It feels like we have been here before. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s sacking has underlined how far and how fast Manchester United have fallen since Sir Alex Ferguson stepped down eight years ago. The situation has echoes of Liverpool’s decline in the 1990s.
Both clubs were the dominant power in English football for almost two decades and abdicated that position when the tenure of an iconic manager came to an unexpected end.
At first it seemed like a blip. Then a creeping malaise set in. United are now eight seasons away from their last title. There is no prospect of the next one being delivered to Old Trafford in May. At a similar point in their history, Liverpool still had more than 20 years to wait before returning to the summit of the domestic game.
Are the comparisons real or trite? There are some clear parallels. Kenny Dalglish resigned out of the blue in 1991 when his team were reigning champions and Anfield’s angst was exacerbated in the ensuing years by United’s ascendency.
Sir Alex Ferguson built an empire at Old Trafford but after the Scot was forced by illness to retire in 2013, Manchester City became the pre-eminent force in the Premier League. Mediocrity is bad enough. Watching one of your biggest rivals bask in glory sharpens the pain.
Liverpool endured a sustained period without a title until Jurgen Klopp’s arrival
The one thing that both United and Liverpool have in common is that there was a lack of succession planning for a sudden managerial vacancy. There can be some excuses for this at Anfield because Dalglish was only 39, although greater consideration should have been made for the impact of the Hillsborough disaster on the manager’s mental health. Ferguson was 71 when his tenure ended. The man from Govan may have seemed indestructible but septuagenarians are, by nature, nearing the end of their working life, especially in a business as relentless as football.
Liverpool’s long era of triumph was dynastic but the line of succession had run its course. They attempted to continue the tradition after Dalglish but Graeme Souness was an iconoclast and Roy Evans was an attendant lord rather than a central character. Anfield’s deeply conservative approach was at odds with a time of huge change in the English game.
United were the opposite. The club grasped the commercial opportunities of the new epoch and had the financial strength to back up their manager’s ability – at least until the Glazer takeover. Yet what Ferguson built was not a dynasty but a dictatorship – and he had little interest in grooming a successor. He bequeathed the job to David Moyes, who was unsuited to the position. Since then United have thrashed around without any clear purpose to find the right manager. It was not Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho or Solskjaer. The seasons are ticking by. Another poor decision will waste at least two more campaigns.
United failed to identify a succession plan to Sir Alex Ferguson
Much of this has been the result of the way the club is run. David Gill left his chief executive’s post shortly after Ferguson called time. Gill was never adequately replaced and bad decisions in the boardroom have become the norm at Old Trafford. Solskjaer has paid the price for this but the people who employed and then extended the contract of a manager who was clearly ill-equipped for the role deserve even more blame. Anyone who trusts Joel Glazer and co to select Solskjaer’s replacement is suffering from a bout of wishful thinking. Mauricio Pochettino is the leading choice but hardly a bold move. The institutional problems that frustrated Van Gaal and Mourinho remain and are likely to irritate the Argentinian.
Liverpool were left behind because United became an even bigger financial powerhouse in the new Premier League. A series of other events made an Anfield revival more difficult in the ensuing years. The Wenger revolution at Arsenal, Roman Abramovich’s injection of wealth at Chelsea and the City buyout by Abu Dhabi forced Liverpool down the pecking order.
The landscape is different now but more stable. A strata of superclubs is firmly established – even taking the Newcastle United takeover into account – and United are in the top echelon. Even periods of sustained underachievement will not dislodge them but the fans want – and deserve – more.
The club needs a serious overhaul but there is barely any chance that United will go as long as Liverpool without winning the title. A number of things need to happen first, though. A more intelligent, cohesive hierarchy needs to be put in place. The recruitment policy should be focused on players who can improve the side, not shirt sales or social media clicks. It is also essential that the squad who let the Norwegian down are cleared out. Then, the next manager might have a chance.
Can United learn from Liverpool’s mistakes? No. They can’t even learn from their own. Solskjaer was a symptom of the problems rather than the cause. The pattern of the past eight years needs to be broken at Old Trafford instead of being repeated.
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