the club remains to keep Sir Alex Ferguson at the helm after more than a quarter century. True, the cantankerous 70-year-old Scot has many faults, more of them personal than professional, but whatever the legitimate criticisms, Ferguson’s stewardship continues to avoid the managerial dramas prevalent elsewhere.
Indeed, Wednesday’s commotion at Stamford Bridge, in which Champions League winning manager Roberto Di Matteo was unceremoniously sacked and replaced with out-of-work Rafael Benitez, says much for Old Trafford’s contrasting stability. Benitez is the 10th manager employed by Roman Abramovich in nine years. Ferguson hasn’t hired that many deputies in more than 25 years.
Fitting then, that yet another tribute is paid to Sir Alex this week, with the manager’s statue set to be unveiled in front of the renamed Sir Alex Ferguson Stand on Friday. The statue, marking 26 years of the Scot’s tenure in Manchester, is set to be placed above the main entrance, with Ferguson-themed artwork adorning the lower concourse.
Little wonder, while there is sympathy for Di Matteo in football circles, the real plaudits have poured in for Ferguson this week; a man still without peer in the game.
“He’s unique, especially in the modern day,” said Jose Mourinho, whose Real Madrid side knocked City out of the Champions League on Wednesday night.
“If you go back many years, then you will find somebody like him but [it's amazing] in the modern day at the highest level, where it is really difficult to survive in our job. He’s absolutely incredible at what he does and we can’t even imagine when he’ll stop. He’s unbelievable.”
Chelsea, having lost twice and drawn another brace in the past month, is hardly in a tailspin other than that self-induced by the owner. Yet, out went Di Matteo as the sun rose on Wednesday morning, seemingly on the capricious whim of a narcissistic owner. For all of Abramovich’s investment, which is running at more than £1 billion over just shy of a decade, the Russian has repeatedly hamstrung his own club.
Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti, and perhaps even Andre Villas-Boas, each went far too early. Elsewhere, the Russian’s bizarre recruitment policy seemingly owes more to the latest hype than a genuine process.
True, Abramovich’s spending is in stark contrast to the Glazer family’s drain on United. The Americans’ cost to the club is estimated at north of £550 million in debt servicing, interest and other payments. But the family, for all the insidious drive to exploit United’s fame, has at least retained the good sense to hold keenly the club’s playing stability.
At the core of that is Ferguson. Infuriatingly stubborn, an aggressive supporter of a hated regime, and often embarrassingly myopic, but the Scot is still utterly peerless. It is a quality recognised in high circles.
“He’s one of these people that has a strength of character that immediately marks him out as a leader of people,” said former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
“He’s a great competitor but he’s also got huge integrity, to himself and to what he believes in. I think that’s quite unusual in life to find people like that.
“If you’re in a tough situation and everything is coming down on top of you and you feel you’re slowly getting surrounded by the people that want to put you in a deep dark pit, Alex is the type of person you’d want standing alongside you. He is a great leader, a great character, and a great human being.”
Which, of course, leaves the oft-debated question of Ferguson’s successor out there – in this week of tributes and tribulations in managerial circles above all others.
Turning 71 in the New Year, Ferguson cannot last much longer. Indeed, the no-fly order prescribed by his doctors in the summer may be a sign of things to come. Sir Alex has often claimed that health, rather than age, will dictate his long-term future at Old Trafford.
Still, as Chelsea flit from one fashionable manager to the next, David Gill and United’s board will face the mother of all managerial appointments when Ferguson’s replacement is finally required, whether that comes next summer or beyond.
The usual suspects – Mourinho, Abramovich’s favourite Pep Guardiola, and perhaps David Moyes – will head a very short list of candidates. Whomever the new man, none will match Ferguson’s achievements. Few have his aura and universal respect among his playing charges, says Paul Scholes, who at 38, has only known one club manager.
“He’s been brilliant for every single player that’s worked for him,” adds the midfielder.
“There is such a hunger and desire about him that really drives his players on – he knows how to keep you motivated throughout a season. It’s something that he’s managed to do for the last 20 years and I’m sure he’ll carry on doing it for the next few years as well.
“Somebody’s going to have to come in one day and manage this team and if they do half as well as he does they’ll be successful. There’s nobody like him I know that – but somebody’s got to give it a go.”
There could, of course, still be a left-field choice. How many have have come and gone in the decade since Ferguson’s ‘first’ retirement in 2002? Once chic Bryan Robson, Steve Bruce and Mark Hughes will be nowhere near Gill’s short-list. Neither, thankfully, will Sven-Göran Erikson, Sir Alex’s mooted replacement a decade ago.
Then there is former player Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, a romantic choice among United’s support. The 39-year-old is unlikely to be offered the job either, despite two Norwegian championships with Molde in as many years. After all, United’s drive for revenues and profit under the Glazer regime is anathema to inexperience.
To paraphrase the great Marcello Lippi, Solskjaer’s appointment at Old Trafford in 2013 or 14, would be akin to handing the keys of a Ferrari over to a learner driver.
Meanwhile, at Stamford Bridge, 52-year-old Benitez is certainly no learner, although the Spaniard hasn’t taken the wheel of a super car in some time either. It remains to be seen whether the former Liverpool coach is given time in west London.
History dictates Abramovich’s whim will bring Benitez’s reign to a swift and unstable end. It is a lesson United learned to the club’s benefit some time ago.