EPL Mythbuster: Manchester United are not a sacking club

The club’s owners are actively seeking replacements for David Moyes following a disappointing start to 2014, and he will not be able to take heart from his predecessors’ stories

By Sam Lee

Manchester United are not a sacking club, or so the saying goes. Sir Alex Ferguson certainly shaped everything in his image during his 26 years at Old Trafford, but his reign also appears to have obscured the truth of the preceding years, when managers were often binned at the first sign of trouble.

Just because Ferguson was given time by the United board does not mean they were so accommodating beforehand, or should be in the future.

David Moyes is on shaky ground. After Tuesday’s night’s mini Old Trafford revolt, where some fans heckled Ferguson for his role in appointing Moyes as his successor, and another was thrown out for shouting at the new boss in the dugout, it has emerged that the club are actively searching for alternatives less than a year into his tenure.

But United’s history as a non-sacking club is on his side, right? Perhaps not. Only two managers since World War II have not been sacked: Ferguson and Sir Matt Busby.

Mark Robins’ goal against Nottingham Forest in the 1989-90 FA Cup is widely credited as Ferguson’s saving grace, but it was the bit of luck that evaded his predecessors. Had it not come the Scot could well have been out of a job after a season-and-a-half of below-par football, which was more time than was afforded to many who tried to restore the club to glory following Busby’s retirement.

The obvious example, and perhaps the one most pertinent to Moyes, is that of Wilf McGuinness. McGuinness was 31 when he was promoted from his role as reserve team boss to take over from the great Busby at the end of the 1968-69 season, but after an eighth-placed finish in his first season he was shown the door in the December of his second with the Red Devils 18th in the old First Division.

Busby came back in to steady the ship, before Frank O’Farrell was the second man to get the opportunity to take the club forward. He could not do it. George Best’s days at the top of the sport were coming to an end, and O’Farrell’s approach became unpopular with his players; he eventually asked them to schedule appointments just to speak with him.

His brief reign actually started well, having established a 10-point lead at the top, but the Red Devils crumbled and eventually finished eighth. Having initially given the benefit of the doubt, the United board acted quickly and sacked their man in December 1972 following a 5-0 defeat against Crystal Palace, which left the club second from bottom.

Tommy Docherty came in and rescued the club from relegation, but at the end of that season George Best and Denis Law were moved on and Bobby Charlton retired. ‘The Doc’, without the club’s three biggest names, could not arrest United’s decline and they were relegated in 1973-74.

Docherty, to the board’s credit, was given a chance to rebuild in the second tier, and won promotion as champions. There were no fears of the sack when he took the club to third place and an FA Cup final the following year, and then went one better in 1977 by beating Liverpool in the FA Cup final. But amid a storm of publicity following an extra-marital affair with the wife of United’s physio, he was sacked that July.

Dave Sexton, seen as a necessary safe pair of hands following Docherty’s tumultuous reign, was next in line. He was safe as long as the club were doing well, but when things took a turn for the worse he was out of the door like McGuinness and O’Farrell before him.

Having taken over a club still very much in a state of flux, he survived a 10th-placed finish in his first season, and was in no danger thanks to an FA Cup final appearance in 1979 and a second-placed finish in 1980. But with the club eighth in the First Division table and after dismal showings in the cups, Sexton was given his marching orders amid mounting pressure from fans in April 1981. Less than a full season after finishing second he was gone.

The club again changed their approach and appointed the larger-than-life Ron Atkinson. But Big Ron, too, was given the old heave ho at the first sign of trouble. He was of course free from pressure as the club challenged for the title in 1981-82, and when he secured FA Cup success in 1983 he really got United fans dreaming again. The following season he guided them to the top of the table on several occasions, only to finish fourth, and in 1984-85 he won the FA Cup again, becoming the most successful United manager since Busby.

But patience quickly evaporated. In 1985-86 the club won their first 10 games and went into the New Year top of the table, but they quickly tailed off and supporters became increasingly frustrated at their team’s failure to deliver on their potential. Things deteriorated so quickly there had been reports that Alex Ferguson was ready to come in during the summer of 1986, but Atkinson started the following season in charge. Just a couple of months later, though, he was gone. United were second bottom on November 6, and Atkinson was out on his ear after just a few months of disappointing results.

But what about Ferguson’s four-year period of grace, which many fans cling to these days as they look for reasons to back Moyes? Well Ferguson’s initial campaigns were very promising: he saved the club from relegation in 1986-87 and then secured a second-placed finish in his first full campaign. He came under pressure following an 11th-placed finish in 1989 (‘Three years of excuses and we’re still crap, ta-ra Fergie’ read one infamous Old Trafford banner) and was indeed close to the sack halfway through the following season.

That Robins goal saved Ferguson from the sack at a club which had developed the habit of booting out their managers amid fan pressure and poor results. With the mighty Bayern Munich standing between United and their only chance of a trophy, and with public approval plummeting by the match, where will Moyes’ saving grace come from?

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