The Fergie Bubble
Roberto Di Matteo’s sudden – if not entirely surprising – sacking stands as yet another reminder of the uncertain nature of modern-day football management. It should also remind Manchester United fans what a lucky – and extremely rare – position they find themselves in.
Di Matteo lasted 262 days in the job. Before him, Andre Villas-Boas was Chelsea manager for a mere 256 days. Across the (figurative) road, Roberto Mancini is finding his role as Manchester City manager come under scrutiny despite winning the club their first ever Premier League title. And, while I have no sympathy for Liverpool or for Brendan Rodgers, to question his position (which many are) so early on, considering the state of the squad with which Dalglish left him, is madness. Managers need time to show they are the right man for the job, the reason they were employed in the first place. There are many ways to find out if a club has made the correct decision in hiring someone, but only one way to not find out at all. Modern-day Chelsea continually do this. Manchester United, historically, do not.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s longevity is often mentioned, admired, and revered. But it’s easy to forget just what a freak the man is. Twenty-six years at the same club is ridiculous. To put it in perspective, there have been 246 (two hundred forty-six!) different changes of manager (including caretaker manager) in the Premier League since its inception. That’s 246 different sets of ideas, principles, philosophies. 246 different names on 246 separate payslips. Chelsea and Newcastle lead the way with sixteen different managers, Tottenham next with thirteen. Manchester United have had one. Retirement-blip aside, the end has never looked in sight, either.
This means that, for the current generation of United fans – across the globe, I know – Sir Alex is the only manager they have ever known. No other group of football fans* (except perhaps Arsenal and, to some extent, Everton) can claim this. It is a remarkable achievement and one which, while already recognised as such, won’t be truly appreciated until after he is gone.
But, while Sir Alex’s longevity, success and influence, while making Manchester United the club it is today, will also provide the biggest obstacle for his successor.
Manchester United, and its fans, currently live in a trophy-laden, success-spawned football bubble, where the normal rules do not apply. Lose a couple of games? Eye brows are raised, but Fergie’s position is never under scrutiny. Strange tactical decisions? Fans moan on Twitter, but never ask for the manager’s head. Poor business in transfer marker? Sir Alex has twenty-six years of (mostly!) good buys to fall back on. Never under any real pressure, never fearful for his job. Safe inside this ‘Fergie Bubble’. This is, of course, good for him, good for the club and good for the fans. It has bred stability, composure, growth. But what happens when he leaves?
The new manager has to do so many things. Make the team his own, but continue success. Maintain standards on and off the pitch, but continue success. Handle working under the Glazer regime, but continue success. As well as deal with the fans and the media attention, while, you guessed it, continuing success.
When (Sir) Alex Ferguson first took the United job back in ’86, none of this was (initially) a problem. The club had grown stale under Ron Atkinson; results were mediocre, there were rumblings of disappointment about his dealings in the transfer market and, crucially, the league title had not been won. The pressure wasn’t to maintain current standards, but to rebuild them. But it is well documented that it took five years before the club won the first trophy of the Ferguson era. Would a new manager be given such time? You’d like to think that United would be different to other clubs and give a modern-day manager the luxury of five years… but would the Glazers allow it? Would the fans? Ferguson’s successor will have to do all the things mentioned above, in a much shorter time frame.
Needless to say, the new manager will not be protected by the ‘Fergie Bubble’. If anything, he will be under a Ferguson-created spotlight, where everything he says and does will be compared to the great man – by fans, pundits and journalists alike. Even when Sir Alex is long gone, the stand named after him and the statue built in his honour will echo the manager’s influence throughout Manchester United’s future. An everlasting reminder of hair-dryers and watch tapping, gum chewing and boot kicking. Little things Reds across the world will always remember. Not to mention all that silver.
It’s often said that fans can get the manager the sack. The same goes for the media. The two combined criticising a manager never leads anywhere you’d want to go. How many fans out there have only ever known Sir Alex Ferguson to be the United manager? They’re in the ‘Fergie Bubble’. What about journalists? Unless they’re over fifty-five, most of their careers will have been with Sir Alex at the United helm. They’re in the ‘Fergie Bubble’, too. Sir Alex Ferguson will always be their reference point, their yardstick by which to judge what all future managers achieve, such is the man’s influence. We will never see anything like it (his era) or like him (the man) again. A future managerial backlash – against players bought, substitutions made, players left in, players left out – seems inevitable. In a few short years time, we’ll find out.
For, when Sir Alex finally decides to call it a day, a new management era will begin. A modern-day era, you might say. The rest of the clubs are currently living in it, and, when United appoint Sir Alex Ferguson’s successor, they will finally join them.
*During research of this point, I discovered that Jimmy Davies, the manager of Waterloo Dock FC, has been in the job for 49 years, every since they were established in 1963. At a low level (Liverpool County Premier League), of course, but what an achievement! Even United have had seven managers in that time!