Tonight, as his – surely chauffeur-driven – car heads down Sir Alex Ferguson Way, he spies the Sir Alex Ferguson statue and takes his seat opposite the Sir Alex Ferguson Stand, one man will have a lot on his mind.
Ferguson was everything to Manchester United for so long that the club were quite right to immortalise him at Old Trafford – the arena in which his successes carved his name in British, European and world football history.
A managerial titan in any era, Ferguson became United and United became Ferguson – the club’s legions of worldwide support devoting themselves to a man who in many cases was the reason why they fell in love with a team often thousands of miles away.
British football embraces the cult of the manager perhaps unlike any other country in which the game is played, and Ferguson sits right up there with the likes of Sir Alf Ramsey, Bill Shankly, Brian Clough and Bob Paisley as the icons we revere.
Yet whilst all of those men were geniuses, none were able to invent the secret to everlasting youth.
Their periods of success all had to come to an end eventually, which made succession planning crucial. Liverpool managed to almost seamlessly replace Shankly with Paisley – a man who didn’t want the job in the first place – but United’s attempt to replace Ferguson looks like it’s going to read ‘tried two, got two wrong’ very soon.
Just as the dark clouds (and in one case, the Grim Reaper) began to gather in the closing days of the David Moyes reign, it would be a huge shock if Louis van Gaal comes back from here, regardless of what happens against Chelsea tonight in front of the watching Ferguson.
Because of everything the Scot achieved and everything he made Manchester United stand for, going winless in seven games and losing four in a row simply cannot be countenanced at Old Trafford, not that events on the pitch are the United board’s biggest concern of course.
That remains money, just as it is at every elite level football club, but with the perfect storm of Ferguson’s socialist roots and United’s corporate acumen now a thing of the past, the money that success generated suddenly looks to be a long way away.
United fans didn’t start supporting Ferguson’s teams because of the money they generated, though.
They supported them because of their ruthless will-to-win, their insatiable appetite for success and their desire to do everything possible to be the best and stay the best.
They didn’t always play the silkiest football – Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, even Newcastle and Tottenham could claim to have had better teams to watch during the Ferguson era – but you knew that they would attack with verve and with energy in pursuit of a goal which they believed was their God-given right. “Can Manchester United score? They always score.”
Above all, what they weren’t was safe. And that, more than anything, should be the word which comes to define Van Gaal’s stormy 18-month tenure at the club.
Picking up the mess left by Moyes, Van Gaal decided that playing it safe was United’s best route back into the Champions League and beyond, and for a while he was right.
The Dutchman’s 2014/15 was far from perfect, but given the problems at Liverpool, Tottenham and Everton – who had all finished above United the previous season – he was able to muddle his way into the top four.
Given the outlay on expensive, attacking talents like Angel Di Maria, Ander Herrera and of course Radamel Falcao, you got the impression that the United board were almost willing Van Gaal to be a bit more daring and to at least try and get fans out of those expensively purchased seats. Yet it never happened, and what began to fester last season has just plain gone off in 2015/16.
As he reminded us recently, United were indeed top of the table a month ago, and being just nine points off the summit going into Monday’s fixtures isn’t really that bad given how crazy the season has been, but they have become the division’s dullards.
They are that colleague who never comes out for a drink after work, the driver who stays in the left-hand lane of the motorway, the friend who goes on the same holiday year after year.
They are playing it safe, and whilst that could very easily earn them a top-four place and the riches that brings, it shouldn’t be what Manchester United stand for.
It wasn’t what Ferguson stood for. Something which might well cross that famous mind tonight.
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