Photo c/o larry_rw Unsplash.com
The managerial merry-go-round shows no signs of slowing down, indeed it appears to be gathering pace. Ole Gunnar Solksjaer’s dismissal was the sixth in the Premier League this season and we are only in Week 12, so less than a third of the way through. By contrast there were only four managerial departures during the entirety of last season. In 1992/93, the very first year of the Premier League, when Ian Porterfield was relieved of his duties at Chelsea on February 15th after a 12-match winless run, he became the only manager to leave any of the twenty-two clubs during that nascent season. The current season is well on course to outdo the previous record of ten changes in both 2013/14 and 2017/18.
After what Gary Neville called “a wimpish performance, terrible, really bad” against Watford, Solksjaer’s time at Old Trafford finally ran out on Sunday and there was no great wailing or gnashing of teeth. Well, apart from the Norwegian’s lachrymose farewell that aired on MUTV drawing both sympathy and derision in equal measure, depending on which side of United’s Red Wall one stood. The Guardian’s Barry Glendenning was very assuredly in the latter camp. “Like many others,” he wrote. “Your cynical Fiver found its mind well and truly boggled that the club’s Fan Sentiment Graph guys somehow persuaded Ole to film a tearful, touching and click-tastic video farewell in which he wished their newly appointed pre-interim interim manager Michael Carrick all the best, before trundling out of the club training ground consigned to the wheel of nothing more powerful than his Range Rover.”
Naturally most of those of a United persuasion opted for the sympathy vote matching Solksjaer’s tears with an outpouring of emotion inspired by Solksjaer’s loyalty as a former player and put-upon manager, added to which they pointed to him being a thoroughly nice chap. Alex Ferguson didn’t get to where he stands today as a colossus, who casts a shadow so powerful that it hangs over every United manager like the Sword of Damocles, by being nice. Indeed his reputation was built around his lacerating tongue that accompanied his fiery temper.
In his first managerial position at lowly East Stirlingshire his reputation was quickly established as former striker Bobby McCulley recalled. “He terrified us,” McCulley told The Guardian in 2004. “I’d never been afraid of anyone before but he was such a frightening bastard from the start. Everything was focused towards his goals. Time didn’t matter to him; he never wore a watch. If he wanted something done he’d stay as late as it took or come in early. He always joined in with us in training and would have us playing in the dark until his five-a-side team won. He was ferocious, elbowing and kicking.”
When Ferguson departed the scene in 2013, Solksjaer was still cutting his managerial teeth at Molde (he won the Norwegian Cup exactly eight years ago) but the irascible Scot’s presence is just as foreboding today as it was over the two decades he led United to thirteen Premier League titles. It goes without saying that they have not won any since. As a fallow decade beckons the issue is can anyone shake off Ferguson’s ghost which has haunted all four of his successors. The television cameras still take great delight in regularly picking him out in the Old Trafford stands to capture his exasperation at the latest calamity to befall his once all-conquering team. Whether it’s losing to beleaguered Sheffield United last season or suffering recent shellackings by former rivals Liverpool and Manchester City the pain is as real as the influence he wields.
It is abundantly clear to most observers that there needs to a break from the past as David Moyes, Louis Van Gaal and even Jose Mourinho have struggled to shrug off the burden of Ferguson’s looming presence. Imagine how much more difficult Keir Starmer’s job in establishing himself as the leader of a credible opposition would be if Tony Blair kept popping up with his winning grin. The task is Herculean enough without continuous reminders of the glorious past. There are a few people seemingly blind to this issue and unfortunately for United fans they just happen to be those running the club. The Glazers and their acolytes are more concerned with securing the next noodle partner than getting in a manager who can rebuild a club that has rotted from the head for a while.
As for the man who rightly announced that he would be leaving his post as executive vice-chairman by the end of the year after the European Super League debacle in which he was exposed as a heady combination of a liar, a charlatan and a patsy, incredibly he now seems to be backtracking. The recent noises coming out of the boardroom are the screeching of brakes on a shoddy U-turn as Ed Woodward is now considering staying on. Such a comeback would be one of the most remarkably brazen in the history of football if it wasn’t such a massive kick in the cojones of every right-minded football supporter, let alone those of United. So it is the likeable Norwegian who is heading for the exit rather than one of the club’s most hated figures and that pretty much sums up the mess that United find themselves in.
And as the merry-go-round rolls on, it has always struck me as rather out of kilter to describe the constant churn of managers thus. The OED definition of a merry-go-round is “a revolving machine with model horses or vehicles on which people ride for amusement.” Well, there is very little to be merry about and unless you are either a sadist or a masochist, any amusement is pretty thin on the ground too. Maybe another funfair attraction would be more appropriate. Anyone up for the managerial helter skelter or maybe the Wall of Death? And all this time Ole’s at the Ferris wheel.