Many years afterwards, Pep Guardiola would joke that the reason he never took over at Manchester United was because he couldn’t understand Alex Ferguson’s accent. The pair went for dinner in New York in September 2012, when Guardiola was on sabbatical and pondering his next move. Over a luxurious meal and fine wine – all paid for by Ferguson – they talked falteringly about football and life and the future.
“My English is not so good,” Guardiola later said, “and when Sir Alex spoke quickly I sometimes had a problem to understand him. That’s why maybe I didn’t understand if I received an offer or not.”
It got a good laugh in the room at the time, but the truth was a little simpler and a little more complex. Ferguson had indeed identified Guardiola – whose Barcelona had demolished United in two of the previous four Champions League finals – as the leading candidate to succeed him after his retirement and was keen to gauge his interest.
But the plain reason no offer was made was because there was still no job to offer. Ferguson was yet to come to a decision or firm timescale on his own future. “I asked Pep to phone me before he accepted an offer from another club,” Ferguson wrote in his autobiography. “But he didn’t.”
As the months ticked by, United remained confident of securing Guardiola, but without much idea of how they were going to do it. The club’s chief executive at the time, David Gill – who was planning his own exit – and the owning Glazer family had essentially delegated responsibility for Ferguson’s replacement to Ferguson and were loth to force the issue. They did not know if Ferguson was going to quit, when he was going to quit, who his successor might be or how close they were to getting him. It feels almost incredible now that perhaps the most important decision in the club’s modern history was essentially taken in the dark.
Guardiola, for his part, had long since made up his mind. While Ferguson intended on making an appointment towards the end of the season, Guardiola wanted clarity much sooner. Bayern Munich had been in contact since the previous summer and had spent months diligently selling the project to him in exhaustive detail. Ferguson finally told the club of his intentions in the spring, by which point not only Guardiola but many of their other candidates were no longer available. The rest was history and not long afterwards so was the unfortunate David Moyes.
Before Sunday’s Manchester derby, United’s abortive pursuit of Guardiola remains the great “what if?”, a genuine crossroads moment in the story of these two clubs. It also feels particularly pertinent right now, as City chase a fourth Premier League title in his six years at the club and United contemplate a ninth successive season without a serious challenge.
The Guardiola dynasty may not rival Ferguson’s for longevity, but for a club that has always prided itself on thinking two moves ahead, the issue of what comes after him feels of a similar magnitude. How soon is too soon? How late is too late?
City has been Guardiola’s club since long before he arrived. It was in the autumn of 2012 they hired Ferran Soriano and Txiki Begiristain with the long-term ambition of luring Guardiola one day. A sparkling new academy was unveiled in 2014. A line of communication was opened with the Guardiola camp even while he was still at Bayern. An informal partnership was established with Girona, the Spanish club part-owned by Guardiola’s brother, Pere. In many respects the entire organisation has been moulded around Guardiola’s vision for a decade. So what happens when he finally goes? What changes and what stays the same?
Certainly, given Guardiola’s dazzling era of success, the urge for continuity will be strong. There is no reason to assume Begiristain and Soriano will immediately follow Guardiola out of the door. The existing City blueprint – a spiderweb of affiliate clubs, a world-class scouting system, a state-of-the-art training ground, a commercial strategy based around cashing lots of big cheques from Abu Dhabi companies you never knew existed – will simply be placed in the service of Guardiola’s successor. The football will still be attacking and high-energy. Phil Foden will still do amazing things. In this respect, at least, City fans have little to worry about.
But then continuity was the plan at United, too. It is hard to shake the suspicion that Moyes’s appointment was based at least in part on the fact he had the same accent as Ferguson. A playing squad badly in need of refurbishment was largely retained. The footballing infrastructure that essentially existed in Ferguson’s mind was barely upgraded. To this day the pursuit of managers feels skittish, half-baked, reflex. For United, continuity soon morphed into stasis, retreat, nostalgia, chaos.
City are a smarter and more functional club than United and will avoid many of these same mistakes. Indeed, given the protracted difficulty of securing top managers these days, it is entirely possible the club hierarchy are already beginning to identify potential hopefuls, whether Mauricio Pochettino, Brendan Rodgers, Julian Nagelsmann, Mikel Arteta, Patrick Vieira or somebody else. In any case, you suspect the process will be a little more sophisticated than simply letting Guardiola pick his own replacement and giving him as long as he wants to do it.
But the wider issue is one that engulfs all big clubs in these strange and stormy times. City under Guardiola and its Emirati ownership feel impregnable, immovable, unchangeable. But so did United once under Ferguson. So did Barcelona. So did Chelsea under Roman Abramovich who, in the space of a week, has found himself an outcast. As Ferguson discovered all those years ago, you can plan a pretty picnic. But you can’t predict the weather.