It was difficult for one not to take a moment to appreciate Alex Ferguson all over again, both yesterday and today. Particularly if you have as much time on your hands as I do.
Before and during David Moyes’ first press conference as Manchester United manager, there was talk of how Ferguson, the great man, had offered, quite simply, to stay out of the way. What self-awareness from a guy who would have every right not to bother with that kind of thing these days. What an impressive understanding of the unhelpful pressure that his presence at the club could apply.
It genuinely was difficult not to admire the news and the personality behind it. Or else, it was until you applied any kind of scrutiny to what the phrase ‘staying out of the way’ meant. Beyond that point, it was less so. According to the reports, actually, the exact details of ‘staying out of the way’ come down to ‘exploring the possibilities of whether there is an executive box at Old Trafford where he will be able to watch in privacy’. Which, I have to say, is a far less significant act of self-awareness than I had initially imagined.
To begin with, you will note that, in fact, it is not any kind of commitment at all. ‘Exploring the possibilities’ of doing something, of course, being the prelude to acting, very often, but not acting in itself. I have been exploring the possibility of changing my pants for several days, for instance, and yet it has not yet happened. Richard Whittall promised me a huge pay rise, for example, and yet I do not have my yacht. Alex Ferguson is half-heartedly considering not getting in David Moyes’ way. I mean, you would think that in more than twenty years you might have some idea in advance if there was a directors’ box you fancied watching games from, if you really were into the idea.
But even in a world where this theoretical gesture became a reality rather than, let’s face it, a footnote in the idle ramblings of a retiree, it’s simply not an inspiring, game-changing idea. Not being seen on camera at David Moyes’ first few games in charge, which is the apparent motivation behind the directors’ box initiative, is, all in all, as likely to affect the new managers’ performance as the new and improved haircut he brought to the table for his press conference. Moyes is still going to spend this season being defined as the first post-Ferguson Manchester United manager, however it goes.
Moyes will still be standing next to the Sir Alex Ferguson stand. He’ll still be managing a squad assembled by Ferguson, for Ferguson. He’ll still be dressing up as Ferguson to try and convince Robin Van Persie to give him a hug too. The exact positioning of Ferguson during this time should not be considered a defining factor in the Moyes reign is, I guess, what I’m trying to say – the notion of him attempting to sit on the pitch to watch games aside.
And anyone who listened to Moyes’ first press conference will have acquired the impression that Ferguson, actually, hasn’t put too much effort into not getting in the way. As far as I’m inclined to remember, Moyes spoke about several discussions with Ferguson, about calling him up and asking for advice, and, most controversially, about asking to wear his glasses. One of these is a lie, but isn’t a lie only another version of the truth? Well, no, but nevertheless.
Moyes hardly tried to hide how closely his United career is, for the moment, tied to Ferguson. “I’m inexperienced in a lot of things but the biggest confidence I got was that [Sir Alex Ferguson] told me I was the next United manager,” he told us, revealing that, essentially, the most significant part of his CV is a reference from Ferguson. He went on: “I’m not going to get away from what Alex Ferguson has done at this club, and I’m not even going to try at first; Ethan’s right.” Again, one of these two quotes is inaccurate, but it speaks of a hidden truth, and thus is true.
The fact is that Ferguson is still around at Manchester United. And for now Moyes will not and probably cannot get away from Ferguson’s current ideas and previous impact, whether he’s sitting on his lap or in a directors’ box. Everything we see or hear from the club tells us this.
It need not be a bad thing though. It just shouldn’t be hidden. Ferguson is useful, if he can control himself and allow Moyes to grow at the same time as helping him learn on the job. What I think is far more important than the seat Ferguson sits in is the kind of impression Moyes can make on the club as time moves on. It doesn’t need to be immediate, it’s just important exactly what that impression is, as and when it happens. What persona is Moyes going to project as Manchester United manager once he really gets the chance to be his own man? In this regard, I saw real reason to worry today. Moyes referred to himself in the third person. Now, that could be trouble.