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Heart Of Football

In this uncertain time, the job of a manager hangs by a thread

The state of English Premier League football is reflected in the fact that Chelsea travel up to Old Trafford tomorrow with a veteran Dutchman whose title is officially "interim manager".

And none of us know for certain who is any longer in charge of Manchester United. It could be Louis van Gaal, but his tenure is looking decidedly interim right now.

It could even be the un-Special One, Jose Mourinho, who was sacked, again, by Chelsea almost two weeks ago.

Merry Christmas, gentlemen.

This should be a game between multi-millionaire players. Many on either side regard themselves as among the best in their position in the world. They certainly draw salaries in line with the best, but then so do these managers or coaches who are among the best-paid individuals - of any profession - in the world.

United is a sitting duck. They made a bad mistake allowing Alex Ferguson to end his fantastic 26 years at the same time that David Gill departed as chief executive. Ferguson knew the players he wanted, Gill went out and got them. Suddenly there was a double vacuum at the club.

When Roman Abramovich believed that Mourinho (so good he hired him twice) had "lost" the dressing room, he fired him. And Abramovich then entered the players' domain and told them, in effect, now that he's removed the problem, it was time they earned their corn.

So he hired an old friend, Guus Hiddink, to do what he did once before and step in temporarily to raise the spirits and put a boot up the appropriate backsides of players who apparently had stopped playing for Jose.

Chelski continue to pay Mourinho until he finds a new employer - and might even then have to make up the difference if Mourinho's new club doesn't match the millions he negotiated on a fresh four-year contract last August.

Hiddink is a handy fit for the term "an iron fist in a velvet glove". He has worked in all parts of the world, from Real Madrid to the South Korean national team. He wins some, and lately has lost some, getting relieved of his duties in both Russia and the Netherlands national squad that failed to qualify for the Euro 2016 Finals.

The implication is that wily old Guus was past it. He is, after all, 69 years of age.

There are those around Man United who think van Gaal, 64, is no spring chicken either.

But the problems at Old Trafford go back to May 2013 when Alex Ferguson, who had turned 72, called it a day and a knight.

Sir Alex left the same kind of chasm, the same clueless lack of succession, that happened when Sir Matt Busby retired in 1969.

Both Ferguson and Busby managed for a quarter of a century. Both, crucially, gave the fans a brand of fast, open and attractive football.

There's the dilemma. United can spend £300 million (S$631.7 million) on players and if the manager, van Gaal, is a safety-first control freak, the 76,000 crowd will bay "attack! attack! attack!" and are calling into the wind.

It baffles some of us that United are even thinking of appointing Mourinho to replace van Gaal.

They are peas in a pod. Mourinho learnt his trade as a young coaching assistant to van Gaal at Barcelona (and Barca sacked the Dutchman decades ago for just this dichotomy of a club and its fans craving high risk, beautiful play, which the manager wasn't going to give them).

Ironically, United were playing Stoke City yesterday. Stoke are in the middle of a transition from playing a tight, physical, aggressive brand of football that "got results". (Mark) Hughes, a flamboyant striker for United and Barcelona in his prime as a player, is gradually changing the face of Stoke's football.

Some of us ask why Man United are hiring and firing managers who know nothing (and care less) about the club's culture when there are managers like Hughes in the same league.

Ryan Giggs may or may not graduate into a United coach, but frankly his apprenticeship to that should have started five years before Ferguson was thinking of retirement. Fergie, remember, was 72 when he finally called time, and he has said subsequently that it was only because Giggs played on, and on, until he was 40 that delayed him going into coaching.

Giggs looks as bored, rigid, and dismayed, as any fan while he sits beside van Gaal watching the team's drilled but adventureless football.

We should not blame van Gaal for his abrupt walkout from his pre-Christmas media conference after he asked if any reporters wanted to apologise to him.

"I was already sacked, I read," he said. "My colleague (Mourinho) was here already. What do you think happens with my wife or my kids? Or with my grandchildren? Or the fans of Manchester United? Or my friends?"

And then, his eyes scanning the reporters, van Gaal got up and said on his way out of the room: "I wish you a Merry Christmas, and also a Happy New Year when I see you.

"Enjoy the wine and a mince pie. Goodbye."

He got one thing right. The media was a hanging jury. They had decided van Gaal must go. And many had speculated that Mourinho might even replace him at Old Trafford in time for Monday's match against Chelsea.

Who was putting this into their minds?

Look no further than Jorge Mendes, the so-called Superagent from Portugal. Mendes acts for Mourinho, and players including Cristiano Ronaldo, Thiago Silva, Radamel Falcao, Angel Di Maria, David de Gea and Diego Costa.

He has the ear of the club owners, and direct lines to the media.

United is a sitting duck. They made a bad mistake allowing Alex Ferguson to end his fantastic 26 years at the same time that David Gill departed as chief executive.

Ferguson knew the players he wanted, Gill went out and got them.

Suddenly there was a double vacuum at the club. Ed Woodward, a capable accountant, stepped into Gill's shoes. Woodward acts for the American owners, the Glazer brothers, and had, on the reference of Sir Alex, hired, but then rapidly fired David Moyes.

By the time this appears in print van Gaal might also be gone. United, a world icon, is on the whirligig to nowhere.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 27, 2015, with the headline 'In this uncertain time, the job of a manager hangs by a thread'. Print Edition | Subscribe