Bill Parcells. Larry Brown. And Sir Alex. What do all these men have in common? They are all highly revered as some of the greatest teachers in their respective sports. All three are masterminds in the locker room and on the playing field, and they manage their teams with a strong sense of discipline and order. And all three can be at times absolute d****, c****, or whatever expletive you can think of.
But what separates SAF from Parcells and Brown is he built his managerial castle in one location (I know he managed Aberdeen and St. Mirren, but my personal reference to him is only as the boss of Man United), while the other two were journeymen of coaches, rebuilding franchises only to leave for what they thought were greener pastures. So on that point alone, SAF stands head and shoulders above them all. So despite his legendary status not just in football but in all of sport, why do I find Sir Alex to be such a prickly old codger?
Because that’s what he is! And that is what makes him so brilliant. As a Chelsea fan, and I’m sure most of you will agree, the two matches that I unequivocally look forward to every season are the ones against Man United, if only because I know that SAF and his boys will undoubtedly bring a solid effort on the pitch (Sorry Arsenal, but a legitimate rivalry requires that both sides have a chance of winning).
To illustrate, here’s a sound bite given by SAF after our boys won the Premier League on the last day of the season: “Congratulations to Chelsea. After three years of coming up short, they managed to beat the greatest club in English football. Any trophy is more special if you won it beating Manchester United.” It’s utterly brilliant how he manages to congratulate us while still reserving praise for his own squad. Most of it is probably a smokescreen, especially when you contrast those words with these given to another reporter: “We applaud Chelsea. We know how hard it is to win the title – it’s the hardest league in the world and we’ve won it for the last three years. I congratulate Carlo Ancelotti on a wonderful achievement. He’s a good manager and a good guy.” That last blurb sounds more like a proper non-backhanded compliment, but there really isn’t much separating the two. So will the real SAF please stand up?
The truth is all of the stated above is the truth, and that SAF is the incontrovertible patriarch of English football. So are we starting to see a softer side of him as he starts to enter the twilight of his managerial career? It may seem so at times, but just when you think he’s starting to settle down and reduce his boisterous assertions to a low simmer, he unleashes a burn on some player, team, or sporting institution. In just the last month, he appropriately skewered Rooney, praised Guardiola (and by doing so added fuel to the fire of rumors as to who will succeed him), hated on the World Cup, and hated on Man City. Forget settling down, it seems SAF is only getting better with age, and more active for that matter.
So why am I mentioning him now, when he’s firmly parked his bus at Old Trafford for so long that most of his current squad wasn’t even born when he took over the reins? Because I think he has one final great symphony to conduct, and he’s biding his time, waiting for all the contenders (or pretenders) surrounding him to finish their opuses so that he can reclaim the grand stage.
Despite the Glazers’ precarious highly leveraged financial state, the Red Devils can still spend with the best of Europe, and they have a balanced mix of grizzled veterans and young lions. And despite all the drama that’s ensued this season, they are well positioned in the league table and in the CL. Despite how well Chelsea has played this season (for the most part) and how poorly Man United has looked at times, they’re only two points behind, and it’s practically a certainty that their level of play will improve. And don’t forget that they were only a Robben wonder volley away from making it to their third straight CL semifinal, which I think would’ve likely led to a third straight CL final.
We have big aspirations for our team this year, but I can also foresee a year like 2006-7, when Chelsea were in contention for four trophies until the very end of the season, but were overwhelmed by their schedule and eventually settled for winning just the FA Cup.
My personal take on the matter is Chelsea’s biggest challenge will come yet again from Man United, but the CL is the grander challenge, if not more difficult. Will we have to focus on one and sacrifice our dreams for the other? I hope not, but if SAF and his boys continue to push forward, then Carletto and Co. may end up having to make some tough decisions.
Let’s just hope that we maintain the right perspective, and that we don’t lose sight of the forest for the trees.