Erik ten Hag, the return of Manchester United, and the Ferguson and Busby successions

The Sir Matt Busby and Sir Alex Ferguson successions at Manchester United are separated by 44 years and an eternity in terms of the development of the game, both tactically and commercially.

Common themes emerge, though, notably in United’s curiously parochial outlook when the question of Ferguson’s succession is considered. In addition, just as Ferguson was the fifth manager to follow Sir Matt Busby as United boss, so Erik ten Hag is the fifth manager in the post-Ferguson era.

Whereas Sir Matt Busby was first succeeded by Wilf McGuinness and then by Frank O’Farrell, Tommy Docherty, Dave Sexton and then by Ron Atkinson before Sir Alex Ferguson came down from Aberdeen, Ferguson himself was succeeded by, initially, David Moyes, and then by Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and then by interim boss Ralph Rangnick before Erik Ten Hag was lured away from Ajax to take over at Old Trafford.

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For both Busby and Ferguson, the initial succession from the long-established coach to the new one proved both short-term and disastrous for the hand-picked successor. In Busby’s case, results under Wilf McGuinness went south to the extent that McGuinness was sacked in December 1970. Busby returned to the helm briefly, although United only finished eighth in the league that season. Having succeeded Busby in April 1969, eighteen months in the United hot seat had taken its physical toll on McGuinness. In Eamon Dunphy’s biography of Busby “A Strange Kind of Glory” Paddy Crerand recalled:

The change in his appearance was unbelievable. He’d come in on a Monday morning with his eyes down around his cheekbones. He looked as if he had the world on his shoulders.

Against Everton at Goodison Park in April 2014 David Moyes’ Manchester United suffered their 11th league defeat in 34 games that season. Just ten months into a six-year contract, his return to the club he had managed for over a decade proved to be his final game in charge of Manchester United. Down near the dugout an Everton fan dressed as the grim reaper had dogged Moyes’ footsteps throughout the match, and within twenty-four hours Moyes was relieved of his duties. Jamie Jackson, in his account of the Moyes and van Gaal years “A Season in the Red” wrote this of the post-match ritual that day:

Now it is down the tunnel to do the post-match media, passing people who used to work under him, who were formerly the staff of David Moyes, until last May. He nods to this one, shakes hands with that one. Keeping a brave face on as he can hear the crowd singing and laughing, happy because Everton have just done the double over his Manchester United. It hurts. This is the one thing that cannot be shown, cannot be talked about, cannot be admitted. The raw emotion, the pain and the anguish, the damaged pride, and the self-doubt. Then having to walk into the press room at Goodison Park and face the questions.

Like McGuinness before him with Busby, the mental demands of running Manchester United in the shadow of a totemic individual like Ferguson had metastasized physically in Moyes. Jamie Jackson again recalls the dark days of April 2014:

He is still a fit man, the hands-on tracksuit manager who insisted on taking training sessions. But the photographic evidence of these past ten months is unavoidable. In three days he turns fifty-one, but he looks a decade older, gaunt, the face more lined, the bright blue of his eyes dimmed, and he is pale-skinned and skeletal.

Similarly, just as McGuinness’ short tenure ended in him being relieved on a temporary basis by Busby himself, so Moyes was replaced for the remainder of the 2013/2014 season by a modern club legend in the form of Ryan Giggs.

Having managed Manchester United for twenty-four years and overseen three great teams in the process, Sir Matt Busby must surely have had the pick of potential candidates to succeed him in English football’s top job back in 1969. Among those mooted at the time, Jock Stein, Don Revie, Dave Sexton and Jimmy Adamson were all credible options, although privately Revie was thought incompatible due to a footballing philosophy which did not chime with Busby’s.

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In the end the club opted for Wilf McGuinness, then just 31 and United’s youth team coach, who was appointed on a three-year contract and initially given the title ‘Chief Coach’ as, moving upstairs to the General manager role, Busby himself would take care of the media. McGuinness remembers Busby sending for him two hours before a press conference to reveal the identity of the new manager. McGuinness recalls ‘He (Busby) didn’t ask me whether I wanted it he just said, “you’re the one”. He even made it sound as though he’d picked me.’

