TRANSITION: Cut From The Same Cloth

Welcome to a new feature on WATBB entitled “Transition”. This series will take an in-depth look at Manchester United’s post-Sir Alex Ferguson years, looking at each of his successors and analysing what went right, what went wrong, and how close or how far the club have kept to, or strayed from, its identity. This first ‘chapter’ looks at the idea of transition, the core features of the club’s personality and the process of hiring David Moyes.

Identity matters. Of course it does. In May 2012, a global survey revealed that Manchester United have a reported 659 million supporters. Theoretically that means one in every eleven people on planet Earth is a fan of the Old Trafford club. If such a figure seems ridiculous then the statistic must be counter-balanced by evidence, and much of the evidence does at least suggest that Manchester United are the most popular sports franchise in the world.

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The team Harry Gregg was dubbed ‘the Hollywood of football’ receive the superstar treatment wherever they are in the world; their global appeal never more apparent than in a 2014 pre-season friendly in Michigan, USA, where 109,318 fans packed into Michigan Stadium to watch United face Real Madrid. Red shirts clearly outnumbered white shirts in the crowd. In 2017, Forbes listed Manchester United as the most valuable soccer franchise in the world, even after a four year spell since winning their last Premier League title.

The commercial appeal of having the likes of Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo represent the ‘brand’ has also been an important factor, while the club have additionally transitioned into an era where it seems important for statement signings. United have broken their own transfer record three times since Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013, as opposed to the three times done in the previous twelve years (and the July 2001 signing of Juan Sebastián Verón from Lazio for £28.1m came a few weeks after Ruud van Nistelrooy’s own record £18m move which broke the record for the first time in three years). The glamour of breaking the club transfer record for Angel Di Maria, and then the world transfer record for Paul Pogba compensated — at least as far as their worldwide platform was concerned — for the lack of top level trophies.

However, it was United’s popularity which caused the commercial interest in the club. So, what caused the popularity? Of course there is the notion that many started following the club due to their success. But even if we accept that has to be somewhat true, it cannot be entirely so. There is also the suggestion — and again, it is a suggestion that can’t be completely dismissed — that after the Munich Air Disaster, Manchester United attracted people who were sympathetic to their cause and keen to see how they would recover.

If the primary suggestion is to do with success, then maybe it’s a good place to start. Manchester United are the most successful English club and have been for a while, even though busy revisionists down the M62 have continuously attempted to redefine what constitutes a ‘major’ trophy in order to preserve Liverpool’s stake to that particular claim (for example, for a while, their European Super Cup trophies were cited, and United’s 1999 Intercontinental Cup and 2008 Club World Cup were dismissed as minor trophies, presumably because the Anfield club have never won either incarnation of that trophy). Plenty of teams win trophies, however, and the most often given reason by those who are not of the locale of the club for their support is because of their enjoyment of that particular team’s style of football. 

It is altogether more satisfying from a purist’s perspective if that style of football is synonymous with the club’s history — Real Madrid supporters have long enjoyed their club’s unapologetic approach to buying the best players in the world, Barcelona have the ‘Cruyff’ model, and Manchester United have, at the risk of paraphrasing something which is going to take a few thousand words more to elaborate upon, the reputation of counter-attacking football played by a majority of home-grown players, as well as a reputation of never giving in. What makes it even better for those clubs? Their greatest successes are drenched in the hallmark of their traditional brilliance. Whether it’s Real Madrid’s world-record signings scoring spectacular goals, Barcelona’s tiki-taka being at its most imperious, or Manchester United’s last gasp turnaround (or their George Best-inspired audacity), all three of the world’s biggest clubs have their finest hours defined by their most noteworthy characteristics.

