The message was as clear as day. The narrative played out in the stands at Old Trafford while Manchester United laboured to a fortunate 2-2 draw with Tottenham Hotspur. Sir Jim Ratcliffe, soon to be ratified as owner of 25% of the Red Devils, sat alongside one of the club’s greatest ever managers; Sir Alex Ferguson.
Perhaps Ratcliffe really is a lifelong United devotee. After all, what Red Devils fan would pass up the opportunity to spend 90 minutes in the company of Ferguson? The INEOS founder is astute enough to appreciate the positive optics of a conference with Sir Alex, too. Many will be reassured to see the man assuming sporting control of the club in conversation with one of United’s greatest coaches.
This was not the only time a member of the new regime has sat with a figure from United’s glorious past. Sir Dave Brailsford, INEOS’ performance director, was seated alongside former chief executive David Gill as United beat Wigan Athletic in the FA Cup last week. Gill and Ferguson’s fruitful partnership brought trophies and prestige to Manchester United. Is it any coincidence that the men charged with leading the club’s next sporting era sat with the architects of the success they hope to emulate?
United pulling on fans’ heartstrings with nods to their trophy-laden history is nothing new. Eric Cantona, David Beckham and Roy Keane have all participated in recent kit launches. The nostalgia stretches to the pitch too. It is hard to see Jonny Evans signing for any other Champions League club on a free, but his previous exploits in Red smoothed the road for his return.
Then there are perhaps the two greatest examples of United’s recent fealty to nostalgia. The first was appointing Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as permanent manager in 2018. The former Molde manager arguably proved himself worthy of the role when he was promoted from interim status, leading United to a runners-up position and a Europa League final during his tenure. But Solskjaer’s only previous Premier League managerial experience was getting Cardiff relegated. Would Chelsea have hired him for one of their multiple interim management tenures? No chance. Ole was appointed because he was a legendary ex-player at Old Trafford.
Then there’s the return of Cristiano Ronaldo in 2021. He played 54 games and scored 27 goals. He was also bought on a Ferguson-encouraged whim to avoid the perceived embarrassment of him playing for Manchester City, who had also targeted him. Hardly the rock-solid foundation to build an important transfer on. Ronaldo’s surprise return likely contributed to Solskjaer’s exit, considering he had spent all summer preparing to play a completely different style of football before having ‘CR7’ foisted on him.
All this serves to demonstrate that simply repeating the past is not enough to replicate the results of history. Football moves too quickly for that. Ferguson is an icon, but is an 82-year-old who last managed a game of professional football a decade ago in a position to advise any more? Is a former chief executive who hasn’t held a club role for 11 years?
Ferguson and Gill can be indulged and advice can be sought and given. But the INEOS hierarchy must be cautious about how it acts on these missives. The sport is almost unrecognisable from the 2012/13 season, when Ferguson and Gill collaborated to bring home what remains United’s last league championship.
United’s history used to be used as a stick to beat Manchester City with. But their blue-clad neighbours have essentially built a new club from the ground up since 2008. A club that has secured six Premier League titles since Ferguson retired, as well as taking one off the Glaswegian in 2011/12. History makes for great documentaries, thrilling books and majestic museum exhibitions. But they don’t hand out league points or trophies for it.
Liverpool are a club with an undeniable history. United’s great rivals for reasons both local and meritorious. They sit second on the all-time league title list with 19, just one behind United’s record 20. But despite their heritage, they don’t seem to lean on their history in quite the same way as United do.
Manager Jurgen Klopp is allowed to operate without interference from a looming Kenny Dalglish. When the German does leave, you sense Steven Gerrard would have to achieve a lot more as a manager before he was given the post. The Liverpool agenda is firmly future-facing, even with a glorious past behind it.
United fans will not appreciate being told their club needs to take hints from City and Liverpool. But there is a reason those two clubs have enjoyed brilliant eras in recent years. Perhaps Ratcliffe and Brailsford should look at their rivals, rather than the past, if they are to enjoy a brighter future.