It was only a couple of hours after Manchester United had officially announced that Sir Alex Ferguson would retire at the end of the season that this observer was summoned to Old Trafford for an audience with David Gill.
The sun was shining, in a few days’ time United would be parading the 13th Premier League trophy of Ferguson’s extraordinary reign, and the club’s then chief executive, after months guarding a secret now out in the open, was keen to offer his reflections on the great man.
Gill had watched Ferguson up close and personal for 10 years but rated his ability to manage downwards – and not just upwards – as one of his biggest strengths. That, plus his tenacity, compassion, ruthlessness, serial winning mindset and sense of humor.
Yes, must not forget Ferguson’s sense of humor as Gill recalled the time the Scot had him ring Valter Di Salvo, an Italian fitness coach at the club, and pretend a staff meeting had been called on the day of the 2006 World Cup final between Italy and France. “So you had Walter going spare in his Italian way before Alex eventually revealed his hand,” Gill recalled, smiling.
There were no portents that beautiful May day in 2013 for the storm clouds that would soon engulf Old Trafford. But, a decade on, with United still struggling to emerge out of Ferguson’s shadow and his heir apparent now threatening to ape his greatest achievement on the other side of the Manchester divide, the only obvious challenge to Manchester City’s continued dominance in the coming years appears. another botched succession.
Of course, United could halt City’s quest for the treble by beating their rivals in the FA Cup final at Wembley on Saturday – and preserve their status as the only English club to hold that accolade, for another season at least – but it is going to take a lot more than that to adequately derail Pep Guardiola’s juggernaut.
Indeed, maybe it is only the Fergie-sized problem with which City will one day have to wrestle that will see them overthrown because Guardiola – like Ferguson before him – is setting standards with which the rest cannot keep pace.
If Guardiola sees out his remaining contract, which runs until June 2025, he will have done nine years at City, not Ferguson’s 27 at Old Trafford but long enough to have built an empire shaped in his vision, to have established an aura of invincibility, to have cemented a winning culture, to have elevated players to ever greater heights.
There is understandable excitement whenever Guardiola signs a contract extension with City – there have been three to date – but also relief because the club are acutely aware of how big a void he would leave, and what they would be losing.
“I don’t know, it’s the great unknown, but change always increases the element of risk,” Gill said that day when asked if replacing Ferguson was “the impossible job”.
“Lots of jobs are deemed to be impossible. I don’t think it’s an impossible job, you’re coming in with a very impressive support structure on and off the pitch in terms of the players, the facilities.”
If Ferguson’s exit has done anything, besides playing into their rival’s hands, it has given City a template of how not to manage a succession. There are no guarantees that they will emerge smoothly from Guardiola’s departure when that day comes, but it is hard to believe that they will make some of the same mistakes that served only to deepen the problems at Old Trafford.
With a clear blueprint of the football they want to play, City are unlikely to yo-yo between managers of greatly contrasting styles, as United did, and there can be little doubt Guardiola’s successor would be working out of the best facilities available. As for the squad, it would be a surprise if he was not bequeathed an impressive pool of players although the biggest challenges may revolve around the age profiles of those talents. David Moyes, Ferguson’s successor, inherited lots of serial winners but too many at the end of their careers and, with it, a significant rebuilding job that was badly handled.
Having effectively rebuilt a club since 2008, Abu Dhabi knows what investment and careful planning look like. The Glazer led United seemed to be more obsessed about keeping Ferguson’s exit under wraps than plotting the future in 2013, but City had to give thought to what a post-Guardiola world might look like on more than one occasion before now. That was certainly true a few years ago when Guardiola entered the final 12 months of his deal and there were genuine fears he could leave before he eventually signed a two-year extension in November 2020.
Moyes has often wondered if things would have been easier had Gill – an experienced administrator – not departed at the same time as Ferguson, and City may find the process harder to navigate were Txiki Begiristain, the director of football, and chief executive Ferran Soriano to leave with Guardiola.
Soriano has hinted in the past that it would not happen but it would be a triple whammy City’s owners would be desperate to avoid.
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