The purpose of this book is to examine what has happened to that identity of Manchester United since Sir Alex Ferguson retired, but, as the club’s greatest ever manager once said, to know your future as a United player, you must first know your history. There are a number of books and records which have the time to go into Sir Matt Busby’s philosophies in much more detail but his objective upon taking over the reigns at Old Trafford was a relatively straightforward one — to provide a footballing team which would entertain the hard-working locals at the end of the week, and to do so with a team comprised of locally sourced and developed players. The latter part of that was also the shared vision of Walter Crickmer, Louis Rocca and James Gibson, though, considering the financial difficulties the club was suffering due to the bombing of Old Trafford in the second World War, it is not exactly clear whether this was a proposal of necessity rather than one as visionary as it seems, although, given the qualities of the three gentlemen, it would be wise to give them the benefit of the doubt. 

Certainly as far as Matt Busby was concerned, one can comfortably describe him as a visionary. Before the European Cup was even conceived of, Busby was taking his Manchester United team on world tours — a glamorous twelve-date tour of Canada and North America took in the bright lights of Los Angeles after the 1949/50 season concluded — to increase the profile of his club. They played against Atlas Club Mexico in LA where their presence in the city was acknowledged by a number of top Hollywood film stars and even the President of Mexico.

Still, even Matt Busby himself could not have comprehended the amount of work Jimmy Murphy would do for him after he spotted him training some soldiers in a camp in Bari towards the end of the War. Busby was enamoured by Murphy’s passionate team-talks, taken in by how determined he was for his team to win even though these games were effectively meaningless. He offered him a job looking after everything but the first team back in Manchester and Murphy took those words literally and very seriously indeed.

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Helped by coaches Bert Whalley and Tom Curry, as well as chief scout Joe Armstrong, Murphy created a youth set-up which was the envy of the footballing universe. When United triumphed 10-0 against Anderlecht in September 1956, many sections of the British media declared that the Manchester team were the best in the world. This was a team which, faithful to the wish of Gibson and Rocca, was comprised of the best home-grown players. It was a team which won back-to-back league titles. However, more than that, it was the personality of the team and the way it played which won so many admirers throughout the country and continent. Aggressive, confident and with an insatiable appetite to have the football, the Manchester United young players were in the mould of their mentor: Jimmy Murphy. (If you are so inclined, there is another feature on this website, Football Taught By — and the first instalment of that series looks intensively on the quality Busby and Murphy desired from their players as individuals in positions and also as a team.)

Under Busby and particularly Murphy, training routines were centred around repetition of simple things. Pass and move. Always keep the ball, and yourself, moving. Never allow an opponent a second’s peace.

Then Munich happened. Jimmy Murphy, and Matt Busby, did remarkable work to remain true to their shared philosophy and even more remarkably, ten years later after the disaster, they won a European Cup with all of their four goals in the final coming from home-grown players.

When Matt Busby retired, the club struggled in transition. Wilf McGuinness knew as much about the identity of Manchester United as anyone else. Frank O’Farrell was a gamble which didn’t work out, and while it took him some time, Tommy Docherty restored the club to its Cup-winning glory in 1977. Docherty was sacked the same year and was replaced by an antithesis in the form of Dave Sexton. Sexton would be quiet and uncontroversial off the pitch — just what the directors wanted. He would also be defensive and conservative on it — just what the supporters didn’t want.

Despite a second placed finish in 1980 and winning the last seven league games in 1981, the dissatisfaction from the United fans was not exactly restrained to a vocal minority, and so, the flamboyant and quotable Ron Atkinson was hired in an attempt to recapture some of the flair of the Docherty era.

Atkinson’s arrival was a significant one in the history of Manchester United even if it was a reluctant appointment from the board. ‘Big’ Ron was an outstanding candidate, of that there is no doubt, and his time at the club won many admirers. But the directors braced themselves for the potential of more controversy — controversy that never really came, it should be added — and in doing so, sent out something of a message to the football world. The personality of the Manchester United manager was an important factor, as was the style of the football played by the team. After the stunning run of form at the start of the 1985/86 season fell apart, Atkinson’s view of a solution was to make short term signings which a) appeared to be a gamble and b) only served as disillusion for the senior professionals at the club. The short term approach didn’t work, and Atkinson was on his way.

