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Sir Alex Ferguson’s shadow

Sir Alex Ferguson’s shadow


Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is struggling at Man United. Does the continuing presence of his illustrious predecessor, Sir Alex Ferguson, help or hinder him?


Hi, I’m Chloe and this is the Playmaker.

One story every day to make sense of the world of football. 

Today… is it time Sir Alex Ferguson stayed at home to watch Manchester United?


At the beginning of October, Manchester United drew 1-1 at home to Everton. 

“More dropped points at Old Trafford for Manchester United. It’s finished 1-1.”

Manchester United TV

And with the greatest of respect to their opponents that day, it was a match they were expected to win. 

United’s legendary former boss, Sir Alex Ferguson was in attendance at Old Trafford… but that’s nothing unusual. 

Ferguson spoke to a Russian former UFC Champion – Khabib Nurmagomedov – after the match, and revealed that he thought the manager, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, had picked the wrong team.  Cristiano Ronaldo should have started. 

How do we know what was discussed in private?

Well, because it had been secretly recorded and then broadcast to the fighter’s Instagram following of almost 31 million. 

“You should always start with your best player,” Ferguson said.

In fact, former United defender Rio Ferdinand said there was “no way” Ronaldo would’ve even moved to the club in the first place without intervention from their former boss. 

Now in fairness, Ferguson hadn’t intended his views to be shared but his comments were seen as direct criticism of Solskjaer.

“I’m the manager. I manage, I manage the players and I manage for the club… But of course it’s nice to have him on the pitch because he’ll always come up with the goods. And the more we have him on the pitch, the better.”

Manchester United YouTube

And the former boss is more than qualified to give his opinion. He won 13 Premier League titles with the club. That’s not to mention five FA Cups, four League Cups and two Champions League trophies.

He’s still a Man United employee too. He’s the official Global Ambassador for the club and has a seat on the board of directors. 

The only other manager with comparable influence and longevity in the modern English game is Arsene Wenger. He stepped down as manager at Arsenal after 22 years in charge. But unlike Ferguson, he has made a clean break with Arsenal, and instead now works for Fifa.

It’s unlikely Ferguson’s record at United will ever be matched. But is that the problem here? 

Does his shadow at Old Trafford loom too large?

Solskjaer is not the only one to have struggled in the post-Ferguson era.  

True, Man United have won the Europa League, the League Cup and the FA Cup since then but neither the Premier League nor the Champions League – the ones they really want. 

After that disappointing draw with Everton, Solskjaer had time to reflect over the international break. But on Saturday things got worse: his team lost 4-2 at Leicester. United are still backing him. For the moment anyway.

And now Solskjaer faces two extremely difficult home fixtures in a week – the first versus Italy’s Atalanta and the second versus an in-form Liverpool side. 

If that wasn’t pressure enough, as Solskjaer sits in the dugout, puzzling over his choices, he will know that Ferguson will be watching his every move… in a stadium that even has an entire stand named after his legendary mentor.

“Just to have him round with… when we eat, in the restaurant… I’m sure the players if they wonder about something they can… they can ask him. He’s always available for a chat and… ‘cos this is the club in his heart. I have to say, I owe most of my career to him.”

Manchester Evening News

Arguably, history is repeating itself.  When Ferguson himself was struggling at the beginning of his time at United, there were calls for Sir Matt Busby to give him breathing space. 

Busby, of course, had won five league trophies and the European Cup with Man United and was a huge presence… just like Ferguson is now. 

It seems that Ferguson is wired differently to other managers. He said he actually “relished” the challenge of living up to Busby’s reputation when he first arrived at Old Trafford and that things improved for him “once he focused on the future.”

“So for me there was never any… sense of ‘oh, how am I going to do this’, you know? I was more, sort of… inclined to look at the job as I felt I had to leave the job for a challenge.

There’s always that… long process of changing people’s minds. And that’s what my main intent was going to Manchester United. I wasn’t concerned, over concerned about the previous manager, for instance.”

Sir Alex Ferguson in the History of Football – YouTube

But Ferguson had enough steely determination to shrug off those early doubts and the shadow of the club’s former boss… 

Can Solsjkaer pull off the same trick?

Many think that the squad itself is good enough to win trophies. Solskjaer – whose only previous managerial experiences were with Cardiff City and the Norwegian side, Molde – may not be getting the best from his players. 

It can’t be easy to do your job when you’re looking over your shoulder. Former England cricketer Darren Gough can see the difficulties that Ole is having. 

“What did you make of Fergie’s comments? Because they were quite damning weren’t they?”

“Well listen, when he talks, people are going to listen and it’s gonna be news, because he is Sir Alex Ferguson, he’s one of the greatest, if not the greatest ever. I mean simple as that. Coming from a professional er… sporting background which I’ve been lucky enough to do for many, many years and being around and seeing things…it’s very difficult to forget the past.” 


The next two matches at Old Trafford could be critical for Solskjaer’s future at Manchester United. And there’s no doubt that Sir Alex Ferguson will be there this week, watching his every move.

Today’s episode was written by Chloe Beresford, and produced by Tom Kinsella.