The final whistle

I’m pretty certain that this will be neither the first, nor the last, blog post to look at the Ferguson, Moyes, Manchester United saga. I’m certainly no football commentator or expert and I look at the events more from the world of business and work than sport. That said, football clubs are now multi million (if not billion) dollar businesses and there are a number of things that strike me as ill-fated about this whole scenario.

First, let’s look at the context. David Moyes succeeded Sir Alex, probably the most successful British manager of all times. Over the best part of 30 years he built an empire around himself despite, ironically, arguing that no player was bigger than the club. Whoever was going to succeed him was going to be facing a massive power void. But not only that, they’d be coming in to manage a team that had just convincingly won the league.

So let’s look at what went wrong.

The first mistake was allowing Sir Alex to anoint his successor. I understand the appeal of this move, the romanticism and the seeming practicality of the endorsement. It reflects on the power that Ferguson had. An endorsement in front of the fans from Sir Alex was seen as more convincing than an endorsement from the management.

We all want leaders to build succession, that has to be the right thing, we want them to build talented teams. But the decision on the appointment, the choice has to be based on the people who have skin in the game going forward, it is just a simple fact. When you leave, you should have no further say on your team, the leadership or how they’re managed. You’ve left.

There is one thing asking any manager to turn around an underperforming team. when things are at a low, you can be ruthless, you can experiment, you can wield the axe. Taking over a successful team is much harder. Any changes that you make will be inspected, discussed and examined under the organisational microscope. One of the tricks is to change as little as possible in the short-term, to provide continuity and to examine how to make the incremental changes that will lead to further success.

By changing the key backroom staff, Moyes made perhaps the most fundamental error of his short-lived tenure. If the team had been failing this would have been understandable, even applauded. But by changing a winning formula, so quickly and with little apparent reason, he chose to destabilise a team which was already experiencing a power vacuum. You either have to be supremely confident to do that, or completely stupid.

And finally, let’s talk about recruitment. Once again, we need to see this in the light of a previously high performing (although ageing) team. If Moyes had kept his support staff, his managers, around him he might have been allowed the time to bring on new and exciting talent, he might have created the stability that would have allowed him to experiment. But, as we know, he didn’t.

Given this, he needed to bring in established talent. one of the things that we know about high performing environments is that they recognise and indeed welcome, high performing individuals. Anyone that you bring in has to stand shoulder to shoulder in ability and aptitude with those that are already there. Recruiting in to high performing teams is harder than recruiting in to average or under performing teams. Because more is expected, more is demanded and less is forgiven. The failure to recruit in high performing talent in any part of the team isn’t the failing of one man, it is the failing of the organisation as a whole.

Much will be written about the Manchester United story, much of it will be better informed than this. But the elements, when we unpick them, are nothing new. The tenets of organisational performance are the same regardless of the sector in which you operate and everything that we’ve seen over the last season has been seen and done before in other businesses. Perhaps, most importantly, could easily have been avoided.

If Moyes was Sir Alex and this was a match, he’d be praying for some “Fergie time” right now. But he isn’t and it isn’t. And much to his disgust, the final whistle has just been blown.


  1. Tim Baker · April 22, 2014

    The succession planning here, as with most football teams, was poor. Apple and Microsoft both turned to people within the organisation when their leader passed away or took a backward step respectively. Someone should have been lined up internally which, in my opinion, is far less risky than an external appointment, particularly one who has not operated at this level. Giggs would have been the obvious choice and if people question whether he had the experience, look at what Guardiola did with Barcelona.

    • Neil · May 18, 2014

      They knew he was going to retire for a long time. I agree, poor planning.

  2. changinghr · April 22, 2014

    Whilst not a great fan of the sporting metaphors into the business arena, especially in the busted flush that is modern football, I enjoyed this. One other area that is overlooked and is becoming clear was the fatal mistake of paying Mr Rooney £25,000 per day. An obscene amount that brings the same divisions it does in any normal workplace of said superstar doesn’t perform the goods, and he hasn’t done so.

