Did he have the credentials to succeed at Old Trafford?


The dust is beginning to settle after the controversial release of Sir Alex Ferguson’s My Autobiography, and recent results suggest that Manchester United has escaped the media storm brought on by the former manager with minor difficulties. Yet, just as we are forgetting about the uproar caused by Fergie, another autobiography containing revelations about the Red Devils and the knighted Scot himself hits the shelves. Albeit, one less likely to have a significant impact on Manchester United’s campaign.

Tuesday November 5th will see former England manager Sven Göran Eriksson release his latest book My Story. This may not seem to concern United at first, but an in an extract printed in the Mail on Sunday, Eriksson reveals that he was in line to take the helm at Old Trafford. In fact, the deal was as good as done.

“I knew it would be tricky. I had a contract with England until the 2006 World Cup and I would be severely criticised if I broke that contract. But this was an opportunity to manage Manchester United. A contract was signed – I was United’s new manager,” writes the Swede.

This begs for an interesting thought experiment – where would Manchester United be right now if Fergie had indeed stepped down and left the club in the hands of the worst hairline in world football?

United’s decision to hire Eriksson at the time is understandable. Fergie announced in the early stages of the 2001-02 season that he would end his managerial career after one last conquest, and the board was searching Europe for a worthy successor. ‘Svennis’ had just been appointed the England manager, and would lead the Three Lions in the 2002 World Cup in South Korea. His club record was among the European elite back then. Following successful spells at IFK Göteborg, Benfica, Roma, Fiorentina and Sampdoria, he went on to manage Lazio into the peak of their existence.

With the Swede in the hot-seat, I Biancocelesti became a leading force in Italian football. In 2000 they brought home only the second Scudetto in the club’s history, and Eriksson won two Coppa Italias and two Supercoppas. After winning the UEFA cup winner’s cup in 1999 they came up against Fergie’s treble winning Man United in the Super cup – and won. Needless to say, Svennis deserved the admiration from Old Trafford – at the time.

This is, however, where the successful story of Sven Göran Eriksson ends. He took Three Lions to a valiant 3-1 semi-final defeat to eventual world champions Brazil, but since then, England have failed to make a real impact on international football, despite the so-called golden generation all reaching the peaks of their careers. In hindsight, Man United fans can look back at the club’s Svennis dodge blissfully aware that this might be the single most important incident of the recent success.

So let’s pretend that Eriksson did step into the void left by Sir Alex in 2002, and attempted to recreate his title-winning traditions. He would doubtless had taken over a strong team. A team that where only narrowly beaten 6-5 over two legs by the Real Madrid Galacticos, in the quarter final of the Champions League. However, they where approaching the biggest transition in Manchester United’s modern era. The trophy less period between 2003 and 2007 saw Fergie patiently nurturing the emerging talents of players like Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo. Had the same period been directed by Mr Eriksson, I doubt it would produce a pay-off of five Premier League titles, one FA cup title and a Champions League win.

Svennis did have a brief managerial spell in the premiership eventually, though, with the Red Devils’ neighboring rivals Manchester City. Despite spending big on summer transfers and having promising start to the 2008-09 season, the Blues failed to show any form of consistency, and finished ninth. This suggests that Svennis struggle with the unforgiving nature of the Premier League. No other top flight is as demanding in that respect. There are no easy games, and if your team is incapable of performing on a weekly basis, a host of points will be dropped. In spite of an impressive record prior to his England spell, Eriksson is not the top drawer appointment Manchester United were looking for at the time.

Since 2008 he has drifted across continents, spending brief periods at Notts County and Leicester in the lower English leagues, and having short appointments with the Mexican and Ivory Coast international teams, never staying put for a full season. Is there one thing Manchester United emphasized in their search for a Fergie successor, it was the prospect of finding a subject capable of producing another 20-year reign of dominance.

Now Svennis has migrated to China in order to manage Super League side Guangzhou R&F. Only thinking about the potential damage his appointment could have had, and was close to having, for the club will send violent chills down many a Man United fan’s spine. As so many times through his 26-year reign at United, Fergie got it right in his decision to stay another decade.