After the Immortals
Manchester United and their struggles to replace their two greatest managers
“Manchester United, the most famous club in football,” gushed John Motson as Bryan Robson lifted the FA Cup. Back in 1983, Motson was still a respectable, authoritative voice, his occasional frenzied outbursts merely part of the commentator’s make-up.
Real Madrid may have begged to differ but in Anglophone terms, Motson was quite correct. Liverpool were the dominant force of that era and had collected three European Cups in the previous six years but United were still the glamour outfit, despite the FA Cup being only their second major trophy since 1968. In an era long before metrics persuaded website editors to publish every United story possible and TV companies slavishly chased ratings by broadcasting home FA Cup ties against Reading, the club held the nation's consciousness like no other.
As it does now, United in the doldrums made for even better copy than the glory days, and the 1970s had seen a decline, fall and only partial resurrection. In the story of a fading, falling football giant, there was intrigue, in-fighting and sheer, wasteful desperation.
United still drew higher crowds even when other clubs were collecting silverware and enjoying famous European nights. From 1972-73, a relegation dogfight only narrowly won, to 1987-88, when they were second to Liverpool both on and off the field, they had the best average home league attendance in England. And after the 1988-89 season, when Liverpool were again best-attended, only the rebuilding of the Stretford End during 1992-93 has since interrupted that sequence.
Those chosen to manage Manchester United thus carry a heavy burden. It is an opportunity rarely turned down but has been ruinous for the greater majority of those who have held the honour. “This great club has crept out from its recent shadows to feel the sun again,” concluded Geoffrey Green in the club’s official centenary book There’s Only United in 1978, but Green was writing during yet another false dawn. Only two trophies would be collected in the 12 years that followed.
The foundations had been laid, the romance created, the standards set by Matt Busby. The 1968 European Cup final was a tear-soaked evening that neither Bobby Charlton, who exhaustedly passed out in his hotel room before he could attend the celebratory banquet, nor George Best, who did attend but overindulged, could even properly remember. Busby had taken the club from war-damaged husk through tragedy at Munich to glory on a summer’s night at Wembley but there followed a 25-year hangover. The mystique and allure endured but United became a club haunted by its past, a ghost ship inhabited largely by former glories.
“Big place, this, big place,” an anxious 45-year-old Alex Ferguson couldn’t help telling players and staff in November 1986, having been brought in as the sixth man to try and live up to Busby. Almost six years on from his own tearful goodbye, and including caretakers, United are on their fifth successor to Ferguson. Two Champions League winners in Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho suffered irreparable damage to their reputations in failing to reboot a club lost without him.
Only three managers of 22 full-time appointments, Busby, Ferguson and Ernest Mangnall, who departed the club in 1912, have contributed to the 20 league titles that make United the most successful club in English domestic terms. Only four others presided over a trophy win: Tommy Docherty, Ron Atkinson (twice) and van Gaal with the FA Cup and Mourinho with 2017’s League Cup and Europa League double.
And of those who followed Busby and Ferguson, only Atkinson properly reaffirmed himself as a manager when, in charge of Aston Villa, he became the main challenger to the Ferguson team that lifted the first ever Premier League title in 1992-93. As a club, Villa and Sheffield Wednesday both fitted “Big Ron” far better than United. The League Cups he won in 1992 and 1994, both at United’s expense, are the only trophies collected by a post-war post-United manager.
The Liverpool-born wisecracker who commandeered a sun bed from the medical department for his office, and swigged champagne and chomped cigars more than anyone this side of Malcolm Allison, brought a wash of nouveau-riche vulgarity that never sat easily with the haughty pretensions of the boardrooms. Like so many United managers, Atkinson was an outsider to the club he was supposed to be leading.
Busby, whose pipe smoke was a feature of the club's offices until his very last years, stepped down from the board when he was outvoted on the decision to sign Bryan Robson from West Brom, Atkinson’s former club, for a then-record fee of £1.8m. And Charlton, who joined the board in 1984, never seemed keen on the incumbent manager such that Atkinson has repeatedly suggested Ferguson was tapped up by Charlton at the 1986 World Cup. “His reputation as a grizzlin' old miser was legendary,” Atkinson later said of the club’s second knight of the realm. Back-biting and personal feuds are recurring features in United’s wilderness years.
