Wednesday 12 June 2024

Erik ten Hag, Nottingham Forest, and the start of a dynasty

After two weeks of intense will-he-won't-he speculation, Erik ten Hag is going nowhere. The United boss will stay on and together with minority shareholders INEOS, will hope to steer the ship named HMS Manchester United into calmer waters.

You cannot help but think of the striking parallels between ten Hag and his illustrious predecessor, Sir Alex Ferguson, surely the greatest manager ever to do it. Sir Alex is, of course, associated with the most glittering and successful era in United history, sweeping up trophies left, right and centre as his swashbuckling United sides cut a swaggering swathe through English football. One that is unlikely ever to be repeated, no matter what Pep Guardiola might think.

Sir Alex Ferguson with the treble in 1999

But it wasn't always like that. For those of you old enough to do so, cast your minds back to January, 1990. It's the FA Cup third round weekend and Ferguson is a man under siege. His expensively assembled Reds are languishing in the lower reaches of the old First Division. We would finish 13th and Ferguson - then just plain old Alex - was one game from the sack. Mercifully, this was an age before social media, before smart phones, before radio phone ins. It did not stop the United fanbase from growing restless, though. An early FA Cup KO at the hands of Brian Clough's Nottingham Forest - unlikely champions of Europe a decade before - would prove the final nail in the coffin. United's greatest ever manager would be up in flames before he'd even had a chance to cook. 

Enter, Mark Robins. A man never mentioned when it comes to some of United's most exalted stars. A man never mentioned in the same breath as the likes of Mark Hughes, Gary Pallister, Bryan Robson and Viv Anderson et al. Yet a man, without whom, the name Manchester United would not be the club we are today. Without Mark Robins, the greatest story our sport has ever seen simply would not have happened. 

Robins goal on that cold January day in 1990 changed the course of history. We won 1-0 and embarked on an FA Cup run that culminated in winning the trophy. It not only provided Ferguson with much needed breathing space, but also marked the beginning of his unbreakable dynasty. Robins match winning moment saved Ferguson's job (although United's incumbent chairman Martin Edwards has always denied this), and laid down the bedrock for an unprecedented period of success.

It is with a delicious twist of irony, the kind only top level sport can deliver, that - 34 years on - both Robins and Nottingham Forest have helped play a part in ten Hag's next chapter. Had Viktor Torp not stayed offside by the width of a toenail, the now Coventry manager would have found himself in an FA Cup final, at the expense of his former side. 

Coventry manager Mark Robins 

But history will ultimately tell a different tale. Just as Ferguson did, ten Hag eked out a narrow, edgy win at, you guessed it, Nottingham Forest, to set us on the way to Wembley glory. Casemiro's 90th minute  fifth round winner may have lacked quite the same do-or-die jeopardy as Ferguson's own flirtation with danger, but it was no less important.

In the superb 1998 film Sliding Doors, the plot follows two different storylines both based around the same scenario. In the first, Gwyneth Paltrow's character misses a train, but catches the same train in the second. To cut a long story short, the course of her life differs depending on the path she takes. Still with me? Good. 

That is a situation ten Hag now finds himself in. This is his own sliding doors moment. Just as Ferguson did, is this a classic example of a manager hanging on by a hair's breadth to then go on and build a dynasty? 

Or is it merely delaying the inevitable? If things are still bleak at Christmas, is it then just another wasted season? The fact he's in talks over a new deal, as per the Telegraph, suggests the ownership think he is the man for the long term. If they had no faith, they surely would have sacked him and definitely wouldn't be considering an extension. 

We cannot know the answer. But ten Hag has shown signs he can succeed here. He has proved he can be successful. But, just like Ferguson all those years ago, he needs time and backing to do it. He must seize his Mark Robins moment and build on it. 

INEOS have made the right call - now let's get behind them

And so it's official: Bald is still very much best. News broke late on Tuesday night - and it was the news we'd all been waiting for: Erik ten Hag is still the man for Manchester United. I hope he will still be the United manager for many years to come. I'm delighted for him, even if it could have been dealt with better. 

Sir Jim Ratcliffe has made his first big decision
The decision to retain the Dutchman is the first big call INEOS have made since they bought a minority shareholding in the club back in January. It is the right one. Not just because of the lack of alternatives - I mean, Gareth Southgate or Thomas Frank, really? - but also because it may now finally put an end to our endless, exhausting rinse and repeat managerial raison d'etre. It also suggests our new boardroom regime want to build a long-term project rather than just change tack at the first sign of adversity. 