    Whilst I’d argue ‘success’ from last year was illusionary (ageing team, competition at Chelsea and Man City rife with leadership spats and an underperforming Arsenal and Liverpool) United’s equally fake values of sticking with their manager and not giving in to short termism is now shown for the farce it is – today’s football world, especially with the investment required by the Glazers, removes sentiment and the loss of ECL money meant he had to go. The new boy will be expected to get back in there quickly with an investment pot – if he fails, he goes.

    The football world I grew up with, with a certain community value and meritocracy, is gone forever, and replaced soon by some hideous 21st century global rollerball franchise where the rich playboys of the world use sport to flex their egos. Sadly….

    • Neil · May 18, 2014

      I love Rollerball, that’s a film I need to watch. Thanks for the brilliant comment.

  3. Mat Davies · April 22, 2014

    Nicely timed post Neil and some really choice observations- damn you for getting in early ;). Id like to build on what you have written and make a few observations too, if I may.

    I agree in part that it was foolhardy to have a succession plan that appears to be unilateral decision making in the extreme but, equally, criticism of this process seems to suppose that:

    a) a “different”, ” better” decision would have been arrived at, rather than the one they did and that

    b) that “different”, “better”, successor would have had a better set of results than Mr Moyes was able to achieve in his 295 days in charge (which was pretty much on a par with Mr Ferguson’s early record at the same organisation) and

    c) greater time to make it work because the decision at a) would have made it much harder to terminate the employment made at point a).

    I’m afraid this is hindsight not insight.Moyes was certainly a prime candidate before the appointment and his achievement at Preston and Everton more than suggests that he was “top talent” to use the HR phrase.

    You write: “By changing the key backroom staff, Moyes made perhaps the most fundamental error of his short-lived tenure. If the team had been failing this would have been understandable, even applauded. But by changing a winning formula, so quickly and with little apparent reason, he chose to destabilise a team which was already experiencing a power vacuum. You either have to be supremely confident to do that, or completely stupid.”

    Actually, I dont think that’s quite right. Moyes brought in some of his own team but I’m not sure you can argue that Mr Phillip Neville is somehow a stranger to Old Trafford and its workings. I’m not sure that the appointment of Mr Ryan Giggs as player/coach adds to your argument either. I don’t think United had a “winning formula” that Moyes decided to do away with. The answer I think is somewhat more prosaic- underperforming players, a long injury list, failure to buy long term replacements for Evra, Vidic and Scholes and a generally ageing squad immediately spring to mind.

    The real errors to my mind were :

    1) losing Mr David Gill as CEO at the same time as Mr Ferguson

    2) allowing Mr Rene Meulensteen to take up an ill- fated offer to manage Fulham FC. By some margin he has been regarded as the most influential and technically capable coach at Utd for some years. I don’t believe either of these decisions were those of Mr Moyes?

    What really worries me though- and this is the bit that I think HR professionals should concern themselves with- is the appalling way that Mr Moyes and many of his profession- scratch that, in a number of professions with a high public profile- have been treated. Football managers are treated like chattle, pawns in a game with none of the rights and dignities afforded to other senior professionals. Doubtless someone will come along and tell me that as Mr Moyes was “paid a kings ransom and this goes with the territory”. Oh, that’s alright then is it? We can treat this man just as we like can we? Really? When did we agree that? The endless media speculation, the constant rubbishing of a man of high personal and professional integrity and the effective hanging out to dry of a man who has been left to carry the can for a team that has not performed to expectations is, to be polite, conduct unbecoming.

    I think the absence of dignity and common decency for a person’s livelihood and the flippant nature with which we talk about making someone unemployed and then dissecting, in full public glare, their frailties to justify the decision as if it were totally normal and entirely acceptable is actually the real issue. As a supporter of a rival club I am supposed to revel in the downfall of Mr Moyes. Actually, the whole thing leaves me feeling utterly queasy.

    • Neil · May 18, 2014

      Don’t you hate it when a comment is better than the original blog post?


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