MYears later, Pep Guardiola joked that the reason he never took over at Manchester United was because he couldn’t understand Alex Ferguson’s accent. The couple went to dinner in New York in September 2012, when Guardiola was on sabbatical and considering his next move. Over a luxurious meal and fine wine – all paid for by Ferguson – they talked hesitantly about football, life and the future.
“My English isn’t that good,” Guardiola said later, “and when Sir Alex spoke quickly I sometimes found it difficult to understand him. That’s why maybe I didn’t understand if I had received an offer or not.
It had the audience laughing at the time, but the truth was a little simpler and a little more complex. Ferguson had indeed identified Guardiola – whom Barcelona had demolished United in two of the previous four Champions League finals – as the main candidate to succeed him after his retirement and was keen to gauge his interest.
But the simple reason why no offers were made was that there were still no jobs available. Ferguson had yet to make a firm decision or timeline on his own future. “I asked Pep to phone me before accepting an offer from another club,” Ferguson wrote in his autobiography. “But he did not do it.”
As the months passed, United remained confident of securing Guardiola, but were unsure how they were going to do so. The club’s general manager at the time, David Gill – who was planning his own exit – and the Glazer owner family had essentially delegated responsibility for Ferguson’s replacement to Ferguson and were reluctant to force the issue. They didn’t know if Ferguson was going to step down, when he was going to step down, who his successor might be, or how close they were to having him. It’s almost unbelievable now that the most important decision in the club’s modern history was made in obscurity.
Guardiola, for his part, had long since made up his mind. While Ferguson intended to make a date towards the end of the season, Guardiola wanted clarity much sooner. Bayern Munich had been in contact since the previous summer and had spent months diligently selling him the project down to the last detail. Ferguson finally informed the club of his intentions in the spring, by which time not only Guardiola but many of their other candidates were no longer available. The rest was history and soon after, the hapless David Moyes was too.
Ahead of the Manchester derby on Sunday, United’s abortive pursuit of Guardiola remains the big “what if?”, a real crossroads in the history of these two clubs. It also seems particularly relevant at this time, as City chase a fourth Premier League title in six years at the club and United look to a ninth straight season without serious challenges.
The Guardiola dynasty may not rival Ferguson’s in terms of longevity, but for a club that has always prided itself on thinking two moves ahead, the question of what comes after him is of a magnitude. similar. How soon is too soon? Until when is it too late?
City were Guardiola’s club long before he arrived. It was in the fall of 2012 that they hired Ferran Soriano and Txiki Begiristain with the long-term ambition of luring Guardiola one day. A sparkling new academy was unveiled in 2014. A line of communication was opened with Guardiola’s camp even while he was still at Bayern. An informal partnership has been established with Girona, the Spanish club partly owned by Guardiola’s brother Pere. In many ways, the whole organization has been shaped around Guardiola’s vision for a decade. So what happens when he finally leaves? What changes and what stays the same?
Certainly, given Guardiola’s dazzling period of success, the urge for continuity will be strong. There is no reason to assume that Begiristain and Soriano will immediately follow Guardiola out the door. The existing city plan – a spider’s web of affiliated clubs, a world-class scouting system, a state-of-the-art training ground, a business strategy based on cashing lots of big checks Abu Dhabi companies that you didn’t know existed – will simply be placed at the service of Guardiola’s successor. Football will always be attacking and energetic. Phil Foden will still do amazing things. In that respect, at least, City fans don’t have to worry.
But continuity was also the plan at United. It’s hard to shake off the suspicion that Moyes’ nomination was based at least in part on the fact that he had the same accent as Ferguson. A game team that was badly in need of renovation was largely retained. The football infrastructure that essentially existed in Ferguson’s mind was barely improved. To date, the pursuit of managers seems capricious, half-baked, knee-jerk. For United, continuity quickly turned into stasis, retirement, nostalgia, chaos.
City are a smarter, more functional club than United and will avoid many of those same mistakes. Indeed, given the protracted difficulty of finding the best managers these days, it’s entirely possible that the club’s hierarchy is already beginning to identify potential prospects, be it Mauricio Pochettino, Brendan Rodgers, Julian Nagelsmann, Mikel Arteta, Patrick Vieira or someone else. Either way, you think the process will be a bit more sophisticated than just letting Guardiola choose his own replacement and give him as long as he wants.
But the larger problem is one that is engulfing all the big clubs in these strange and stormy times. The city under Guardiola and its Emirati ownership seem impregnable, immutable, unchanging. But United did the same once under Ferguson. Barcelona too. So did Chelsea under Roman Abramovich who, in the space of a week, found themselves an outcast. As Ferguson discovered all those years ago, you can plan a nice picnic. But you can’t predict the weather.