You can't blame INEOS for carrying out due diligence in casting their net elsewhere: but how much of what we've read and heard over the last few weeks was simply the media, or perhaps manager agents, stirring the pot and looking for trouble? Whether Sir Jim and his men DID actually hold talks with any potential managers, we shall never know. But none of that matters now. 

ten Hag is only the second permanent United boss since Sir Alex to go into a third campaign at Old Trafford - David Moyes got ten months, Louis van Gaal two seasons. Mourinho was out on his ear by Christmas after his infamous 'third season syndrome'. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was caretaker manager in 2018-19 and only had two terms as the full-time gaffer. 

Almost three weeks on from United's logic defying, against-all-odds victory at Wembley which delivered a second trophy in two seasons, we finally have clarity. The post-season review is done and dusted. Now we can put all the rumours, all the malicious, agenda-driven sphiel by some of these wasters in the media, behind us. United can plan for next season with ten Hag. It's an important summer as INEOS embark on their first transfer window as part owners. There will be some journalists with egg on their faces this morning. Let's give a shout out to David Ornstein, though, the brilliant journalist with The Athletic whom broke the top tier exclusive ten Hag  was to stay having previously stayed quiet and merely stated not to have known rather than spreading misinformation. David, we salute you. 

There is no doubt that cup win played a part in the decision to stick with ten Hag. INEOS are also said to have liked ten Hag's faith and trust in developing youth players with Kobbie Mainoo and Alejandro Garnacho two of the standout stars last season. 

It is difficult to argue the Cup win changed the course of the ownership's trajectory. ten Hag almost certainly would have been out of work by now had we lost to City. It is what INEOS seemed to be expecting and, to be fair, they certainly weren't the only ones.

That ensured ten Hag has become one of only four Reds bosses to win trophies in successive seasons and, despite all the noise, he has carried himself with dedication, dignity and professionalism. 

ten Hag will now have a proper boardroom structure to work with and under, more in keeping with what he had at Ajax. A factor acknowledged by INEOS - they felt it was difficult to judge ten Hag properly because the club did not have the right structure above him - in short, he was set up to fail, just like every manager before him. 

With Omar Berrada as chief executive and football director Jason Wilcox calling the shots, to be joined by Dan Ashworth as sporting director, there are football people in football positions. ten Hag's workload will be lessened, he will have more help with recruitment and will perhaps now be more of a 'head coach' than a manager per se.

But as much as this is a blessing, it could also muddy the waters for ten Hag. It narrows the margin for error. He will know there are no excuses now, no second chances, no repeat of last season. He's shown enough to earn another season, but he's got to understand what went wrong last year, and why. He's got to learn those lessons and make the changes we need. We can't be conceding 30 shots every game this time. In-game management has to be better, we need a more sustainable style and cannot allow a few injuries to completely destabilise our season. Last season's struggles came with an asterix and compelling arguments of mitigation. That's not the case now. 

Erik ten Hag with the FA Cup 

But ten Hag is smart enough to acknowledge this. He's not stupid, and he knows last season wasn't good enough. He will know better than anyone we have to hit the ground running come August. A fast, strong, start to 2024/25 is crucial. Anything else and those questions will resurface. Last season, salvaged at the death by Wembley, has to be a freak one off.

ten Hag's contract is up at the end of the next campaign. I wouldn't be against him getting an extension, but that should be on hold for now. Let's see where are at Christmas and go from there. He needs to earn the chance of an extension on his current deal. 

It would not surprise me if his retention as manager comes with certain conditions - maybe he won't get as much of a say in recruitment? Perhaps there's a certain points target from a set number of games.  INEOS will set him targets he has to meet. While the spectre of Southgate has been banished - at least for now - INEOS are huge admirers of the soon-to-be-out of work England boss. If United fail to get off to a good start, Southgate's shadow will hang heavy over the hotseat. But that's a discussion for another day. 

The vultures have stopped circling, the summer's will-they-won't-they saga is finally over, and now the real hard work starts as ten Hag prepares for pre-season and his third campaign in the Old Trafford dugout. For the men above him in the corridors of power, their first real test has been passed.