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not so united Fergie may have undermined confidence but club remain firmly behind Solskjaer


Alex Ferguson speaking with MMA star Khabib Nurmagomedov. Photo: Instagram

Alex Ferguson speaking with MMA star Khabib Nurmagomedov. Photo: Instagram

Alex Ferguson speaking with MMA star Khabib Nurmagomedov. Photo: Instagram

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will reflect that among the many singular aspects of being Manchester United manager, a conversation between a 79-year-old who has spent the afternoon in matchday hospitality and a Dagestani cage fighter can relaunch serious questions over one’s future.

The informal chat between Alex Ferguson and the retired Russian mixed martial artist Khabib Nurmagomedov on Saturday, inadvertently posted by the latter on Instagram, was a source of fascination because the Scot has kept his counsel so private on those who have succeeded him in the United job. Ferguson’s brief observation in relation to Solskjaer’s omission of Cristiano Ronaldo that “you should always start your best players” is not necessarily a rule that he even stuck to as a manager himself, but that single line has resonated nonetheless.

It suggested that even Ferguson could not see the logic in this particular decision from Solskjaer to omit Ronaldo from the United starting line-up, as well perhaps Paul Pogba. That Solskjaer, with one of the strongest squads in the Premier League, should be able to change his team for a home game against Everton without a notable drop-off in quality is indisputable. That he cannot do so without risking another minor catastrophe, as Saturday’s draw proved, is one of the great problems of the post-Ferguson United.

As for the wider picture, nothing has changed at United around this club’s tenacious commitment to making a success of their current manager. There is no shadow plan that Ferguson might breezily have been alluding to in a moment of unguardedness – the short-term and the long-term is still Solskjaer.

Whatever swirls around Solskjaer outside the club, inside the loyalty runs strong even with major change looming at the top. The club is preparing itself for what will be the end of an era of sorts when executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward steps down on an unspecified date before the end of this year. The last day of which, of course, will be Ferguson’s 80th birthday, by which point one can only assume that Woodward’s deputy, the group managing director Richard Arnold, will have taken over.

There is no suggestion that Arnold thinks any differently to Woodward, or indeed that he would be prepared to embark on the long and bloody task of convincing the Glazer brothers Joel and Avram, executive co-chairmen, of the case to pursue what would be a fourth sacking in less than eight years. The club only have one aim at the current time and that is to make Solskjaer the successful manager that they always hoped he would become. Although it can be hard to see how, in weeks such as this, it might be accomplished.

In July, when the club gave him a three-year deal, there was no serious danger of Solskjaer being lured away – the length of the contract designed to make a statement of faith rather than to protect an asset.

The club’s board with a six-strong Glazer presence, four executives and three independents, has shown unswerving commitment to Solskjaer. Indeed, it remains a club which places its greatest faith in those it considers United people, as per recent appointments. The bleakness of the three managerial sackings that have followed Ferguson’s departure have convinced all concerned that this latest appointment has to work. No-one wishes to contemplate the alternative.

There were times, of course, when Ferguson did not pick his best team and as befits one of the most stubborn managers in the history of the game those were decisions that he defended for decades afterwards. He left Alan Hansen out of the Scotland 1986 World Cup final squad, a decision that Ferguson based at the time on what he perceived as a lack of commitment from the Liverpool defender whom he regarded as too quick to withdraw with injury.

He also famously omitted David Beckham from the United team to face Real Madrid in the epic 4-3 victory at Old Trafford in 2003. Beckham came on and led the comeback, scoring twice in one of the games of his life – albeit not enough to prevent a 6-5 aggregate defeat. “David was looking for the sympathy vote from the fans,” was Ferguson’s observation 10 years later. Which was certainly one way of looking at it. The man selected ahead of him that night was Solskjaer, who was destined to fill Beckham’s right-wing spot until injury and a teenage Ronaldo intervened.

There may well be frustrations with the current day manager and on Saturday they were clear to see, from Ronaldo’s angry departure down the tunnel to the chatter in matchday hospitality. Right at the heart of United, however, the position remains that there is no-one else other than Solskjaer.

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