Whether it's José Mourinho, David Moyes or someone else, the transition at Manchester United is unlikely to be smooth
Within an hour of Manchester United confirming Sir Alex Ferguson's retirement José Mourinho was installed as favourite to replace him, and it is not difficult to see why. This is no ordinary football job, no regular managerial vacancy, and to follow a legend of the game who has transformed a club over the course of a quarter of a century from a great name to a top-ranking club with an unprecedented level of success is going to take nerves of steel and enormous self-confidence.
Mourinho, for all his faults, has those qualities in abundance, and has the track record to prove it. David Moyes might have the required character and potential, though with his limited acquaintance with silverware and his negligible experience in Europe he would essentially be going to Old Trafford to prove himself, and that is a situation fraught with risk.
Moyes would be the likely winner in any contest to find a manager who most resembles the last one United recruited. Like Ferguson in 1986 he is ambitious, driven, popular and proven at a high level within Britain, though things have moved on a bit at United since 1986, and the successful candidate this time is going to hit the ground running, because the basic job description is to keep repeating a formula for near-perfection.
That is what Ferguson ended up achieving – league titles and the later stages of the Champions League were almost taken for granted – and anything sub-standard in either respect will be quickly noticed by players as well as fans. The accepted wisdom in football is that it is never a good idea to succeed a really successful manager, let alone the most successful the country has produced, because the transition is unlikely to be smooth and comparisons are bound to be unfavourable. Better to come in as the next manager but one, when a few things have gone wrong and there is some scope for improvement.
Bob Paisley managed to disprove the theory by taking Liverpool on to new and greater heights after taking over from the revered Bill Shankly in the 70s, though as Paisley came from within as a product of the boot-room culture that Shankly himself instigated, it could be argued that Liverpool 40 years ago had mastered the seamless transition and were ahead of their time in avoiding the pitfalls that Manchester United discovered when it became necessary to replace Matt Busby.
Ferguson's own appointment came after United had steadied the ship post-relegation, and enjoyed relatively stable times under Dave Sexton and Ron Atkinson, yet the absence of a league title since 1967 meant there was still plenty for the new man to do. United at the moment bestride the English scene just as Liverpool did before them, but without the continuity or security the boot room used to provide. Whoever the club turn to to replace Ferguson will represent something of a risk. Mourinho because he courts controversy, makes enemies and generally only stays at clubs for a handful of seasons. Moyes because he lacks experience, may struggle to win the respect of the dressing room and could be undermined by a few poor results, even if he is far more likely to stick around for a decade or longer than most of the foreign candidates under consideration.
Both in his resignation statement and his thoroughly misleading programme notes on Saturday Ferguson was at pains to stress that United are in good shape on and off the field and have a balanced squad capable of delivering success for years to come. That is true, and is as much a testament to Ferguson's remarkable leadership as all the groaning trophy shelves, though it also raises the stakes for his successor. Put simply, it might not be the easiest of tasks to better what Ferguson has achieved, or even to run it close. It is going to take a strong character to step on to this elevated plateau of success and not be struck by the nagging doubt that the only way ahead appears to be downward.
The club, however, will have noted that Ferguson was able to do all his good work, vastly improving the ground and the training facilities as well as producing a succession of memorable teams, by virtue of his longevity. The 27 years of Ferguson were so demonstrably superior to the clumsily chaotic decade and a half before his arrival that it would be a surprise if United abandoned the key ingredient of their success to revert to what might be termed the Real Madrid policy of hiring flavour-of-the-month coaches who tend not to last more than a few seasons.
They will be aware too that Ferguson did not get it right immediately and required the club to be patient for several seasons before results began to show on the field, and though the next manager is unlikely to get away with a four-year fallow period due to the changed expectations at the club, the lesson to be learned from the last quarter of a century of English football history is that getting the right man and sticking by him is more important than immediate achievement.
So a Moyes type manager still has a chance, as long as United supporters can take the long-term view and not get too hysterical over initial mistakes in Europe or the transfer market. Liverpool were never quite the same once the boot-room influence declined, and this is United's chance to reach for their own form of continuity by identifying what has worked over the Ferguson era and attempting to replicate it.
The Ferguson era. Past tense. Obviously the old firebreather was not going to carry on for ever, but he gave it a damn good go. It is going to be strange writing about a new United manager after all these years, though welcome in a peculiar way. This correspondent (in his mid-fifties) was beginning to wonder whether his entire football-writing career would be spent dealing with the same United manager. That, one imagines, is never going to happen again. For the record, despite his irascible public image and the occasional Glaswegian swearword, Ferguson was easily the most punctual of Premier League managers, and almost always polite, pleasant and helpful. He served up champagne for the assembled hacks at his last press conference, actually pouring it himself and toasting our health. Should have realised something was afoot there and then.