Manchester United: Why Alex Ferguson must stay in the shadows
With his fingerprints all over both the hiring and the firing of his humiliated protégé David Moyes, Sir Alex Ferguson is now inviting the most unflattering question ever placed against his extraordinary career.
Why, it asks, is he lingering at the scene of the crime?
Today he meets Manchester United's appalled American owners in the company of his most faithful supporter and club director Bobby Charlton and chief executive Ed Woodward, and, being Ferguson, he is expected to make an unabashed contribution to the debate over the claims of such leading contenders as Louis van Gaal and Carlo Ancelotti.
After the Moyes fiasco, and his clumsy but inevitable sacking, some thought the most successful manager in the history of British football might be inclined to seek the shadows, at least until a resumption of something resembling normal United service.
But they simply didn't know Ferguson – nor the depth of his belief that he still knows best about the club he returned to the pinnacle of English football less than a year ago with a squad that was widely seen as unfit for purpose.
There was much disbelief last spring when an ageing team rode the goals of an inspired signing, Robin van Persie, to an 11-point Premier League triumph and it was from that position of strength – some might say a final statement of competitive genius – Ferguson elected his successor and rode off into the sunset.
Unfortunately, he rode only so far as the massive publicity blitz that helped rocket his second autobiography to record-breaking sales – and a much photographed vantage point behind Moyes' embattled dug-out.
It seemed, right from the start, much less a show of moral support as a glowering rebuke.
The mere presence of Ferguson, the ultimate winner, seemed only to compound the discomfort of a man of considerable previous achievement plainly floundering in a new and increasingly hostile environment.
When the bruised Moyes issued a farewell statement this week he did not exclude his erstwhile backer from those who had earned his gratitude in his months of trial, as he did pointedly the Old Trafford hierarchy and the players who had performed so abjectly right up to the moment the axe fell, but it was formal, if not ironic thanks.
The fact is that if Ferguson retains much of his old influence at Old Trafford, it is despite and not because of his role in the Moyes denouement. Indeed, if either the egocentric Van Gaal or the more gently mannered Ancelotti is appointed, both would be likely to make the point that Ferguson's proper role is to retire gracefully into the shadows.
They will insist on the Van Gaal or the Ancelotti show rather than another parade of the Ferguson influence. The latter seemed very much the case as Moyes tried unavailingly to inflict his presence and as the drama unfolded so grimly, some long-time Old Trafford watchers were carried back more than 40 years to the troubled days that followed the retirement of the great Matt Busby.
The trauma of Moyes, which seemed to grow more intense with each new setback, in many ways mirrored the agony of Wilf McGuiness, the young coach, and notably determined United player before he was struck down by injury, who was overwhelmed when Busby handed him the baton. McGuiness fell quickly and the shock of his experience turned his hair white overnight.
Moyes (right) has not suffered such a fate – well, at least not yet – but he probably can identify easily enough with the man who succeeded McGuiness, Frank O'Farrell.
O'Farrell, like Moyes, came to Old Trafford with an impressive reputation but he too felt the draining weight of a hugely successful predecessor. He complained that Busby's presence in an office down the corridor from his own radiated into every corner of the club's affairs – and certainly that nag must also have pressed down on Moyes.
Comparisons between the experiences of Moyes and O'Farrell are uncanny. The latter was deeply disillusioned by the apparent unwillingness of senior players to respond to a new regime.
They appeared to be rooted in the days of Busby, which included the club's first European Cup win three years earlier, and O'Farrell complained bitterly that his influence was undermined by Busby's habit of playing an occasional round of golf with some of his old players.
When he was fired, 18 months into the job, O'Farrell, like Moyes, had three years to run on his contract. When he was summoned to the boardroom for a special meeting he remarked to a colleague, coach John Aston: "Well, at least it's a nice day for an execution."
Moyes, of course, died on the internet, a point he made angrily when told of his sacking by Woodward the day after the news had reached every corner of the game.
None of this is likely, at least historically, to obscure Ferguson's extraordinary contribution to the club which was vulnerable to a £13m takeover bid soon after he arrived but which quickly enough he returned to all of its glory and financial strength.
Down the years, his success brought an omnipotence that left him secure from the foibles of owners and directors, at least after his survival of an ill-judged war with chief shareholders John Magnier and J.P.McManus.
Many believe that his last title was in many ways his most stunning achievement and that if the Moyes appointment brought him any benefit at all it was to underline his capacity to draw from his players all of their potential.
However, in the clinical world of business calculation which football has become, it is hard not to believe that Ferguson's disastrous support of Moyes will now cloud any fresh attempt by him to become the Kingmaker of Old Trafford.
He said that his fellow Glaswegian was a football man in his own image. He was tough and knowing and had a fine set of football values. And, of course, United listened. At the very least, they may be a little harder of hearing at their war council today.