It was a few months into David Moyes's ill-fated reign at Manchester United, and with results in freefall and the dressing room in mutiny, Patrice Evra decided to go to see the only man he knew who could fix things.
"Boss, you have to help David," he pleaded with Alex Ferguson on a visit to his home in Cheshire.
Ferguson refused. “I’ve given him the biggest chance of his life,” he said. “I think it’s fair that I keep a distance and let him do his job.”
Perhaps the most interesting thing about this vignette – related in Evra’s recent autobiography – is its casualness. The fact Evra still referred to Ferguson as “boss”, or saw nothing remotely untoward in the fact he was going behind the back of his manager to appeal to his predecessor (and to do what, exactly?).
The fact Ferguson still regarded Moyes’s position as his own personal bequest. As things turned out, Moyes would not be the last United manager to learn that even when you have ascended to one of the biggest jobs in club football, you still answer to a higher power.
Ole Gunnar Solskjær has never made any secret of his reverence for his former manager. Pretty much from the moment he took over as caretaker he made it clear he intended to re-establish the Ferguson blueprint, piece by piece. He restored Ferguson's beloved quiz nights. He ordered players to wear club suits before matches, as they had done in the Ferguson era. He brought Ferguson's former assistant Mike Phelan back on to the coaching staff. He even refused to park his car in Ferguson's old parking space at Carrington out of respect. "It just doesn't feel right parking there," he is reported to have told colleagues. "It's still the gaffer's place."
And yet in recent weeks, as results have taken a downturn and his future at United has come under increasing scrutiny, Solskjær has discovered that positing oneself as the heir to Ferguson comes with pitfalls as well as benefits, particularly when the man himself is still hanging around the joint.
Glowering in the stands
This month a video emerged of Ferguson criticising Solskjær's decision to drop Cristiano Ronaldo for the game against Everton. "You should always start your best player," Ferguson tells the former cage fighter Khabib Nurmagomedov. Then, during the 5-0 defeat against Liverpool last Sunday, came the face that launched a thousand memes. Glowering up in the Old Trafford stands, Ferguson was unimpressed with what he was watching and seemed not to care who knew it.
On Tuesday, Ferguson made a rare appearance at the training ground. It is not known which parking space he used. Nevertheless, his presence itself was riotously open to interpretation: a show of support for Solskjær or an ominous sign, depending on which news website you read.
Within hours the club’s communications department had kicked into action, briefing friendly journalists that Ferguson’s visit was no more than a “suit fitting”. Partly, of course, there is an element of media mischief to all this.
Equally, however, there is something essentially quite weird about the extent to which this global super-club still appear to be in thrall to a retired 79-year-old man who hasn't coached a football team in almost a decade. It's also a situation without any real precedent. Naturally Matt Busby at United and Bill Shankly at Liverpool continued to wield influence and cast a shadow on their successors long after they stepped down. But at least they weren't having their reaction filmed every time Liverpool or United conceded a goal.
Officially, Ferguson is a club ambassador and a much-loved legend. Unofficially, he appears to be a sort of manager emeritus: his counsel keenly sought, his blessing greatly valued, his every utterance consecrated as if it were the word of the divine. This is a veneration that goes beyond simply celebrating and respecting the achievements of your greatest manager. Underpinning the enduring cult of Ferguson is the essentialist idea that his greatness can be bestowed by his presence alone. That the attributes and traits that made him such a brilliant coach can somehow be transmitted without him giving a single team talk or picking a single squad.
For a club struggling to match up their past with their future, desperate for short-term success and tiring of long-term promises, Fergusonism has an easy appeal. The logic goes something like this: Ferguson was the best coach, and United were the best team, and so all you have to do is crack the code to the Ferguson genome (or “United DNA”, as Solskjær so touchingly terms it), and world domination will inevitably follow.
In a way, each of United’s past four managerial appointments has been an attempt to reanimate Ferguson in a different bodily form. Solskjær was an effort to recreate the spirit and attacking ethos of the Ferguson era; José Mourinho the pragmatism and laser-focus on trophies; Louis van Gaal the schoolmasterly arrogance and magnetic personality; Moyes the Scottish work ethic. The result: three trophies in eight years. A possible conclusion: that your one-off genius was, in fact, a one-off genius.
United’s Rosetta stone
And yet for many supporters, and even members of the club hierarchy, Fergusonism remains an article of faith, a reference point, United’s Rosetta stone, unquestioned and unquestionable. Naturally it is an impression the man himself has done little to deter, building his leadership brand to the tune of two books, an acclaimed documentary film and a teaching post at Harvard. Meanwhile, former United players in the media – many of whom knew little else but Ferguson – espouse his teachings as if they were universal truths, rather than a particular approach to a particular situation at a particular time.
Fergusonism is why United should always play with wingers. Fergusonism is why the ultimate responsibility always lies with the players. Fergusonism is why all managers deserve time, however bad things get. But what if everyone’s been doing it wrong? What if the real lesson of the Ferguson era was that in order to drive real change you need an apostate, a young visionary prepared to sweep everything away and build a club along new principles, from the academy upwards?
By now, we have probably all come to our own conclusion about whether Solskjær can be that man. In the meantime, it is probably worth reflecting on just what this drifting club need right now.
Never have United felt more in need of a clean break, a fresh start, a cultural reset, a new idea. Instead, they remain beguiled by the idea of reanimating the past: by the one magic switch that will flick everything back to the way it once was.