Fast-forward to the end of the Ferguson era and it seems that Moyes too was viewed as a hand-picked successor, although Ferguson has since been at pains to suggest the process of succession management was much more thought out than appeared at the time. In an updated version of his autobiography Ferguson stated There appears to be an accepted view out there that there was no process. Nonsense, we feel we did everything the right way – quietly, thoroughly, professionally.”.

That may indeed be the case, although Ferguson had spoken glowingly of Moyes’ “background” above all when he said “I knew his family background. His father was a coach at Drumchapel, where I played as a lad. They have a good family feel about them. I’m not saying that is a reason to hire someone, but you like to see good foundations in someone appointed to such high office.

Whatever the machinations behind Moyes’ appointment, it is clear the club’s owners, the Glazer family, rubber-stamped the appointment of a man who had never won a trophy nor managed at the rarefied level United occupied at that time, despite manifestly more qualified candidates being available.

Additionally, the vacuum created by the loss of a long-established boss can lead to cliques of old boys from the glory days coalescing around figures who promise to bring the good times back. Witness, for instance, the toe-curling relationship between pundits and manager during the Ole Gunnar Solskjaer days, when a reluctance among the former United players in the commentariat to offer criticism was obvious and almost embarrassing. If Fergie himself had not returned, he had, unwittingly in Solskjaer, a proxy of sorts that his ex-players could rally round.

Busby, too, inspired loyalty and devotion in those players who scaled the heights under him, even when others had the manager’s seat. During the McGuinness and O’Farrell years disgruntled players would join Busby, their father confessor, on the golf course and air their grievances.  So unsettled was the team during those years, so toxic the atmosphere in the dressing room at times, that George Best lamented he was tired of “the cliques, the bickering, I was longing for someone to come and sort it out.”

Ferguson has stayed out of the limelight to a much, much greater degree during the years of his retirement, although that did not stop dressing room cliques forming during the Mourinho, Solksjaer and Rangnick terms. Over half a century ago George Best had dreamed of someone coming along and taking the club by the scruff of its neck and pointing it towards the future. In the present day that need has also been manifest for quite some time.

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All of which brings us to the current occupant of the United hot seat, Erik ten Hag. Resolutely his own man, with his own ideas, the 53-year-old Walter White look-alike has overseen an improvement in morale beyond the hopes of most, the restoration of a recognisable playing identity, and the will to eradicate those energy-draining elements surrounding the club. Moreover, ten Hag is, according to United watcher and journalist Mark Ogden, the first manager in the post-2013 age to be free of the “the ghost of Fergie hanging over him”. Crucially, it seems, the selection of ten Hag came after a lengthy period of deliberative succession planning.

From what we now understand, United’s former chief executive Ed Woodward and director of football negotiations Matt Judge helped outline a set of criteria for the recruitment of the manager who would eventually replace interim boss Ralph Rangnick at the end of the 2021/22 season. When Woodward stood down and was replaced by new chief executive Richard Arnold, he, along with new director of football John Murtough and technical director Darren Fletcher expanded on the potential profile. Eventually, according to the BBC’s Simon Stone, it was decided that the next full-time Manchester United boss should conform to a key set of principles:

Did he win? Did he win with style? Did he make players better? Did he develop young players? Did his teams dominate the ball? Did he have the strength of character and personality to deal with all that being Manchester United manager entails? Crucially, was he prepared to work with staff at the club rather than ignoring them or working against?

It took Manchester United almost eighteen years and five managers to find a replacement for Sir Matt Busby, and even then, Sir Alex Ferguson’s initial task when he succeeded Ron Atkinson in the 1986/87 season was to avoid embarrassment. In the modern era the demands on coaches have sped up to such an extent that Manchester United went through as many managers between Ferguson and ten Hag in just nine years.

Times change, of course, and Ferguson was not Busby just as ten Hag is not Ferguson. However, in 2013 when Ferguson retired, it was not apparent that the club had learned much from the 1969 retirement and succession of Busby. Following the regression of the team under Solskjaer and then Rangnick it seems that Manchester United at last grasped the crucial nature of succession planning. So far under Erik ten Hag that planning seems to bear the promise of much fruit to come.

The Author

Gareth Bland

From Derbyshire in the English Peak District, Gareth has also written for These Football Times and Cricket Web.

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