Alex Ferguson invented the phrase ‘squeaky bum time’ to capture the feeling of unease and panic during a title run-in. It’s when every point can feel like a victory, and every goal conceded can feel like a terminal illness. It’s a three-week panic attack, and rumbling in the gut promising an explosive, porcelain-based conclusion to a season’s work. It is, in short, horrible.
When Ferguson described the phrase, he was largely ascribing the sensation to on-pitch matters, the wins, draws and defeats. But for Manchester United fans now, squeaky bum time applies not to whether they can somehow steal fourth place from Manchester City, but whether or not Ed Woodward keeps Louis van Gaal in a job. Ferguson has, at least, given some succour to sphincters when photographs of his meeting with Mauricio Pochettino were published yesterday.
There are a few ways to read the development, but as things stand at the moment, there is currently no reason for fans to get their hopes up. In the past, a meeting between a potential managerial candidate would have made things look like a fait accompli - notwithstanding Roberto Martinez strolling alongside FSG’s John Henry in America. Right now, though, this looks most like Alex Ferguson going out of his way to cause trouble for United, and possibly Jose Mourinho, as his influence at Manchester United falls.
Ever since the dereliction of best practice that was the appointment of David Moyes, Ferguson’s ability to exercise his favourite thing - control - has declined. It’s completely correct for that to happen. For the biggest job in England, and one of the biggest jobs in the world, it clearly demanded research, interviews and a considered approach, not allowing a manager with almost zero Champions League football experience to be appointed.
Certainly not one with a lack of imagination that Moyes demonstrated.
It appears that the Glazers and Woodward have correctly clocked that Ferguson’s methods only occasionally serve to benefit Manchester United at the same time as him, which is one of the reasons why Woodward is so reluctant to appoint his acolyte, Ryan Giggs, as his successor.
Therefore, when United fans get their hopes up by seeing Pochettino with Ferguson, and when Spurs fans worry seeing the same images, a moment of calm is required. If Pochettino is Ferguson’s man for the job, there’s no motivation for Woodward to plump for him.
His own preference, Jose Mourinho, is still keen on the job, and suitably removed from the affections of Ferguson to be independent. He knows, after all, how Ferguson acted towards him the last time the job was up for grabs, and is no fool himself. Woodward, for all his extensive incompetence, is not giving anything away this time. While he might lose out by dithering again, he is not being swayed into ceding control to Ferguson or anyone else over the appointment. That limits Pochettino’s already slight chances.
Further to that, there are no indications that Pochettino has decided to go back on his announcement that he plans to sign a two-year contract extension with Spurs. Were he seriously considering leaving the club - this summer at least - then he would hardly have made that announcement publicly. It should also be noted that Pochettino does not have an agent, but representatives.
Were he really carrying out clandestine talks over leaving White Hart Lane, then you would imagine that firstly he would not have attended a meeting with the most famous manager of all time, at one of the most prominent restaurants in London, where paparazzi are constantly in place to take photos to sell to the media. You can argue that Pochettino could have saved a meeting for a month’s time, but given how little agitation it has caused at United and Spurs, his judgement was probably correct, to treat everyone like adults.
Another thing to remember is that Ferguson has a track record of advising younger managers. In return for their deference, managers could count on a helpful loan signing from the United reserves and youth teams, and could call him up for advice. For Pochettino, he is hardly unlikely to turn down the chance to talk over his season with Ferguson, to prepare for next season. That’s when he will aim to build on his second or third place finish, and to make a serious impression in the Champions League.
What should not be discounted is that Ferguson knows that he has lost the battle to keep Jose Mourinho out of Manchester United in the event of the removal of Van Gaal, but is going to make things plainly awkward for everyone.
By meeting Pochettino in public, he can distract everyone, cause a bit of hassle, and then play up just how innocent it really all is. After all, if it is a social meeting, as is being claimed, it is notable that he has not yet done the same thing with Mourinho, who has far more time on his hands for long lunches.
Ferguson might have had a perfectly diplomatic and plausible defence for the meeting, but he is also not so stupid that he would know how it would look. The only person that should have a squeaky bum at the moment is not Spurs fans, or even United fans, Mourinho and Ferguson, but Van Gaal after last night’s shameful defeat to West Ham.