Manchester United’s abysmal end-of-season form and failure to qualify for the UEFA Champions League has left fans debating whether the appointment of Olé Gunnar Solskjaer was premature and based on a knee-jerk reaction to the side’s earlier “honeymoon period” under the Norwegian. Is he man enough for the job? Is it foolhardy to appoint someone with no experience at the top level to one of the biggest jobs in football?
Meanwhile, the papers this week have suggested that former player Rio Ferdinand is on the shortlist for a new Director of Football role – a role which arguably will be even more important over the next few months than that of manager, as the club seeks to rebuild what most people now agree is a broken squad. If indeed Ferdinand gets the role, or it goes to caretaker assistant manager Mike Phelan – the candidate supposedly preferred by Solskjaer – will it once again be evidence that Chief Executive Ed Woodward doesn’t understand football? Is he trying to curry favour with the fans by appointing their heroes from yesteryear? Oh but wait, there’s more. The Manchester Evening News report that United are seeking to appoint Darren Fletcher “to work alongside” the new Director. What next? Will Roy Keane be appointed Media Relations Officer? Paul McGrath as Head Barman? Nicky Butt as Club Marriage Counsellor?
The fact is that if you look at each potential appointment in isolation, whether it is Solskjaer, Ferdinand, Phelan or Fletcher, it may seem like a romantic one, but when you look at them as a set of appointments, then it is clear to see that a strategy is emerging: the board are trying to resurrect the Manchester United dynasty. The “keep it British” appointment in David Moyes failed, and the “best in the world” appointments of Van Gaal and Mourinho failed. To simply appoint Solskjaer alone would be a huge gamble, but what if he is surrounded by like-minded individuals who are part of the club’s DNA, who have been there, done that and bought the t-shirt at this football club?
Everyone is talking about how the playing team needs to be rebuilt, but Woodward seems to have realised that before that can happen, there is a more important team that needs to be rebuilt: the staff. Solskjaer’s appointment is the most public, but watch in the coming weeks: this overhaul is happening. There is a recognition here that the success of Sir Alex Ferguson’s 26 year reign was not down just to the great man himself, but to the team he had around him, from the great assistants such as Archie Knox, Brian Kidd and Steve McLaren to the likes of Nesta Burgess, the tea lady for 50 years, and kit man Albert Morgan.
There have been two periods in English football history where one team has dominated season after season: the Fergie era at United, and Liverpool’s 15-years of success between 1975 and 1990. Both were characterised by the dynastic approach – Liverpool appointing coaches from within, first Bob Paisley, then Joe Fagan and Kenny Dalglish.
Liverpool finally abandoned their family values in 1998, when Gerard Houllier was appointed manager after miserable spells under Ronnie Moran, Graeme Souness and Roy Evans. At the time, conventional wisdom was that Liverpool’s failure was due to hanging on to the “keep it in the family” concept too long, that modern football demanded more – that technical prowess, tactical nous and proven quality were needed to be successful. But in retrospect, was that why Liverpool’s dominance really came to an end? Or was it a Carrington-vs-Colby-type feud, with United’s own upstart family having grown strong under their energetic young father figure Alex Ferguson? In other words, has success in England’s top league always been about dynasties, and is this what United’s board are now trying to rebuild?
If this is so, then the approach will quickly be seen in the playing staff as well. Players will be developed and acquired who want to be a part of the family. The video of a forlorn Scott McTominay sitting alone in the dugout after the Huddersfield debacle has gone viral for all the right reasons: he cares. This is his family. He will die for this badge. He’s one of us – a fan as well as a player. Contrast that with the video that also went viral the previous week, of Anthony Martial in the warm-up against Chelsea. Who do you want in your team?
— Stadium Astro ???? (@stadiumastro) May 6, 2019
Martial working hard in the warm up pic.twitter.com/8H9k6MlDDt
— Paul S (@paulsherlock69) April 28, 2019
I am not suggesting that Manchester United should only recruit youth players or local lads. To re-join the world’s elite, world class players will be needed. But the heart of the team needs to be United through-and-through, and that is what has been missing since Sir Alex left. These signings or promotions must come first. The superstars can then come in with that sense of privilege and understand that they are performing on a stage that does not belong to them, that was there before them and will be there long after they go.
You can almost sense Sir Alex’s hand in the rebuilding process that has begun. The club is about to just put brackets around the last 5 years, call it an aberration, and start again as if the dynasty had never been dismantled. If commercial concerns can be prevented from getting in the way of this process, it could be the most exciting one the club has seen since 1986.