Gary Neville’s move into management was hardly a great surprise as we can safely assume he fashioned a dug-out from Lego as a small child.
Some ex-players take their badges is a means to an end – an opportunity to stay inside the football bubble for a few years more – but for others it is an inevitable tug and two decades of rodenty snarling down the Manchester United right and four years as a respected analyst on Sky were always thoroughfares to this: his destiny calling.
What did jolt was the destination and timing and with everybody caught on the hop a plethora of thinkpieces swiftly emerged on GNev’s decision to don a Valencia tracksuit and circumnavigate the language barrier by pointing a lot.
The amount of coverage the news received was entirely understandable. Here was Britain’s foremost pundit taking on the unlikely challenge of coaching a team oversees and intriguingly with his younger brother to assist him. All newsworthy and above board so far.
What followed in the media slipstream however was a depressing continuation of a servile myth: that Sir Alex Ferguson’s 27 years at Old Trafford was a hothouse that propagated an incredible crop of managerial talent. It’s a well-worn line the press love to trot out in light of any former United player making such a switch and, like many traits attributed to Ferguson, it is an exaggeration that borders on a whopper.
The implication is that not only did the Dark Lord build a formidable dynasty during his long reign but – with benevolence and guidance – is responsible for outposts of that dynasty taking root across the globe from Porthmadog to Thailand. Or, to put in in racing terms that he would probably approve of, the stud not only won the National and Derby but went on to sire a stable of thoroughbreds.
The facts however debunk this, or at least debunks the notion that any special alchemy was accrued from being on the receiving end of one of his hairdryer treatments.
During nearly three decades in charge at United Ferguson used 288 players. 29 of them went on to manage though this figure in itself is a generous stretch as it includes Ryan Giggs (interim player-manager for six games), Paul Parker (gaffer at the mighty Welling), Henrik Larsson (a loanee at United for 7 games), and Clayton Blackmore (whose managerial CV reads Bangor and the aforementioned Porthmadog).
But let’s be generous. Because we can afford to be.
So that amounts to 14% of Alex Ferguson’s prodigies stepping into the technical area. Or just shy of one in seven.
This seems like a perfectly reasonable and normal figure to me. Pick any seven players from today at random and we can confidently assume at least one will go into management at some level.
To compare and contrast here Arsene Wenger has been at Arsenal for 18 years and so far 17 of his former charges have stepped into management. He is very much on target to at least match his retired rival yet a search on Google sourced precisely one article on the Frenchman’s legacy. With Ferguson I stopped counting after five pages.
Regardless, the figures are not nearly the half of it because like any considerate girlfriend will say with feigned sincerity it is not quantity that counts anyway but quality.
It is here that Ferguson’s heritage comes royally unstuck with a litany of also-rans who limp from one job to another on reputation alone. Bryan Robson. Paul Ince. Roy Keane. Mark Hughes. Would you like any of these managing your club? No put those scissors down, it’s just a hypothetical. And these are just the behemoths. Remember the hype that surrounded Ferguson’s star pupil Ole Gunnar Solskjaer taking up the reins at Cardiff? A flailing disaster doesn’t quite cover it.
Going through the list only two names jump out who are worthy of kudos which equates to a pitiful percentage. Steve Bruce and Gordon Strachan. It is notable that the latter has spent many a year bristling and railing against his supposed mentor’s ways.
The truth is that in addition to his unparalleled achievements in the game Fergie does deserve some extra credit in this area. But for precisely the opposite reasons than a beholden media lavish upon him.
He was unique. A sui generis force of nature that is impossible to replicate. This explains too why more top managers came through under Fagan and Paisley than Shankly during Liverpool’s era of dominance.
There is an unquantifiable amount to praise Sir Alex Ferguson for. Why do the press have to throw in a fallacy too?
But back to Gary Neville. I am not alone is thinking that he will carve out a very successful career as a coach and presumably implement many things he has learned at the knee of Ferguson along the way. Which would make a first.