The 1980s are remembered fondly enough by fans, though that may owe much to the 1990s soothing the pain of a decade of looking up at Liverpool, and even Everton. Winning the FA Cup in 1983 and 1985 meant far more than it would in 2019, but Atkinson’s team, fragile in defence and capable of some shockingly inept performances, never finished higher than third.
His final full season, 1985-86, was a microcosm of what so often went wrong for United; a rush of excitement never quite resulting in the satisfaction of genuine success. Atkinson’s team began with 10 straight victories, a feat not matched since Tottenham’s 1960-61 double winners, only to finish fourth. United were depth-charged by a succession of injuries, including to Robson and his midfield partner Norman Whiteside, and the players enjoyed their nights down former player Paddy Crerand’s Cheshire pub a little too much and rather too often to be serious challengers to those from Merseyside.
Nevertheless, the football played was often thrilling, the handbrake almost permanently off. Both van Gaal and Mourinho would later reject the expectation and importance of attacking football, either through stubbornness or because they simply didn’t recognise it. Busby’s “just go out there and enjoy it” team talks were a source of amusement to some of his players and were outdated well before 1968, but still remain an ethos ignored at a United manager's peril. Those who argue Ferguson’s later years were full of conservative, defensive football forget his reputation was made by winning through reviving the wing play of the Busby era. A new manager must replicate that if he wishes to survive. And if the results are not coming and the football is dull, he will not be lingering much longer. Two managerial spells of a quarter of a century each cannot deflect that United have sacked managers as ruthlessly as any other clubs the rest of the time.
Atkinson’s predecessor, Dave Sexton, fell foul of the Busby doctrine. The sale of Gordon Hill, the flying “King of all Cockneys”, as the Stretford End hailed him, in April 1978, towards the end of his first season in charge, doomed “Whispering Dave” in the long run.
Sexton, who remained one of the most admired coaches in the English game even after his sacking, and whose Chelsea and QPR teams had played football that will always be cherished at those clubs, worked diligently, but could never connect with fans. Big money was spent on wresting Gordon McQueen and Joe Jordan from Leeds and Ray Wilkins from Chelsea, and United went to the final day of the 1979-80 season with an outside chance of the league title, but lost at Elland Road.
Attendances dropped, and despite winning the last seven matches of the next season, Sexton was fired. New chairman Martin Edwards, at 34 fully 15 years Sexton’s junior, did the deed amid the unwelcome “Cold Trafford” headlines United were now drawing.
Lou Macari was one of a number of players who felt Sexton was harshly treated, while admitting the Londoner was ill-suited to the United soap opera. “You speak to any of the players that played under him, he was a great man, generous,” the Scot wrote in his autobiography. “He wasn't into the PR side of it, didn't want press meetings, didn't thrive on sitting down talking about the upcoming game or the games that had just gone by.”
By far the greatest problem Sexton had was that he was not Thomas Henderson Docherty, the man he had replaced. Amid the seething mass of the Stretford End and the “Red Army” that ravaged town centres and ‘football special’ trains up and down the country and on trips to the continent, “The Doc” was the darling.
Docherty mostly kept his distance from Busby, having slowly but ruthlessly exiled most of the group of players who teed off twice a week at Davyhulme Golf Course with the man they still called “the Boss”. He did, though, heed his compatriot’s advice when United were heading for relegation in the 1973-74 season. To Busby’s approval Docherty’s team went down playing football “the right way”.
After storming the Second Division in 1974-75, Docherty struck on an almost reckless formula of two wingers in Hill and Steve Coppell flanking two converted forwards turned midfielders in Sammy McIlroy and Macari. United finished third in 1975-76 behind Liverpool and Sexton’s QPR. Their FA Cup semi-final defeat of Derby at Hillsborough, with Hill scoring both goals, was the club’s finest hour since Busby stepped down in 1969.
That their first major final since 1968 was lost to Southampton seemed to have been wiped away by denying Liverpool a treble in the following year’s final at Wembley but then came Docherty’s deposing. His affair with the wife of physio Laurie Brown, and the accusation that he had manipulated Brown's timetable so he could spend time with Mary, was too much for the censorious and rather hypocritical board. Docherty’s protestations that he was not the only United figure to be involved in ‘extracurricular' activities were hardly going to win the day. He had made too many enemies to have any chance of survival.
At 40 years’ distance from the legal proceedings, it feels safe to say that Docherty was not “the worst manager there has ever been”, an accusation made by Willie Morgan, one of those disposed with, on Granada TV’s Kick Off programme. Docherty sued for libel but, at great personal cost to both bank balance and personal reputation, managed to trip himself up at the Old Bailey. He was forced to admit he had lied during testimony and thus had to abandon his action.
