Sir Alex Ferguson had a death stare. Seemingly he exercised it with some frequency during his lengthy tenure Manchester United both internally with his players and also externally with the media. In fact, he boycotted the BBC for about seven years only relenting when the former BBC Director General offers a personal apology in 2011. The blackout was on the foot of a 2004 documentary about his son Jason which led to the United boss breaching the Premier League’s media regulations requiring him to speak to TV rights holders.
Former player at Old Trafford, Roy Keane, also developed a similar death stare and used it often – if not too often -when faced with those brave enough to ask hi a question. However, “His Corkness” has become too fond of the stare and when a manager at Ipswich or Sunderland in those difficult times the stare becomes pointless. The headiness write themselves after each and every defeat. These days the Republic of Ireland assistant manager has taken to the stare with less vigour choosing the humorous route now to entertain the Fourth Estate. Especially now EURO 2016 in France is a reality. A bit like Ryanair’s new friendlier marketing ploy, Roy Keane has also switched on the charm button more often than not.
A technique the current United could learn from after his attempt with the death stare in his interview after the Stoke defeat. Which seemed rather half hearted and unconvincing. But then again he is probably battered from the barrage of negative publicity over recent weeks where his charges have lost four vital games leaving the media forcing the agenda for the United board. Something Louis van Gaal has found tiring it seems as the stories signalling his demise at the club reach fever pitch. And seeking an unlikely apology from the gathered press at his most recent encountered with sporting journalists.
In facing Chelsea on Monday evening, van Gaal will also have to deal with another foe - Guus Hiddink in the chase for those job saving three points. Whether he has the luck to do same is beyond the scope of any logical analysis. What remains true is that Hiddink will offer no life line to his compatriot given he needs to reward his Russian paymaster quickly having taken over at the listless Chelsea on an interim basis following the departure of Jose Mourinho. The latter running out of death stares as his role at Chelsea became reduced to charlatan in the post-match press conferences clearly unable to detect the underlying reason for the collapse of his championship winning team. As he searched for culprits a level of paranoia seemed to affect his thinking and led to a few bizarre interviews that hardly helped the long term stability at the club. His final departure no surprise giving the football media a quite Christmas period as The Special One was absent from our TV screens.
In the build up to the crucial Old Trafford fixture the main stories focus on the possible replacements at Manchester United in the event that van Gaal loses yet again. The choices made all the more complex by Pep Guardiola’s availability in the summer once he completes his third and final season at Bayern Munich. Not discounting the unplanned freedom of Mourinho in the past ten days.
Meanwhile further up the M56 Rafa Benitez has spent Christmas with his family on the Wirral peninsula, his cliff top home offering spectacular views of his surroundings. And well he might survey the scenery as back in Madrid his club President is a dither on his plan to continue with incumbent manger in the wake of three costly defeats. That home defeat to Barcelona in El Clasico still weighing heavily on the seasons prospects. No doubt evaluating whether the season is salvageable when already trailing Barcelona and Atletico Madrid in La Liga and expelled from the Copa del Rey. Not forgetting the tough draw against Roma in the Champions league.
Despite the Christmas break the media are restless and the stories ruminate between Mourinho’s possible return and the earlier than expected promotion of Zidane from the second team. News of which Rafa can do little to refute from one thousand miles away.
The reality is that managerial success at the Super Clubs failure is now measured in microns as the need to win every match the only guarantee of any longevity. Something van Gaal also know having left Barcelona after a second stint when he brought the Catalan club too close to the relegation zone. A stark contrast to his first stint when he won two league titles, the Copa del Rey and mirrored the astounding success in his first managerial role at Ajax. The club he grew up a s a layer and as manager won everything in front of them for about three years. Only to return years later and fail to even come close to the same success.
In his years managing the Dutch national team a loss in Dublin to a ten-man republic of Ireland that ended the 2002 wold cup dreams for the Netherlands. Something he manage to remedy in the 2014 world cup in Brazil when losing to Argentina in the semi-finals – to secure third place.
It was his time at Bayern Munich though that offers the closest parallel to the current aggravation at United as the Dutchman survived a very paltry spell and imminent Champions League elimination to winning the German domestic double and reaching the Champions League final in Madrid. Which was surprisingly lost against odds to an Inter Milan side managed by Mourinho at the time. Enough to show promise for 2011 and encouraging the Bavarian club to retain his services for longer only to see it as fall around their ears that next season.
The consequence being the 2010 German Manager of the year was sacked with the Bayern Club president at the time Uli Hoeness saying: "Football should be enjoyable, but there has been nothing enjoyable about football at FC Bayern for a while now. And to say that he had the players behind him was a myth.”
In his parting shot from Barcelona the second time around when faced with a hostile media he said the now infamous phrase “Friends of the press. I am leaving. Congratulations.”
These past few days at Manchester United echoes very similar behavioural traits of a manager on his way out – almost voluntarily.
For Johan Cruyff the main problem though is van Gaal is playing the wrong style of football at Manchester United. Albeit the Dutch legend and also former Barcelona coach, has had a strained relationship with his compatriot and hardly offers any real objectivity on the matter. However, he does recognise that United; s current weakness is not dictating games as they should, also insisting there is an onus to entertain the fans.
"He doesn't dominate. I like dominating football. Manchester doesn't play like that," Cruff told Sky Sports News in October.
“It's strange that against strong teams they've got good results and with weak teams they've had difficulties. That's a strange situation. The most important part are the fans, that people going home are happy. It's their time off and you should give them something to enjoy."
Whatever is written in the stars for Monday night football it seems clear that van Gaal may not be part of the long term recovery at Manchester United win, lose or draw. He may have had enough of it all too.
Which is probably the only thing staring us alI in the face at this moment in time