The undoubted current doyens of English football are edging closer and closer to their retirement. This sounds like a massively reactionary statement, but all it really means is they are certainly passed the half way point in the current managerial roles. Whilst nether Sir Alex Ferguson or Arsene Wenger seem likely to leave Manchester United or Arsenal at the end of the season, or even the next, (though I have a sneaking suspicion another European Cup and a lead over Liverpool in the title standings would give Ferguson serious consideration) it’s a cert neither will be in their jobs in 10 years time, as they were 10 years ago. So my point is less about them leaving, and more about them preparing for the day when they eventually do.
Both seem to have a high degree of job security. Wenger is under some pressure at Arsenal, and the longer they go without winning a trophy, the less secure his position will be, some fans are already turning, but the board seem right behind him, even if he did get a massively inappropriate grilling from the prawn sandwich shareholders last season. Ferguson’s job isn’t even in question, he could probably stay at United for another 15 years and no one would even raise the issue. So with this level of security, all be it one more than the other, the chance of grooming a successor, rather than simply making way for one, is a significantly important perk of their situation.
Both men care deeply about their clubs, it’s history and it’s players. Both men have instilled a style and way of doing things that they would not want to see treacherously ignored or casually jettisoned. Ferguson may have followed an established ethos at United, but he has certainly cemented it, to the extent that he, and not Matt Busby, will most likely be remembered as the single greatest emblem of the club. Wenger positively revolutionized his club. Known to a generation of fans as “boring boring Arsenal” under George Graham, the fluid ground strokes football he instilled in a side that still contained the core of Graham’s success in the late 90s was his greatest and most profound achievement. To see that go to waste, or revert to an earlier type would be a crime of the highest order.
The kind of transition made at Barcelona, where Pep Guardiola rose from Youth Coach under Frank Rijkaard to not only supplant but exceed his achievements in both success and ethos is the preferred template. The circumstances would be markedly different of course with Guardiola being groomed by the board and not the manager himself, but the general idea of promoting from within would be the course preferred by both. Both wield far greater power in the English set up than anyone in the rather haphazard world of Spanish football management. Their assistants, Pat Rice and Mike Phelan, are clearly, with the greatest respect, not up to the job, and despite Ferguson’s admiration for Phelan’s predecessor Carlos Quieroz, his track record and not particularly popular status amongst the fans would also rule him out. So it’s at youth level, a level both managers, maybe more so than any others, find incredibly important, that they’ll likely look for their heirs. Two possibilities lie in two former players and students. Steve Bould heads the Arsenal Academy, while Ole Gunnar Solskjaer manages the United Reserve Team. Could these 2 be being groomed as future first team coaches? Neil Banfied coaches the Arsenal Reserves but with no profile he’d be a controversial choice. However he has managed at almost all levels at the Gunners, winning two FA Youth Cups and a League at U-17 and U-19 levels in his time with the Academy. A good track record certainly, but could he step up? Keeping with the “all in the family” tradition upheld by both clubs, Paul McGuinness, son of former United player and manager Wilf, heads United’s Academy. He would surely be a high risk option with the departure of Ferguson requiring at least a vaguely recognised name to fill the gaping void.
And this is where the problem may arise, because following these men will be a massive job. In Ferguson’s case, possibly the hardest and most daunting job in English football history, and the desire of the boardroom brigade to fill it with a big name, or a manager who’ll seemingly guarantee an instant return will be strong. Jose Mourinho has been mooted frequently in regards to the United job, but concerns over his pragmatic approach still linger. Another option for United would be the return of a former pupil with managerial experience elsewhere. But could Hughes, Bruce, Keane, Robson et all really handle life in the Old Trafford hot seat with their reputations? Laurent Blanc at Bordeaux looks an excellent young manager, and one with an emphasis on youth and speed. He seems the best of that bunch so far, but has he got Fergie’s seal of approval?
Whoever does take over from these titans of the English game is going to find it tough, so it would stand to reason they start to ready themselves now. If either manager has a long-term plan, they should start prepping their successors soon, and who knows, maybe they already are?