In terms of the skilful rebuilding job he carried out on a club clinging to its past, Docherty deserves to be recognised as the best post-Busby and pre-Ferguson manager, but his own character flaws sealed his downfall. Falling in love with Mary Brown, still his wife 42 years later, was the least of his transgressions of the club’s moral code.
Where Docherty succeeded and Wilf McGuinness and Frank O’Farrell failed was in making the club being about something other than Busby. McGuinness, the immediate successor and former player who had been part of the backroom team for England’s 1966 World Cup winners, was not even given the manager’s office, which remained occupied by Busby, the figurative general manager.
McGuinness had to husband a group of players he had played alongside, many of whom broke bread and clinked glasses with “the Boss” at the golf club. “Probably, it was our fault for choosing Wilf,” Busby later said, as much an admission of his role in his protege’s demise as he would give. His long shadow would remain for the length of the 1970s, before Ferguson, who always stayed aware of his predecessor’s residual power, became a beneficiary of the march of time and Busby’s decision to quit the board over the Robson fee and assume the ceremonial role of club president. Before that, nobody, least of all chairman Louis Edwards, the local butcher favoured by Busby in an early-1970s battle for majority ownership, could say no to the great man.
“You lousy bastards, you let him down,” Brian Kidd, just 21, told a coterie of senior pros when the axe fell on the man they all still called Wilf after less than 18 months in December 1970. Tony Dunne, the Irish full-back, remarked that McGuinness, a contemporary of the Munich generation, had “started as a boy and left United as an old man.” At 33, the stress was so great that McGuinness’ relatively lustrous head of hair fell out so completely he briefly wore a trimmed ladies wig before having to admit defeat.
“It seems to me that someone from the real world came in to Sir Matt’s fantasy world at Old Trafford,” O’Farrell, the next victim, would tell Eamon Dunphy in 1991. “They were all part of some family circle. Really, the club was a mess. There was no reality in the myth.”
Like Sexton, and later David Moyes, O’Farrell’s downfall is a tale of someone being too slight a personality to succeed. He would leave the club within 17 months as much a stranger as he had been before his arrival.
George Best’s football career was entering terminal velocity. Busby’s previous indulgence of the player he felt had been his greatest alongside Duncan Edwards did O’Farrell few favours, but when Busby decided that Best’s front-page dalliances with Hollywood actresses and drunken absenteeism were quite enough, it was him who placed the player on the transfer list and not O’Farrell.
The actual first-team manager’s view was that at least when he played, Best was still capable of magic but the same was no longer true of Charlton or Denis Law. Meanwhile, Charlton and Best's troubled relationship was reaching the lowest ebb of years of distrust of the other’s lifestyle.
O’Farrell might have been able to commandeer the manager’s office from Busby, but was not allowed to buy Peter Shilton to replace Alex Stepney. A series of panic buys, including Wyn Davies and Ted MacDougall, could not stem the onrushing tide. During a 5-0 thrashing at Crystal Palace in December 1972 that was O’Farrell’s final match in charge, Busby caught the eye of Docherty in the board room at Selhurst Park, a meeting that may or may not have been coincidental. O’Farrell was replaced by someone of the lowest cunning, and with the wherewithal and bravery to break up the band.
The post-Busby years and the power of his personality created a scar tissue and undoubtedly played their part in the muddled thinking that followed Ferguson’s departure, including that of Ferguson himself. Once he had enjoyed his round-the-world trips, Harvard seminars and the fruits of his ambassadorial roles, it was always likely he might fancy keeping his hand in, even if Moyes was entitled to want to be his own man.
At other clubs of the supranational type United has become, football elders are an accepted, welcome part of the furniture. Bob Paisley was down the corridor if Kenny Dalglish needed him at Liverpool, while Johan Cruyff often controlled both Barcelona and Ajax from afar. Bayern Munich is awash with club legends.
And yet Ferguson has been kept at arm’s length by an administration helmed by Ed Woodward, one that decided to run the club its own way. Only rarely has the Ferguson contacts book and cajolery been called into action in the transfer market. Ferguson was also allowed to shoulder the blame – and by his silence on the matter, he damned himself – for the appointment of Moyes, a selection to which the short years since have been severely unkind. It was his choice, certainly, but the younger Scot’s failure did not fully rest on someone whose power had been neutered and sidelined.
