Calibrating the Compass? Rangnick at Manchester United ⋆ An Old International

Calibrating the Compass? Rangnick at Manchester United

Since the second half of November 2021 Manchester United have caused all sorts of headlines for all the wrong reasons. The sacking Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was the latest chapter in the club’s history, a history that has been somewhat turbulent since Sir Alex Ferguson decided to retire in 2013. The parallels to the retirement of Sir Matt Busby in 1969 and the period until 1986 are striking.

In 1969 after more than 20 years in office, the then United manager, Sir Matt Busby decided to call it a day and declared first team coach Wilf McGuinness as his successor. The problem was that McGuinness had to step into the boots that were of an incredible size. Just to remind you, Busby had survived the Munich Air Disaster 1958 and rebuilt the team from scratch to become European Cup winners ten years later. The effort, mentally and physically led him to retire from managing. With Busby at the helm United amassed five league titles and as many community shields, as well as two FA Cups. His biggest triumph was the European Cup in 1968. Until the arrival of Alex Ferguson in 1986, Busby was the most successful United manager.

However, behind the scenes he was still involved in the day-to-day business of this football club after his retirement and he even returned to the dug out as manager after Mc Guinness was relieved of his duties as manager because the results simply did not satisfy the club’s board of directors, of which Busby was a member, of course. Wilf McGuinness was a United player who turned coach turned manager. He received a league winners medal in 1956. A broken leg in 1960 forced him into an early retirement and he became involved in coaching. In June 1969 he was tasked to manage a United team that has reached the pinnacle of its capabilities and was in urgent need of transition. Players had to be moved on, the squad rejuvenated. On top of that the behavior of George Best was another thing that occupied a lot of time and energy of McGuinness. One aspect that also may have played a role in his early downfall was his age. He was only 31, thus not much older than many of his protégés; he is the same age as Bobby Charlton for instance and it is any one’s guessing how this player with his status and experience may have regarded McGuinness. Billy Foulkes was even five years older than him. In short, his tenure was cut short for many reasons.

Busby took over for the second half of the season before Frank O’Farrell was appointed as manager after leading Leicester City to the 1969 FA Cup Final and back to the First Division in 1970. He took the post immediately the moment United came asking in June 1971. Again, the boots to fill were huge but the team did well, initially. It was a false dawn since George Best spiraled out of control and was transfer listed in late 1972. In December of that year, O’Farrell was sacked, remaining to this day the only Irish man ever to manage the club.

The parallels are striking. Ferguson, just as Busby, was an immensely successful manager at United and even before, at Aberdeen. During his reign from 1986 until 2013 United have won thirty-eight trophies. THIRTY-EIGHT. That’s about 1,4 pieces of silverware per season on average. That is unrivaled and may never be achieved by a United manager nor a manager of any other club. Compared to this trophy haul, Busby’s achievement of thirteen is still remarkable but a comparison of the number of trophies is not the point here. Both, Busby and Ferguson ended the long wait for the league title. The former ended a period of more than forty years without a league title while the wait was „only“ twenty-six years under Ferguson.

Fast forward to the period since 2013 and one cannot but think that the history of Manchester United is currently in repeat mode when it comes to managers. Since 2013 United have required the services of six different managers and coaches. The malaise began with the same ritual as Busby had chosen: installing a successor of his own choice. In the case of Ferguson „the chosen one“ was David Moyes who was out of his depths and was replaced by Louis van Gaal a year later. Who was followed by Jose Mourinho who himself was replaced by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. In between there was a short stint as player-manager by Ryan Giggs. A similar role that Michael Carrick has taken until his replacement, Ralf Rangnick will be able to take his place.

The choice of Rangnick is a gamble and it may backfire horrendously but it is symptomatic for the club’s leadership. Will be able to recalibrate the club’s navigation system and initiate a new era? Is he there for the long haul, i.e. being a manager again or more, a sporting director? In case of the latter, he will be given immense influence on who will manage the club while adhering to the framework given by Rangnick.

There is the need for glamour and quick repairs instead of a reasonable loon-term strategy for the management of the club. From a historical point, United have not learnt from the post-Busby troubles more than fifty years ago. The names in the dug out since Ferguson’s departure are some of the biggest names in European football. Rangnick is the latest addition to that roll call of big names. It is important to add however, that football has changed significantly. Not just since Busby’s days but also since 2013. Long-term appointments have increasingly become the exception – even the term long-term may need to be re-defined: two years? Three? Five? Careers of players as well as managers have changed: those of players are longer and thus the chance that they play for more than one club have increased. One club men have become the exception. Short-termism increases the pressure, particularly on managers who have to deliver instantly without time to settle. United are not exempt from this development and only time will tell, if they were capable to recalibrate their compass.

Thanks to Stuart Howard-Cofield for the spark!

Good writing does not come by chance, so consider this:

Image: Old Trafford, by Andre Zahn via Wiki Commons, under Creative Commons License CC BY-SA 20

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