In May 2002 Sir Alex duly departed and it was Sven Goran Eriksson – after several clandestine meetings with United – who left England to take the reins, installing Tord Grip and Ulrika Johnson as his backroom staff. In his first year, he took United to the heady heights of 9th, proclaiming his maiden season to be “quite good”. That summer, he sold Ruud Van Nistelrooy to Swedish side Malmo, and used the £5 million to sign Darius Vassell, Emile Heskey and Danny Mills. In the next season, the new signings helped a ragged United team avoid relegation on the final day with a scrappy 0-0 at Middlesborough, while a smiling Sven pondered a secret job offer from the United Arab Emirates. Eventually turning it down because of unsatisfactory wages, he declared his loyalty to United and vowed to improve. As the new season approached, following Newcastle’s interest, he considered signing Wayne Rooney from Everton but instead plumped for Kieron Dyer, describing him as an “excellent player who can do a bit of everything”.
It’s OK, it didn’t happen. That sliding-doors nightmare was averted. After shrewd promptings from his wife Cathy, in February 2002 Sir Alex belatedly realised his passion and energy were a long way from fading, and he performed a swift U-turn, slamming the door shut on Sven and causing the smile to drop from Dwight Yorke’s face for the first time in three years (he was sold to Blackburn later that summer).
It is difficult to imagine if Sir Alex had actually left at that time. He has since won five more league titles, the FA cup, and three league cups. We have enjoyed another Champions league success, and had two further finals against the mesmerising brilliance of Barcelona. He has built great teams in the last decade, underlined by the fact he would have never have managed Ronaldo, Ferdinand, Vidic or Van Der Sar. It was pre-Rooney too. He would have missed out tangling with and ultimately defeating Mourinho. He would have not have been able to oversee Arsene Wenger gradually transform from winner to whinger. And he really wouldn’t have wanted to miss those noisy neighbours….
Now here we are, more than ten years later. A decade on from his original retirement date and the fire still burns bright, the winning desire remorseless, and the hairdryer still has more settings than most players would like. He has since admitted his mistake in 2001 of announcing his retirement in advance, causing a negative impact on the players and his ability to impose discipline. In his words, it was “an absolute disaster”. The next time – the final time – it will be sudden and unexpected. Out of the blue, one day we’ll see the headline spurting across the yellow ticker at the bottom of Sky Sports News, while Jim White nearly combusts with excitement. One of those pieces of news that make you stop and stare, like when Eric Cantona abruptly (and prematurely) quit the game in May 1997. Though we probably saw that on Ceefax.
Like many of us, I hope that particular stop and stare moment is a long way off. Sir Alex has confirmed he will continue as long as he maintains his health, and it’s costing me a fortune sending him vitamins and cod liver oil in the post, but it’s worth it. Yes, there are decisions he makes I don’t always agree with, and I sometimes wish he would make substitutions ten minutes or so earlier than he does, but that would be the case with any manager. That’s football. What cannot be doubted is the man is a genius, and we are indebted to him for our continued success.
My friend, who supports Liverpool when they’re doing (relatively) well, cannot wait for his retirement, convinced United will fall apart like…well, like Liverpool. His hope is futile but in reality Sir Alex’s departure is unlikely to be too far in the future. The latest speculation is that it will either be at the end of this or next season. Although if that’s based on a ‘United source’, I think we can treat it with a crate of salt.
Of course, the very fact his reign will end at some point leads to all manner of speculation. There’s been dozens of rumours in the press over the years. Football phone-ins occasionally cover the topic, and most United forums are bursting to the seams with ideas. I always think we should talk in hushed tones when debating his eventual replacement, like discussing the arrangements for grandfather’s funeral whilst he is still sat in the corner sucking on a Worther’s Original.
My main gripe with this, though, is that it feels fairly pointless. The timing of his exit is everything. Football is so ever-changing and dynamic that a hero this week can be vilified the next, a truism that has only increased in recent years with even greater media scrutiny, while public opinion is more readily influenced by social networks. Consider some of the names that have been touted as possible successors to Sir Alex over the years. Steve Bruce, Roy Keane, Gordon Strachan, Alex McLeish, Bryan Robson. Sven. It’s fair to say their suitability for the role has crumpled to sand at some point in the last decade. In fact, their names now seem absurd.
Of those that have been linked, three candidates remain credible – David Moyes, Jose Mourinho, and Pep Guardiola (assuming he resists Chelsea and City desperately batting their eyelids at him). There are a host of other suitable candidates of course – Jurgen Klopp being one example – but we should be cautious of pinning our hopes on someone whose career could have nose-dived by the time Sir Alex decides to cash in on his richly deserved retirement.
My feeling is just let it go. When the times comes, let the speculation commence with zest and zeal. We can all have our say. Until then, let’s just enjoy the fact we are under the stewardship of perhaps the greatest manager this country has seen, and hope for several more successful years with him at the helm. I, for one, want to see that stumbling arms-in-the-air goal celebration for a good while yet.