Sir Alex Ferguson will wave and smile as he makes an emotional return to the Old Trafford dug-out this afternoon for a match to mark the 20th anniversary of his finest hour as Manchester United manager — the 1999 Champions League final victory against Bayern Munich which completed a historic Treble.
But behind the backslaps and bonhomie, those closest to arguably the greatest figure ever seen in British football will know the 77-year-old’s appearance will be tinged with sadness and a sense of hurt that the club he helped to establish no longer calls on his counsel.
The general perception is that after six years of decline since Ferguson’s retirement in 2013, Manchester United’s decision to appoint ’99 hero Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as manager had the hand of Fergie all over it, and that the knight of the realm is once again a strategic player at Old Trafford.
The truth is a little different. Like Gary Neville, whose anti-Ed Woodward pronouncements on television are frequent and heartfelt, Ferguson believes it’s the duty of a club like Manchester United to try to get the very best available, in this instance Tottenham’s Mauricio Pochettino.
While holding nothing against Solskjaer, someone Ferguson has met a couple of times for coffee near his home in Wilmslow, the truth is the pair are not as close as the image. Indeed, Ferguson has increasingly felt isolated and out of touch with what has happened at United since he left.
While, mercifully, he has recovered far better than expected from a brain haemorrhage and subsequent emergency surgery in 2018, there are some consequences in Ferguson’s life that have made him less independent, like not being able to drive.
He never wanted to be a back-seat driver at United — he knew all about the problems the club faced post-Sir Matt Busby — but there is a frustration that his advice is rarely sought.
The powerbrokers Woodward, Richard Arnold and Matt Judge never pick up the phone.
Solskjaer will make an effort to pop in to say hello on matchdays as Ferguson relaxes in one of the corporate lounges, but won’t seek him out to ask for guidance about players or philosophy.
These days Ferguson, who won 38 trophies at United between 1986 and 2013 and has a stand named after him at Old Trafford, relies on scraps of information passed on by his friend Mike Phelan, who has returned to the club and is now Solskjaer’s assistant manager.
‘Sir Alex feels conflicted. He can see the irony that he still spends time thinking about United when he’s retired. But he loves the club and does feel a bit hurt that his opinion is never sought,’ says a close confidant from the League Managers’ Association.
‘He knows he’s not in charge any more but it would still be nice for him to be asked.’
Ferguson appreciates the naming of the stand and the way he is looked after on matchdays, home and away. He would never rock the boat publicly or talk anyone down, after all his parting shot to the United supporters was: ‘Your job is to stand by our new manager.’
That was referring to David Moyes and since then Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho and now Solskjaer have also been tried without United getting anywhere near adding to Ferguson’s 13 Premier League titles. They finished sixth this season, 32 points behind Manchester City.
Neville has often made it clear where he thinks most of the blame lies. ‘I think they should shift the people who are in charge of the club back to the business of the club, back down to London.’
Ferguson would agree. He is privately sceptical about the club’s worldwide scouting network, believing too many cooks spoil the broth and that it ends up with compromise buys, like £52million Fred from Shakhtar Donetsk.
One thing that makes the Glaswegian particularly upset is the notion that he somehow sowed the seeds for United’s decline by leaving a poor squad behind in 2013.
He would vehemently argue otherwise. Not only were United champions by 11 points in his final season, he also bequeathed the club a raw youngster he believed could spearhead the next generation, Wilfried Zaha from Crystal Palace for £15million. He also believed Wayne Rooney was past his best and the club should cash in with Chelsea’s £50m offer and United should use the money to rebuild, as he always had in the past when Mark Hughes, David Beckham and Roy Keane all left at the right time.
Instead, Moyes and Woodward ripped up the Fergie rulebook from day one. Phelan, who had worked alongside Ferguson, was sent away. Zaha was ignored by Moyes who picked Adnan Januzaj as the better prospect — a judgment not borne out by history with Zaha’s current transfer valuation four times what Fergie paid for him.
Rather than thanking Rooney for his services and packing his bags, United’s new leaders gave him a £70m contract which starved them of valuable funds in other areas.
Ferguson will love being the centre of attention again at Old Trafford today, back in the dressing-room and the dug-out with Peter Schmeichel, David Beckham, Andy Cole and the other ’99 heroes for their reunion game against Bayern.
But after that it will be back home to Wilmslow, catching up with the latest club news on MUTV and waiting for the phone to ring.Daily Mail