AS U-TURNS go, Sir Alex Ferguson’s announcement that he will ascend to the Manchester United boardroom once he’s finally tired of his club’s annual joust for the Premier League title is not exactly earth-shattering, but it is certainly very interesting.
In the past he had firmly rejected such a course of action, citing Sir Matt Busby’s disastrous move upstairs in 1969, when he perched like an avenging angel in the Old Trafford rafters, cowing his young successor Wilf McGuinness to the extent that, despite three semi-finals and an eighth-place finish (compared to 11th the previous year), McGuinness was sacked by United in December 1970 and temporarily replaced by Busby.
If Ferguson’s announcement that he will rise to blazerdom was a surprise, it was no coincidence. It is, after all, little more than a fortnight since Jose Mourinho confirmed that when he leaves Real Madrid – almost certainly at the end of the season after three fractious years at the Bernabeu – his next port of call will be English football. “After Real Madrid, I love everything about English football. When [will I come]? We will see. Normally, it will be my next step.”
Although Mourinho played down the chances of him coming to Old Trafford if Ferguson does indeed retire next year, saying that he believed the 71-year-old would go on “until he is 90”, Ferguson is taking no chances. Like Busby, the Scot guards his legacy with particular jealously, and the idea of him simply sitting idly by while The Special One uses the team Ferguson forged to win a Champions League title with a record third (or even fourth) club is unlikely to be how Britain’s greatest ever manager plans to spend his dotage.
More likely, despite Mourinho’s monumental fallout with Roman Abramovich in September 2007, is that the Portuguese may be heading back to West London if he can secure a guarantee of control over playing matters, which would explain why he has been house-hunting in the English capital. It would be a marriage of convenience, but there is no denying that it would serve both men well. After firing nine managers in ten years, Chelsea’s billionaire owner has run out of Galactico managers willing to come to Stamford Bridge. Rumours continue of a courtship of Juve’s Antonio Conte but, after polite rebuffs from the likes of Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp, Chelsea’s choice will be between Mourinho and a bevy of promising managers such as David Moyes, Michael Laudrup, Gustavo Poyet and Gianfranco Zola, who have yet to be proven at the very highest level. Fabio Capello and Mauricio Pellegrino have also been linked with the job.
Despite comprehensively puncturing Barca’s bubble during the Clasico confrontations, Mourinho has also seen his options shrink. Spain and Italy are no longer options, while Paris St Germain are said to have rejected overtures from his go-between Jorge Mendes. Manchester City remain an option, but few at Arsenal have forgotten his description of Arsene Wenger as a “voyeur” with a big telescope “to see what happens in other families” and he is a poor fit for the club’s profit-focused owner. Whatever happens, Mourinho is a short-odds favourite to be managing in English football next year, meaning he would be challenging Ferguson in what could be the Scot’s last season as a manager. With Abramovich’s financial muscle, he might even be able to fight Ferguson for Ronaldo, the player who United covet above all others.
It is a fascinating backdrop to a beautifully poised Champions League tie on Tuesday, one in which both sides are at their best. United, having scored an away goal in the 1-1 draw in Madrid, are closing in on the league and have all their players fit. Real are coming off the back of a technically superb 3-1 counterattacking win over Barca in the Copa Del Rey semi-final at the Nou Camp. But, with the Spanish league all but won by their greatest rivals, Mourinho rested several of his best players for yesterday’s Clasico at the Bernebeu in preparation for the trip to Manchester. And what a trip it will be. Ferguson believes this is the best squad he has ever had, while after a year characterised by some dismal performances and painfully public bouts of savage infighting with his players, Mourinho’s Real are coming on strong, with Ronaldo’s form so compelling that Real have become an almost irresistible force.
Both managers have reached the stage where their legacy is of vital importance to them. Ferguson makes little secret of the fact that he is desperate to capture a third Champions League trophy, while Mourinho would become the first manager to win the competition with three different clubs if he can deliver Real a tenth European title, having already won the tournament with Porto and Inter Milan. Setting a record that would probably never be beaten is a potent driving force for the Portuguese. It is, he says, “my destiny. Some great clubs and managers have never won this [tournament], but I have won two and will strive to win my third until it comes. If this year, good, if not, next year.”
That quote gives a good insight into why this week’s game has such an edge. Thanks to their effusive public compliments to each other, there is a widespread view that Ferguson and Mourinho are buddies, brought together by a love of fine wine and a shared animosity towards Arsene Wenger. It is a good act but it is a fiction. Mourinho’s fist-pumping touchline slide at Old Trafford in 2004 didn’t endear him to Ferguson, and nor did his oft-repeated adage about having built a winning side on a tenth of the budget enjoyed by the United manager. As Sir Bobby Charlton said of Ferguson in an unguarded moment when told that the two managers shared a bond of mutual respect: “He doesn’t like him too much, though.” In fact the only thing that unites these two managers is an almost palpable desperation to emerge victorious on Tuesday, which guarantees one disappointed managerial buddy.