By Graham Ruthven
“When United came calling and Sir Alex was on the phone you got a buzz from it,” Dwight Yorke, who was once the subject of a tempestuous transfer window raid by Manchester United revealed when asked about the club’s dealings this summer. “Does David Moyes have that though? That’s my one question.”
It would seem United manager David Moyes has made plenty phone calls since assuming the self proclaimed biggest job in football, updating the press with every twist and turn his transfer market strategy takes.
Yet Yorke’s question is a pertinent one. Are United struggling to attract players without the man who came to embody the club? Is Old Trafford still the appealing arena it was with Alex Ferguson on the sidelines?
On the face of it United have toiled in the transfer market this summer. The new Premier League season kicks off in a week and Moyes is yet to make his first major signing (Guillermo Varela, signed from Atletico Penarol in June, doesn’t count).
In what was billed as a transitional off-season United have still to make a transition. As it is the first team squad that trudged off the pitch in Ferguson’s final game at West Brom last May will line up for the season opener against Swansea on August 17.
Upon his presentation as United manager Moyes admitted he had already called his predecessor for advice on more than occasion. The post-Leveson British press might now be beyond the practice of phone tapping but those conversations would likely have shaped the agenda that has since played out this summer.
But if Ferguson is playing consultant to Moyes over who and how to sign in the transfer market perhaps United should cut out the medium. Has the new guy become the middleman?
Instead should United be turning to the European precedent, where former players are often employed in executive, rather than coaching, roles?
At Real Madrid Zinedine Zidane has been trusted by president Florentino Perez with conducting the sporting operations of the club. “We want Zidane to lead the sporting project for the next four years,” Perez affirms. “He will decide which players will be sold and who we will try to sign.”
Nouveau riche Paris Saint-Germain enlisted former player Leonardo to fulfill a similar role, leading front office operations and putting together the side that won Ligue 1 and reached the Champions League quarter-finals last season (before resigning after pushing a referee).
If there is a specific field where these former players-turned-directors’ influence is most prominent it is in the transfer market.
Carlos Tevez joined Juventus earlier this summer but the club’s courtship of the Manchester City forward started as far back as 2011, with the Bianconeri legend and board of directors member Pavel Nedved making several calls to the Argentinean in light of interest from AC Milan.
When Yaya Toure joined City, ignoring interest from Arsenal and other more illustrious suitors, he cited the influence of Patrick Viera, head of development at the time, as rationale.
But as is the case in many aspects of the game Bayern Munich set the precedent. The executive suites at the Allianz Arena are packed with legends of the sport, with Matthias Sammer as sporting director, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge as chief executive and Franz Beckenbauer as honorary president.
When Pep Guardiola publicized his admiration for Thiago Alcantara he placed the onus on the Bayern executive board to get the deal done. “I talked to Matthias (Sammer) and Karl-Henz (Rummenigge) about him,” he declared after gushing about the Barcelona midfielder. “I have asked the club to get him.” Less than a week later Thiago was a Bayern player. An approach from such a footballing braintrust presumably gave the player a buzz that Moyes couldn’t, in Yorke’s words.
In Ferguson United could potentially have football’s most powerful and influential director and while the Scot remains at the club in some capacity Moyes would be foolish not to use him.
Of course there is the distinct possibility Ferguson is relishing his retirement. Since the final game of last season Ferguson has already watched compatriot Andy Murray win Wimbledon from the Royal Box and enjoyed a luxury cruise around the Scottish Isles. He appears to be doing just fine without football.
But United are struggling to cope with his legacy sooner than anyone had imagined.
With David Gill departing alongside Ferguson the Premier League champions are somewhat devoid of nous at the top-level, particularly when it comes to the agent-led, transfer window politicking. New Chief Executive Ed Woodward’s background as the Glazers’ commercial prodigy, delivering the Americans’ vision of expanding the club’s global image, hardly gives him grounding in closing transfers.
Woodward left United’s pre-season tour of Australia 22 days ago, flying back to Manchester to conduct “urgent transfer business” yet still no signings have been made. Life after Ferguson has been an awkward baptism for Moyes and a relative novice is leading United’s most important summer in the transfer market for a generation.
Ferguson has actually been penciled in as a director at Old Trafford for the new season but will he take on active role on the board, like many legends do at clubs around Europe, or will he take his seat alongside Sir Bobby Charlton as something of an honorary season-ticket holder?
Moyes is the man in charge at United and he must establish his own style and personality at the club, but perhaps he should ask Ferguson to make the phone calls.