The 1989 protests came against a backdrop of a failed takeover bid and unfulfilled promises; when United lost four games out of five in December, the speculation that Alex Ferguson would be sacked was mounting. We all know how that turned out but for the sake of completion, the board gave Ferguson the time to see his masterplan bear the fruit it promised to. And the plan was good, very good. An FA Cup, European Cup Winner’s Cup, European Super Cup, League Cup, a Premier League and a League and FA Cup double had already been delivered before the mass influx of youth team players into the first team.

In 1977, United had four youth products starting the FA Cup Final (David McCreery, the substitute, made it five in the team on the day). Two started the 1985 Cup Final, with Mike Duxbury from the bench making it three. A decent number — favourably comparable with any other trophy winning side — but United’s hopes were greater. In the 1996 FA Cup Final, four youth products started, and two came off the bench. Sir Alex Ferguson’s 1999 Champions League Final squad also featured six players. Whilst it wasn’t quite the number of the 1950’s, it was nonetheless a staggering achievement in the modern age; when senior players were injured, chances were given to young players instead of hastily bought foreign imports. 

The main strength of the “Class of 1992” was undoubtedly in midfield. David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs formed an imposing foursome even without the driving force of Roy Keane. The other mainstays, Gary and Phil Neville, played the majority of their careers at full-back, working in tandem with Beckham or Giggs.

Forget the talismanic leadership of Eric Cantona, forget the stellar roll-call of talent who played alongside them, Manchester United would not have enjoyed the success they did without the benefit of the natural chemistry which developed through playing six young players who had come through the same system and knew each other inside and out. Under Busby and particularly Murphy, training routines were centred around repetition of simple things. Pass and move. Always keep the ball, and yourself, moving. Never allow an opponent a second’s peace. Straightforward principles which should be the basic of any good game plan, but, drummed as they were into the mind of gifted young players, principles which became their natural instinct when playing on a Saturday.

Of course, it helped that the player playing next to them was also schooled on the same methods. It meant that they could depend upon them. The repetition of the drills meant that the players understood the movement of the players around them. The importance of working hard on self-improvement was constantly driven into the players and this was passed down as an example through the ranks. Imagine being a youngster watching Bobby Charlton being told to work repeatedly on his left foot? Or a young academy hopeful watching David Beckham stay behind in training to relentlessly work on his crossing, even after he has rose to fame by scoring a goal from the halfway line? The message: Skill is all well and good, but there is no substitute for hard work. Add into the melting pot the fact that many were local lads and if not they were United fans anyway — they not only had an added determination for their team not to lose, but, they were working for each other. Suddenly, their repeated comebacks and late victories begin to make perfect sense.

Paul McGuinness, former United youth team coach and son of Wilf, spoke about a game in the 2011 FA Youth Cup run. Chelsea were 2-0 up in the first leg of the semi-final and their coach told Paul that he was going to tell his team to be wary because United never give up. That was music to the ears of McGuinness, who went and repeated the conversation to his own team. “So make sure you do keep going, because they will get tired.” United scored two crucial away goals, and won in the second leg en route to winning the trophy. Their reputation for recovery, earned through the ages going back to the physical recovery after Munich and then relegation in 1974, the 1968 semi-final fightback against Real Madrid, the 1984 turnaround against Barcelona, and of course 1999, a year which had so many late turnarounds and yet one is remembered more than any other, had almost become a player of its own.

There are moments for the sporting romantics to positively coo over in United’s history; the heartbreaking, bittersweet Wembley triumph of 1968 being possibly the most noteworthy. How about winning the treble with a last minute goal on Sir Matt Busby’s birthday? Or how about Ryan Giggs breaking the club’s appearance record and scoring the decisive penalty to help win United their third European Cup?

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