From the forced rictus grin of the social media photo shared on his first day in the office on 1 July 2013 to the ultra-early-morning drive to meet his fate at the Carrington training complex just over 10 months later, Moyes did not know where to put himself. As terse post-match press conferences dwindled to barely 90 seconds long and Marouane Fellaini’s solo run off the touchline against Bayern Munich embodied the aimless football that United now played, Moyes’s psychological dissolution was a harrowing demonstration of the Peter Principle1. It became clear he had no business managing a club of such scope and his sacking was more act of mercy than treachery.
Rumour had it his nickname among the players was “Everton” the cocoon he may swiftly have wished he had never deserted for Ferguson's grand act of Caledonian patronage. Sadly for Moyes, the days when he becomes a footnote to United’s history like McGuinness or O’Farrell – let alone inter-war types like Scott Duncan and Jack Robson – lie many decades in the future.
Moyes’s appointment was at least an attempt to continue a policy of turning to a progressive, young manager that went back to the days Louis Rocca, with the club since the Newton Heath days, pinpointed Busby as the man to lead United. Both those who followed Moyes went completely against that policy. Woodward and the Glazer family went for quick fixes it was hoped could reprise their successes elsewhere. Most of all, they were available. Van Gaal was 63, but needed the money, having lost US$6m to the Bernie Madoff scam, and Mourinho was at a loose end after being sacked by Chelsea for a second time.
“People know him as a larger than life character,” said Woodward on Van Gaal’s appointment and the self-assurance never missed a beat, especially in defeat, and the press conferences, always quotable and delivered so slowly as to be easy to transcribe, were a joy to attend. But it was only the media, his wine merchant and Manchester’s restaurants who missed Mad King Louis once he was gone.
Having swiftly abandoned the three-man defence he brought with him from the Dutch national team’s run to the 2014 World Cup semis, he had United playing like his Ajax team of two decades before, and at the same speed in an era of superior fitness and physicality. United became nothing if not predictable. Their leaden attacks seemed to be trying to score the same type of goal each time; an overload down one flank and the shot on goal only coming once the ball had been transferred to the other side.
At the same time, he and Woodward set sail on a ruinous restructuring of the squad, and the likes of Ángel di María and Radamel Falcao register as two of the biggest transfer busts in the club’s history. While Van Gaal blithely espoused his love for red wine and ate regular meals at city-centre Chinese eatery Wings, there were constant rumblings behind the scenes of player disquiet.
Van Gaal’s delight at winning the 2016 FA Cup, a trophy a man of his age considered a major coup, was immediately deadened by a post-match Wembley press conference in which he was informed he would be sacked and replaced by Jose Mourinho, a one-time protégé and now former friend. It was little accident the news was allowed to escape just at the point Van Gaal was supposed to be celebrating his finest hour.
“My wife had to find out when she was in the lift with Woodward's family,” he later revealed. This was as cruel as any of the knifings of the post-Busby era, and was a portent of the dark arts that would be employed by the next manager and in time would be turned on Woodward himself.
Mourinho proved as poor a fit to United as any who had tried to succeed Busby and Ferguson and by the far most expensive. His December 2018 sacking came after two-and-a-half seasons in which he appeared hellbent on frittering away the talents of Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial, two players who had been the brightest sparks of the Van Gaal era. One of the ideas floated at the time of Van Gaal’s appointment was that while he would almost certainly depart in a puff of tumult, he had left strong foundations at both Barcelona and Bayern Munich. Mourinho threatened to destroy all that, and very deliberately so.
A common argument is that he merely pitched up at the wrong time, that a younger, more vigorous version might have succeeded at United, but the salt and pepper-haired Mourinho of the Porto and first-time Chelsea days was just as given to behind-the-scenes turf wars as his elder self. And those who point to the excitement of Damien Duff and Arjen Robben flying down the Chelsea wing were looking back to the mid-2000s and at two players who were soon enough given the Mourinho black spot.
The long-term parking in the Lowry Hotel, the gripes over lack of money despite blowing £400m on fresh talent and constant references to achievements of his previous career suggested someone who had lost his nerve; a greatest hits collection is usually a sign an artist has run out of fresh ideas. Somewhere along the line, perhaps during his three years at Real Madrid, Mourinho himself had become a casualty of the psychological warfare he had waged with whomever crossed his path.
