Two UEFA Champions Leagues trophies in three years. Three domestic titles on the bounce in the same period. Throw in a couple of FIFA World Club Cups, a Copa del Rey here and a few Spanish Supercopas there. Club Futbol Barcelona have recently dominated the world game in every respect, also boasting the world’s best player for the last three years. So what if they have been dumped out of the Champions League and dethroned as champions in the domestic league? With a team hailed by many as one of the greatest ever, they will simply dust themselves and come back all guns blazing next year. And those unlucky enough to be in their way can do nothing but cross themselves and hope for the best. Right?
One tiny problem though. The mastermind of their recent success has announced he won’t be there to lead what would normally be an assault on all fronts next year. The club have stuck close to home in appointing Guardiola’s successor. Pep’s assistant and buddy since their days at La Masia, Tito Villanova, will be entrusted with football’s crown jewels next season. It’s not hard to follow the club’s line of reasoning in choosing him. He has got the Barcelona DNA, worked closely with the players for a number of years and will likely not stray from Pep’s model, the Barca model. Guardiola is a tough act to follow and how well Tito will fare is anyone’s guess. What is clear is this: Villanova and whoever follows will find it difficult to replicate the success of the Guardiola years. They were four glorious years. And sometimes, four years make an era. Might it be the end for this particular Barcelona side? We’ll just have to wait and see.
Elsewhere, in England’s north-west, another era is slowly drawing to a close. Sir Alex Ferguson has been at Manchester United longer than this writer has walked the face of the earth. His success rate in terms of trophies might not be as impressive as Guardiola’s but that is only to be expected when one has been in charge for a quarter of a century. Lots of United fans will struggle to remember a time without Fergie. Many others have simply never known one. All accustomed to the sweet taste of success brewed by the Scot. Nelly Furtado will have them know that all good things come to an end. On the bright side, the club have three years to plan for the future if Sir Alex is to be believed. The man himself will play a key part in anointing his successor. There is no margin for error. The future of the club may depend on it. Just look at Liverpool.
United’s next manager has got his work cut out for him. Impressive as the club’s yearly financials may be, it is saddled with debt. The revenue stream Champions League qualification guarantees is crucial. Constantly making it to the business end of that competition will also go some way in maintaining the club’s place as the richest in the world. The fans expect the league title every year and of course, league positions determine television money earned the following year. It is also essential that the manager can attract the world’s best players (to the extent that Real Madrid and Barcelona allow, of course). The supporters want to watch them play for entertainment value. They also sell lots of shirts and merchandise. What’s all this talk of money, you say? On to the football side of things then.
Having celebrated twelve league wins under Ferguson since the breakthrough year of ’93, most of them won playing entertaining and attacking football, the fans are unlikely to settle for less. And why should they? Giggs, Cantona, Paul Scholes and Cristiano Ronaldo have all strutted their stuff on the Old Trafford turf. Before them, and before Ferguson, there was the fabled trinity of Charlton, Best and Law. Before Leo Messi’s sixty goal season redefined the term ‘prolific’, Ruud Van Nistelrooy once fired in forty four goals in all competitions and CR7 in his Old Trafford incarnation scored forty-two, both in title winning seasons. The Premier League record for goals scored was broken in 2000 and held for ten years when Yorke and co netted ninety seven times. In short, goals have rarely been in short supply at Old Trafford. The fans demand them. They are a currency the next manager must deal in.
One of Sir Alex’s greatest legacies is the famous class of ’92- the Fergie Fledglings. Before them were the Busby Babes – a lot of talent from that pool tragically cut short. Ryan Giggs broke into the first team ahead of Becks and co. He is now the most decorated player in Premier League history having won twelve league titles. Beckham and Butt have since moved on, Neville retired. Giggs and Scholes still remain; still relevant. Those two have played football to the highest of standards for the better part of twenty years, a remarkable achievement and one of which the club and Ferguson can be proud. It must however be a source of concern that the club is still so reliant on those two. In particular, no player to emerge from the club’s youth ranks has come close to matching their quality. Darren Fletcher and Wes Brown, good players that they are, merely represent the best of the rest. Danny Welbeck and Tom Cleverley are the latest to come through and may yet make their mark. Ravel Morrison, hailed as the best talent Old Trafford has seen since Scholes has regrettably moved on. And though many expect Ryan Tunnicliffe to break into the first team in the future, a youth system on which so much is spent should deliver far more than it has. Supporters around the world love few things more than a good home grown talent, and with the new Premier League and European rules encouraging their use, they must be nurtured and allowed to flourish.
These are the parameters for success for the next United boss, whoever he may be. Nothing less will be accepted. While many supporters can be placated with a League Cup win every few years, that is not the case for those who bleed the red of United. The history and tradition of the club dictate that much more is expected. Just as more is expected at Milan, at Barcelona and the great European clubs, and this history must be respected as it is the true barometer of a club’s pedigree.
While respecting this history, new chapters must be written. Chapters worthy of the past, and perhaps surpassing them.
Manchester City are the biggest domestic threat for the forseeable future. Just fending them off to maintain domestic dominance would be a huge fit for any manager. In spite of all his success, Sir Alex will forever have one regret however, and that is not getting closer to Real Madrid’s nine European Cup triumphs. Or Milan’s seven. Liverpool may have been knocked off their perch domestically speaking but they are still the most successful British team on the continent.That is the ultimate challenge for United. It was one Guardiola accepted with relish, surpassing all expectation. It is the benchmark his Barcelona side set that United, and all others, must aspire to.
— Adebayo Fagbola