For all of the florid tributes that have been paid to Sir Alex Ferguson since his abrupt retirement, there is one poetic symbol that has stood above all others, dominating the reams of column inches and internet discussion since the subsequent appointment of David Moyes. The looming inevitability of Ferguson’s Shadow is expected to stalk the corridors of power at Old Trafford long after the man himself has cleared his desk, and is expected to smother the new man in charge. Moyes will have much to adjust to in his new role, but common opinion has it that the most daunting task for him will be trying to find fresh life within the dark confines of that shadow. The true test for Moyes will be in seeing whether he can make the shadow work for him, and use it to his advantage.
It seems that Moyes has been given the job as much for his character as for his professional credentials, as being “cut from the same cloth” as his predecessors is not something you can necessarily quantify on a CV. He will be expected to ‘get’ Manchester United, and use that understanding accordingly, as Ferguson has done so frequently throughout the years. Summoning the almighty power of the Manchester United name would be difficult for anyone replacing a man of 26 years’ stewardship at the club, let alone Moyes, a man unfamiliar with being a heavyweight.
The malingering presence of Ferguson will sustain that mythic quality, the irresistible accumulation of forged history. How better for Moyes to immerse himself in the legacy of the club than by engaging with a man who has built as much of it as anyone? In one of many eulogies given by those that knew him best, David Beckham was asked by Sky Sports News for his thoughts on Ferguson, only to tell a story instead of walking through the Old Trafford corridors for the first time and smelling the distinct odour of Sir Matt Busby’s pipe. If anybody knows how to thrive in another man’s shadow, it’s Alex Ferguson, and, well, it didn’t do him all that badly did it?
Ferguson has spoken in the past of his morning routine: the 6am start, the slice of toast and the mountain of paperwork to see to before he can get to work with his players. Perhaps this routine, the perfunctory admin and necessary mundanities will be as hard for Ferguson to extricate himself from as it will be for Moyes to adopt as his own. If one of the key reservations about Moyes – the relative lack of big player experience – holds any weight, then he will need to fix it and quickly. He will need to spend time with his players, maybe more even than Ferguson himself may have been used to on a daily basis, if his new charges are to readjust to a different regime.
While it is one problem entirely to replace the monolithic presence of Ferguson, there are two other issues that will trouble Moyes. Manchester City’s disastrous attempts at retaining the Premier League title all but guarantee some major tooling up in the transfer market this summer. Elsewhere, Chelsea look certain to re-hire Jose Mourinho, a man for whom the phrase ‘guaranteed trophies’ may as well be printed on his business cards. We can be sure that the title race will be fought much more closely next season (that is to say, it will be fought over at all), which will only increase the pressure on United’s new manager. This is where the dubious distinction of living in the Ferguson Shadow can be deployed to good effect; if United fail to retain the trophy, there’s a ready-made excuse to hand, and one which you imagine Ferguson himself would have no problem invoking in order to buy the new man more time.
There will be some United fans who will be too used to success, and too aware of the capriciousness of the modern chairman’s wrath, to grant Moyes much time to adjust. Much has been made of the infamous banner calling for Ferguson’s head in 1989, deploring “3 years of excuses and it’s still crap”. The most startling thing about that banner isn’t the retrospective irony, but that it took three years for such a banner to be displayed at all. That’s a startling amount of time for a new manager to be given that simply doesn’t happen at big clubs these days. Ferguson has seen for himself the virtues of patience, and the six-year contract that Moyes has signed suggests that the previous incumbent will do what he can to make sure that the new guy will be afforded a similar privilege.
Some United fans may even be relishing the prospect of a younger manager coming in, having acknowledged Ferguson’s flaws in recent years. His recent reluctance to sign a central midfielder has added fresh momentum to rumours of Marouane Fellaini joining his former manager at Old Trafford. His recent track record in the transfer market has prompted further updates (Bebe, Gabriel Obertan) to the semi-legendary list of failed buys (Massimo Taibi, Kleberson, you know the rest). Some have also identified a worrying trend for alienating promising youngsters that have gone on to thrive elsewhere in Europe, such as Gerard Pique, Guiseppe Rossi and Paul Pogba. These flaws certainly won’t form his legacy – the 49 trophies will probably just about see to that – but they will, at the very least, afford Moyes some room for manoeuvre. If he were to bring Fellaini with him, for example, or give more playing time to someone such as Nick Powell, then he might go some way to impressing some of the more sceptical supporters early in his tenure.
After Ferguson’s final home game, we heard him rally the troops one final time, exhorting the club’s fans to show the new manager the same support they showed him at the start of his reign. He was met with a rapturous response, as they chanted just one word: not Ferguson, not Moyes, but United. With that one simple command to the supporters to ease the transition from old to new, he summoned a little brightness on his own shadow to alleviate the gathering gloom. And with that, the weight of expectation may prove to be less of a shadow, and more of a light to illuminate the way.