Like Docherty, Mourinho chose to make himself an outsider but his cunning was nowhere near as acute and the football nowhere near as seductive. The pair of trophies lifted in the 2016-17 season came after United’s league position was sacrificed. Van Gaal had been sacked for finishing a place above sixth and Mourinho had previously mocked Rafa Benitez for winning the Europa League.
The former raconteur pulled up the shutters, the banter count at almost Moyesian levels as he grumped through public appearances and on the sidelines. Some of the local reporters may have had their self-worth pepped by Mourinho knowing their names, but the wider public saw a sullen, reluctant presence who had mislaid whatever charm he had once possessed. Barbed comments aimed at Woodward and the Glazer family’s business methods bought a tad of legitimacy among a section of fans, but the idea of Mourinho as a warrior of the light, a man of the people, was beyond credibility; a populist fallacy of the type Donald Trump and Boris Johnson pursue.
Mourinho was appointed as someone who could cut down Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, having briefly done so at Real Madrid, but he showed very little stomach for that fight. His declaration that finishing 19 points behind City in the 2017-18 title ‘race’ was one of “the best jobs of my career” is one of his more ludicrous suggestions. Frequent shrugs and misdirections conveyed a refusal to accept responsibility while players were thrown under the bus he usually parked.
Someone whose long-held ambition had been to make Ferguson’s club his own instead shrivelled under its glare, and his social conservatism did not suit a dressing room in which Paul Pogba – young, black, loud and proud – was the leading light. Mourinho’s brand of small-man machismo was almost as outdated as Atkinson’s “win, lose, always on the booze” approach.
A club whose worldwide name was made by individual talents like Charlton, Best and Law was no place for someone who had pivoted to a brand of football in which players’ performance level was graded on how much they were prepared to suffer. Within the Mourinho mindset, there is a resentment of those blessed with supreme talent, while United is a club that has always taken such individuals to its heart. It made for the most uncomfortable and dysfunctional of marriages, a mis-step yet greater than appointing Van Gaal.
"Nowadays you have to be very smart in the way you read your players, and try to create the best situation,” said Mourinho in the January 2019 BeIN Sports punditry session that doubled as his latest coming-out party, announcing his continuing candidacy for “top-level football”. Inadvertently, obliviously, he was pinpointing one of the many things he had got so wrong at United.
Manchester United is a club that will amplify the flaws of its managers but one of football’s great narcissists cannot take much comfort in so many others failing to tame the beast.
They also served: ranking the managers of the post-Busby and post-Ferguson eras.
1. Tommy Docherty (1972-1977): Short but sweet and cut off in his prime, but Docherty had the wiles to work out what was required. His methods, though – and those he offed along the way – meant he was never going to last long.
2. Ron Atkinson (1981-1986): Another tenure that was fun while it lasted, but was never going to be a dynasty.
3. Louis van Gaal (2014-2016): Time may be kinder to his regime once the memory of the tedious football has faded. His unearthing of Marcus Rashford alone was a gift to his club and replicated the starts in football he had previously given to the likes of Thomas Müller and Xavi.
4. Dave Sexton: (1977-1981): Sexton went closest of any post-Busby and indeed any post-Ferguson manager to a league title in 1979-80, and led United to the 1979 FA Cup final, but has always been overshadowed by Docherty and his own previous work at Chelsea and QPR.
5. Jose Mourinho: (2016-2018): A disastrously ill-conceived appointment. The greatest failure of his career came at a club he always wanted to manage yet was tone deaf to its requirements and conceits. Two trophies and a second-placed finish were achieved with one of the most expensive teams in history but no amount of money was ever going to be enough for him. And no amount of excuses can ever deflect from his failure.
6. Frank O’Farrell (1971-1972): A victim of a club spiralled out of control by the time he arrived. Incapable of breaking Busby’s iron grip, he never remotely managed to impose himself.
7. Wilf McGuinness: (1969-1970): In truth, he had no chance, with arms tied behind his back by Busby’s overbearing presence. He was not allowed time or transfer money to overhaul a team that had grown old and complacent and paid the price for that.
8: David Moyes (2013-14): The task of replacing Ferguson was impossible, but Moyes went about it entirely the wrong way, if he actually knew what he was doing. Within the early weeks, he appeared frozen, dazed and utterly overcome. Six years on, that Moyes was actually chosen by Ferguson has morphed into one of football history’s grandest peculiarities.