Sir Alex Ferguson wise to the historic virtues of making a clean break

Retiring Manchester United manager is leaving the club in better shape than Sir Matt Busby did when he stepped down in 1971

Sir Alex Ferguson is never going to say so himself, not publicly at any rate, but he can be confident he is leaving Manchester United in better shape for the next man to manage than it was when Sir Matt Busby stepped down in instalments between 1969 and 1971.

Back then United had seven titles, and five of them had been won under Busby. The name was famous around the world, though the team had been allowed to grow old together and eventually suffered the indignity of relegation in 1974, a process hastened by the famously botched succession with the first couple of nervous young replacements inhibited by Busby's inability to make a sufficiently clean break with the club he had built.

There is no need to spell out the danger to Ferguson. He is familiar enough with the story, and has said on a number of occasions that he would be wary of making the same mistake. On the occasion of his 1,500th and last pre-match press conference at the training ground, Ferguson graciously acknowledged that Busby was the imagination and driving force behind the club's almost mythical ethos, but he needed only to look out of the window to take in the newly installed water feature and the expensive landscape gardening to be reassured that United have expanded massively in just about every direction since he took over at the somewhat unprepossessing Salford facility that was The Cliff. David Moyes is walking in at the top floor of one of the most sophisticated and successful football operations in Europe and, after Everton, he is bound to notice the difference. While there are no guarantees the transition will be risk-free, Ferguson and United have put a lot of thought into finding the right man to take the club forward.

"Sir Matt created Manchester United, he was the origin of what we are today, there's no doubt about that," Ferguson said. "He had the vision to take the club into Europe, he put the emphasis on younger players, we owe all that to him. I have just tried to carry it on. Now I am in the same situation he faced 40-odd years ago. I've got a good record but the past is the past. The future now lies with a new manager who will get all the support he needs. This is not the end of Manchester United as far as winning titles is concerned. I don't see any reason why we can't continue this success."

One of the mistakes made in the Busby era, Ferguson suspects, was going for younger, relatively inexperienced coaches in Wilf McGuinness and Frank O'Farrell. "Manchester United isn't a job for a young man, you need something solid behind you," he said. "I'm sure David Moyes has the character to succeed here. He's got good experience behind him, just the same as I had when I came down from Aberdeen. My eight and a half years there involved some big challenges, but we got through it because we had good people in place and we worked hard.

"If I hadn't had that experience from Aberdeen I don't know if I'd have done as well here. David has built teams at Everton, he has overcome the club's financial limitations to put out sides of great character, capable of great performances. When you think what he inherited, remembering that when Walter Smith was there Everton used to sell their best players every season, that took some doing."

Moyes is cut from the same cloth as Ferguson, he knows what the task ahead involves, yet like everyone else he is probably wondering how easy his predecessor will find it to let go. Busby never intended to harm the club he loved, after all – he just didn't know what else to do with himself after a quarter of a century at United. "I'm finished, done, I made the break last week," Ferguson said. "It's not an issue for me, I'll just get on with the next stage of my life. It is important to remain active, but health permitting I've got plenty of things lined up to be doing. I'd like to go and watch Boca Juniors play River Plate. That's one game I've always wanted to go and see. Now I've got a bit of time I fancy taking in the Melbourne Cup and the Kentucky Derby at some point too. There's a lot of things you can do, as long as you keep your health. The ambassador role at United takes up 20 days a year, so I should have plenty of time."

Time is exactly what lay heavy on Bill Shankly's hands when he made rather too clean a break from Liverpool in the 1970s. Mindful of staying out of Bob Paisley's way but reluctant to give up football altogether, he became a familiar figure at Everton's training ground. Not working or offering advice, just passing the time. The two opposing paradigms of how hard it is to quit a football club you have built from almost nothing to become a force in the land have been Scots, and Ferguson has been paying attention. "Shankly used to come over here once a week to see Matt," he said. "It's difficult to know what to do for the best, and that's where the club should offer some support, but I certainly have no plans to start hanging round City's training ground. I gave up council housing a long time ago."

And so to the last two questions of Ferguson's 27-year reign before Moyes gets his feet under the Carrington Academy table. Is he leaving the game, as opposed to the club, in good shape, and did he really mean to wind up Kevin Keegan so spectacularly in 1996? "Football is a harsher environment these days," he said. "Just look at the number of sackings, with Mancini being probably the biggest example. The owners are not English any more, they are American, Russian, Middle Eastern, and therefore remote to an extent. It's a different culture. Agents are another big change since I came into the game, and I'm not sure for the better. I used to talk to parents, that was part of the job if you had identified a promising youngster. I don't even know any parents any more. I just deal with agents all the time."

And Keegan? "I have always thought that mind games and my supposed part in them were completely overrated. Sometimes I've said provocative things or tried to get my point of view across in advance of a game, because you try to get an edge wherever you can, but the Kevin Keegan incident was a complete accident. I was angry with the Leeds players because Howard Wilkinson was under pressure, and he's a mate of mine. I just made the point that Leeds should be playing as well as they played at Old Trafford all the time. I wasn't thinking of Newcastle at all."

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