Early Doors

How Fergie's most costly error could come back to bite United

Early Doors

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Sir Alex Ferguson’s time as Manchester United manager brought 13 league titles, two Champions Leagues, five FA Cups and four League Cups, but the great Scot was far from infallible during his remarkable career in charge at Old Trafford.

Notably, Ferguson announced in 2001 that he was going to retire at the end of the season, precipitating a decline in United’s fortunes on the pitch which saw them lose six of their opening 15 league games.

Fergie reversed his decision after United had lined up then England boss Sven-Goran Eriksson as his successor, and later said the failed retirement plan had been “an absolute disaster. [I was in] Agony, absolute agony [at the thought of retiring]. My wife made me change my mind and she was dead right. I think she thought she would soon be fed up with me around the house."

The infamous Rock of Gibraltar row is also said to have destabilised United. In January 2003, Ferguson took legal action against two major United shareholders in JP McManus and John Magnier over stud rights to a racehorse, the feud lasting for more than a year. McManus and Magnier then sold off their shares to Malcolm Glazer, facilitating the hated leveraged buyout of the club in 2005.

And what does Ferguson himself rate as one of his biggest mistakes? The decision to sell Jaap Stam to Lazio in 2001 after the Dutch defender made some unguarded comments in an autobiography.

"It was one of the mistakes I made – hopefully I haven't made too many – but that was one," Fergie said. “I got this offer from Lazio for £18.5m. Was it £18.5m? No, £16.5m I think it was, and I says, 'Can't turn it down. He's 30 years of age.' I thought if we could get Laurent Blanc for a year or so and bring the young ones through – like Wes Brown and John O'Shea - but it backfired.”

And then of course there are the duds Ferguson bought – Kleberson, Bebe, Eric Djemba-Djemba – but any manager has a collection of skeletons like that in their closet.


Now transfer reports in the press this week suggest another of Ferguson’s mistakes is to be highlighted – and despite the list above, to our mind it is the greatest error he made during his time in charge of English football’s most famous club.

New United boss Louis van Gaal is being consistently linked with a move for Juventus midfielder Paul Pogba. On Thursday, the Daily Express reported he is a £60m target for the big-spending club next summer. And the twist? He left United at the age of 19 after growing disillusioned with his first-team prospects.

Now one of the most fearsome midfielders in the game, a two-time Italian champion and World Cup star for France, Pogba joined United’s youth setup in 2009 but was never really given a chance to impress at Old Trafford. In fact he made only three Premier League appearances as a substitute.

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As Pogba tells it: "I said to Ferguson: 'Play me, and I will show you if I'm ready or not'. I joined Juve to silence people who have criticised me, who did not believe in me and said that I would fail. Against Blackburn, on December 31, 2011, I was on the bench. Ferguson puts Rafael in midfield with Ji Sung Park. Then I gave up. I was really bummed. I joined Juve to silence people who have criticised me, who did not believe in me and said that I would fail."

The final straw came a few weeks later, when in desperation for a midfielder, Ferguson welcomed the great Paul Scholes out of retirement: "When I saw Scholes come back part of me was really happy as he's a legend, but I knew it was the end for me. The manager thought Scholes had to play, not me, and after that I had to leave.”

It was a rancorous departure. Pogba informed Ferguson of his decision to leave in March 2012, later telling France Football: "He shouted. He told me: 'Where are you going? You're going to Juve in Italy, is that it? There's a lot of racism'. I told him: 'It's not a problem, there's racism everywhere'. He told me: 'The supporters aren't like in England'. I told him: 'I want to play, and it's not for the fans, it's because I want to play to improve and gain experience'. He told me 'okay', and after that, I was never included in the squad."

He added: "I'm impatient. Even if I was quite patient. Alex Ferguson told me: 'You're a whisker away from playing... You're a youngster from the academy, you're not ready yet. You must be patient. Scholes was, Giggs was'. I'm not Giggs, I'm not Scholes. I really wanted to play. I said: 'okay, no problem'. If I'm not ready, perhaps I'll be ready elsewhere. I at least felt ready to have more playing time. He didn't show me enough that he wanted me in his squad. Even if he said some nice things about me, about my potential, if you don't show it, it's all just hot air.

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"It all depends on what you have in your head. If you want to play at Manchester just to be able to say 'I play at United', even though you're on the bench, are you happy? I came on a few times, I played in the cups, but I wanted to have more playing time. If I could have played in China, I would have gone to China."

The question now is whether he will return to United. Van Gaal appears to be a huge fan and the club have seemingly decided that the embarrassment of paying £60m for a player they let go at the end of his contract just two years ago is outweighed by Pogba’s huge talent and awesome potential.

Certainly Pogba is a player worth breaking the bank for. His impressive physical frame allows him to control games but he is also technically superb, with a golden touch on the ball. He could transform a United team which is still lacking a really dominant midfield presence, despite the club spending over £150m this summer.

The great Zinedine Zidane once described United’s failure to hold onto Pogba as a “mistake”. But when the teenager left Old Trafford in search of first-team football, Ferguson memorably said: "I don't think he showed us any respect at all so, to be honest, I'm quite happy."

But as United go about the difficult task of attempting to bring him back to the club for £60m, their paymasters probably won’t be feeling the same kind of satisfaction.

Was letting Pogba go Ferguson’s biggest mistake? Probably, yes.

It was certainly his most costly. Though of course it won't be Ferguson who pays the price.

- John Draper

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