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History Repeating Itself At Manchester United...

The big club who don’t do replacing successful, long-serving managers all that well...

Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson
Ferguson (left), Busby (right). Manchester United has never replaced successful, long-serving managers well.
Photo by Mike Grimes/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

Strengthening from a position of strength was always something preached by none other than Sir Alex Ferguson, and while it could be argued he failed effectively to do just that towards the end of his triumphant 27-year reign, you wonder why United fall down so miserably when it comes to replacing successful, long-serving managers.

It was the same story for Matt Busby, who had held the position for slightly less time than Ferguson (24 years from 1945-1969).

Of course the game was different fifty years ago, but there are some startling parallels between each man’s final years and the immediate seasons beyond.

Failing to player-recruit effectively and poor manager hires plagued the club back in the late sixties and early seventies as it does now.

Willie Morgan the Burnley winger at £117,000, a fair sum in those days, was United’s only acquisition in the season after winning the European Cup in 1968. This despite an aging centre-back in Bill Foulkes (36). There was also Shay Brennan (31), captain Bobby Charlton (31) and Paddy Crerand (30).

Foulkes and Brennan played less games that season (1968/69) yet were never properly replaced. There were rumours of Tottenham’s Welsh centre-back Mike England arriving at the club, but these proved unfounded.

Crerand continued as a regular, with his appearances diminishing over the following two seasons. Charlton played on until retiring in 1973.

Wilf McGuinness had succeeded Busby when the great man decided to retire at the end of the 1968/69 season. Busby had finally achieved his holy grail in winning the European Cup, a trophy he almost gave his life in pursuing, and McGuinness at the ridiculously young age of 31 was promoted from managing the reserves straight into the first-team hot-seat.

McGuinness lasted only 6 months before being relieved, with Busby returning temporarily to steady the ship over the latter half of the 69/70 season.

McGuinness’ only signing was centre-back Ian Ure, out of favour at Arsenal after some calamitous displays, for £80,000. Calamity continued, Ure lasted two error-ridden seasons and went directly off to his last playing assignment... in the Scottish Second Division with St Mirren. Now that’s perspective!

Wilf McGuinness
Wilf McGuinness, at only 31, a poor choice to succeed Sir Matt Busby in 1969. He lasted six months.
Photo by Tom Lyons/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

Frank O’Farrell, from the southern Irish city of Cork made his name in management by almost taking Torquay United to promotion to Division Two - they missed out by three points - and winning promotion to Division One with Leicester City a club he also took to the FA Cup Final in 1969.

He was Busby’s choice to take United forward and was appointed at the beginning of the 1970/71 season. O’Farrell at least went into the transfer-market, but with lack of previous recruitment allied to waning stars in Charlton, Law and to a lesser extent, Crerand, and the waywardness of genius George Best, the damage was already done.

Even splashing out a club record £120,000 on talented, young Scottish defender, Martin Buchan, then breaking the record again (£200,000) in the unfortunate signing of Ian Storey-Moore from Nottingham Forest was much too little, much too late. Another £200,000 was spent in a panic (sound familiar?) on striker Ted McDougall, who had only ever been prolific in in the lower divisions.

United had been in decline since Busby won the European Cup in 1968, and little had been done in the meantime to arrest the slide.

It’s by no means the only thing that blighted the brilliance of George Best, but as a younger player in Busby’s squad, in retrospect he often spoke of how he saw the European Cup triumph as just the beginning, while for other, older players in the squad he felt they seen it as the end, job done, ambition realized.

In later years Best was keenly critical of United for not pursuing the best players in England while European Champions, when the likes of Alan Ball, Mike England, Geoff Hurst and Peter Shilton were all keen to come to Old Trafford.

The Irishman, who carried United as top scorer in four of the five seasons since 1967/68, became disillusioned with club transfer policy, correctly considering many of the young players emerging from the reserves and being given games in the First Division, not fit to don the shirt.

Manchester United were relegated in 1973/74 season, just six seasons after being crowned European Champions. They had finished as also-rans; 11th, 8th, 8th, 8th and 18th in the intervening seasons.

