Replacing Sir Alex: How Will Man United Deal With The Transition?

As Man United make the transit into the post-Fergie era, can they avoid the mistakes of the past?
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As Man United make the transit into the post-Fergie era, can they avoid the mistakes of the past?

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So then, Ta Ra Fergie and thanks for the memories.  As that Liverpool fan with the lamp ponders his last wish, the rest of us are wondering how the United manager’s successor will fare.  Whatever they may have said, it’s pretty clear the club have been planning for life after Sir Alex for some time.  As long ago as November 2010 United’s chief executive David Gill outlined the club's succession plans in an interview with American radio station Sirius XM.

“Obviously at some stage Alex will retire, whenever that may be,” said Gill at the time.  “What we're doing with him, with his coaches and scouts, is getting a great squad with the right age profile so that a new manager coming in – yes, he will probably want to change one or two players, that's always the way, or two or three – but he won't need to make wholesale changes. There'll be a sensible transition to the new manager.”

Gill added that Ferguson’s replacement would need to be experienced but that crucially the new recruit would have to understand the United’s way of working and long-term vision so that they could “continue as seamlessly as possible as we have done under Sir Alex”.

That Gill was speaking to an American station was entirely appropriate as succession planning is something increasingly used by NFL clubs.  At the time of Gill’s interview both the Seattle Seahawks and Indianapolis Colts had tied up assistant coaches (Jim Mora and Jim Caldwell respectively) with long-term deals with the expressed aim of them replacing their bosses (Mike Holmgren and Tony Dungy) which both did.

Long-term managerial succession planning is a technique the NFL had picked up from big business.  In January 2011 Apple announced that their inspirational CEO the late Steve Jobs would be taking a medical leave of absence - his third since 2004. The following day the company announced another set of record-breaking quarterly figures yet that wasn't enough to calm investors and across the week shares fell by 5% knocking $15bn off the value of the company.

Apple's success had been inextricably linked with Jobs and so, just like with Sir Alex at United (and Arsene Wenger at Arsenal), there was considerable concern about how the firm would fare when Jobs stepped down for good.  So great was that concern that in February 2011 a third of Apple shareholders voted in favour of a motion calling on the company to reveal details of its succession plan.

Apple's board refused citing potential loss of competitive advantage and the fact that they have a strong 'management bench'.  Indeed on all three occasions Jobs had taken a leave of absence the company's COO Tim Cook temporarily replaced him with little disruption as he eventually did permanently when Jobs was finally forced to retire in August 2011.

Apple are far from the only high-profile firm to implement long-term succession planning.  Jack Welch was CEO of General Electric for 20 years from 1981. Seven years before his departure he identified 23 possible candidates to replace him. That list was narrowed down to eight in 1998 before Welch was replaced by Jeffrey Immelt (who is still in post) in 2001.  

Following Kevin Keegan's (first) departure in 1997, the club appointed Kenny Dalglish - a decision which actually made sense.  However, when the ‘dour’ Scot failed to produce the attacking style of play required he was replaced by cosmopolitan, young foreigner Ruud Gullit and his ‘sexy’ football.  When he 'failed' he was replaced by locally-born, experienced Sir Bobby Robson.  When his avuncular approach was deemed to be responsible for a poor start to the 2004/05 season the club shot Bambi and went for 'hard bastard' Graeme Souness instead.  A string of increasingly random, short-term appointments saw the club go through Glenn Roeder, Sam Allardyce, Keegan (again), Joe Kinnear, Chris Hughton, Alan Shearer, Hughton (again) and - for now at least - Alan Pardew.  No long-term strategy, no continuity. No success.

Those Toon fans calling for Pardew’s head given the club’s current precarious position would do well to remember what happened at Everton in David Moyes’ first two seasons.  Seventh place in 2003 was followed by 17th in 2004 a season which ended with five straight defeats for the club and their lowest points total since 1889.  The Toffees’ board kept faith and, despite selling Wayne Rooney to Manchester United, Moyes took Everton to fourth the following season.  Since then they’ve only finished outside the top ten once.  Conversely in the 10 seasons before Moyes’ arrival at Goodison Park Everton had only finished in the top ten once (and other than that never higher than 13th).

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While Newcastle are an easy target it would be unfair to single them out as the only culprits. In the 27 years since Sir Alex got the Old Trafford job, 1,198 managers have been employed by the other Football League clubs.  Few of those successions have been planned.  Furthermore, research conducted by Professor Sue Bridgewater at Warwick Business School suggests that in the long-term changing managers in the knee-jerk fashion that characterises football rarely brings a change in fortune.  Of course, this isn't to say clubs should never change managers, but that the change - or succession - should be planned and executed over a long period of time so as to reduce risk.  And then there's Arsenal, with no plan B and Newcastle’s pick-a-name-from-a-hat approach.

Although they probably didn't see it in these terms, Liverpool, through the fabled Boot Room, created an almost perfect succession plan which helped the club dominate English football from the late 1960s to the late 1980s.  Just like Apple and GE, Liverpool – thanks mostly to Bill Shankly - created an incredibly strong 'management bench' with provided three of his successors (Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan and Roy Evans) as well as many other key personnel in that period of success.

The succession from Shankly to Paisley worked for a number of reasons; the board correctly recognised in Paisley (who was himself reluctant to take the job) the attributes needed to be a successful manager.  The ethos of the club meant he had a strong support network in place when he had doubts in his early days, yet he was also his own man and was not afraid to do things differently to his predecessor (particularly with regard to player recruitment).

Paisley inherited a club on the up - it had in place a strong scouting network and youth policy. Of the players which won the European Cup in 1977 only three were not at the club when Paisley took over in 1974.  Finally, the board decided not to offer Shankly another role at the club - they recognised his strong personality might have overshadowed Paisley.

And let’s not forget that United have been here before.  In 1969 the late Sir Matt Busby moved upstairs and was replaced by Wilf McGuiness (who he anointed) however the succession was not managed anywhere near as smoothly as Liverpool’s managerial transition.  The contrast between the post-Shankly era and the post- Busby era could not have been greater.  Paisley (in his first and only managerial role) surpassed the achievements of Shankly and Liverpool continued to win European and domestic trophies under their successors.  Over at old Trafford, McGuiness was sacked after just 18 months and within five years of Sir Matt’s initial departure (and six years after being crowned European Champions for the first time) United had been relegated.  It was not until Sir Alex’s appointment that the sleeping giant was re-awoken.

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Why did that succession not work?  Well, there were a number of reasons.  Firstly, while it may be unfair be unfair on McGuiness, there is a suspicion that Sir Matt chose the wrong man.  McGuiness’ only other managerial role in English football was at York City, who he took to two consecutive relegations.  Secondly, Sir Matt not only moved upstairs but also maintained control of player contracts.  They would air their grievances to him behind McGuiness’ back and continued to call Sir Matt ‘boss’ which, in essence, he was  Lastly, McGuiness inherited a team which was already on the wane.  They came eighth in his first full season which was seen as a disappointment although, significantly it was better than the 11th place achieved the season before under Sir Matt.  Many of the players McGuiness inherited were past their peak.

In short, all the factors which contributed to the seamless succession from Shankly to Paisley were absent in the succession from Sir Matt to McGuiness.  Which begs the thorny will Moyes (or whoever) be a Paisley or a McGuiness?  Well, he’s an experienced, proven top-level coach and he’s inheriting a strong, young winning team purpose built for this moment.  So, I guess the real question is: will Sir Alex repeat the mistakes of his predecessor Sir Matt?  He might be retiring from the dugout, but United’s future success is still very much in his hands.