Manchester United’s relegated squad in 1973/74. Only the goalkeepers remained from the side that won the European Cup in 1968.

By then Tommy Docherty had come in and despite United beginning to splash the cash more liberally on the Scotsman’s targets, they still had to go down a level before bouncing back.

Docherty soon had them fighting for honours again and might have taken them further, only for an affair with club physio Laurie Brown’s wife to emerge, leading to his sacking the week after winning the FA Cup in May 1977.

There followed Dave Sexton, Ron Atkinson and eventually Sir Alex, in those days just plain Alex, who finally delivered a league title for United in 1993, twenty-six years after Busby had last performed the feat.

And now in so many ways the cycle seems to be perpetuating...

Ferguson denied it after the sacking, but he was widely believed to be behind the nomination of David Moyes as his successor. Moyes, like McGuinness and O’Farrell decades earlier, although possessing better credentials, was unproven at the very highest level.

Appointing someone whose only trophy as a manager was (and still is) the Championship of England’s third tier in 1999/2000, should have set alarm bells ringing amongst those running the club, but by then making money had long become paramount over on-field success and a nod and a wink from the outgoing monolith was probably more than enough to prevent them considering things any further.

Manchester United v Swansea City - Premier League
David Moyes had a troubled time at United. Following Sir Alex was never going to be easy, and it needed a bigger personality than the likeable Scotsman.
Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Moyes lasted ten months. Louis Van Gaal followed. When United approached he was in the course of steering Holland through a World Cup finals, which started promisingly yet petered out in a whimper.

Many argued that the Dutchman’s best days, - the 1996 Champions League triumph with Ajax - were behind him, and although he’d won a Bundesliga title with Bayern four years previously, his managerial career had peaked and dipped through mainly Barcelona and the Bavarian giant.

His style of play was rigid, boring and far too methodical for Manchester United, but then again so was his successor’s.

Jose Mourinho arrived with much fanfare in 2016. Van Gaal’s sacking on the evening his Manchester United won the FA Cup that year was determined by the availability of the ‘out of work’ Portuguese. The timing was horrendous, awful and frankly not very classy, but United were determined to make a clean break and strike with the iron still hot.

The first three of Ferguson’s successors each made poor signings, Solskjaer has done somewhat better, but one common thread runs true for all four men; the huge number of transfer targets missed, making everyone wonder what is going on with Manchester United’s hierarchy.

The club for one reason or another has lost its allure when it comes to the transfer market. It’s not that they haven’t made funds available. They have. But too often it’s been too little or too late, leading to inflated panic-stricken expenditure on ‘other options’ rather than the player identified and preferred, by whichever coach was incumbent at any particular time.

Perhaps, as Solskjaer hinted last week, the club is determined not to be ‘played’ in the transfer-market, as it believes it has been since the departures of Ferguson and David Gill (letting the pair leave at the same time represents more poor succession-planning on the owners’ part).

There’s also a belief had the club not spent so poorly over the last seven years, then failing Chief Executive Ed Woodward would be looser with the current purse-strings.

Chelsea FC v Manchester United - Premier League
Chief Executive Ed Woodward wasted little time becoming the main hate figure for Manchester United fans. The money-markets love him, but can he run a football club?
Photo by Craig Mercer/MB Media/Getty Images

Solskjaer, who may or may not be the man to take United forward, plays the game and toes the party-line. Some would call him a ‘Yes Man’. We’d all love to hear publicly what he really thinks about how United conducts its transfer business, because like each of his three predecessors, the Norwegian has to be hugely frustrated.

Forty-four years may separate, but the parallels between the abdications and aftermaths of two of United’s three knights of the realm are there for all to see.

Both were highly-successful, long-serving managers, who each oversaw differing degrees of decline towards the end of their respective reigns. Consider also a poorly-chosen sequence of successors influenced (at times heavily) by both kingpins, and the club’s lack of foresight and understanding of the transfer-market from each era. All of a sudden it becomes less difficult to understand why Old Trafford history is staring itself in the face in 2020.

How many more years will it be before United again has the chance to strengthen from a position of strength?