It's been a particularly dramatic week in the game of thrones. The wild-eyed puppet king was suddenly and ruthlessly removed. Speculation spread like wild fire about various warrior kings riding from overseas to stake their claim. But meanwhile the power broker behind the throne is busy looking to install one of his squires to guard his legacy. Everything is poised for an epic struggle in which the wellbeing of the loyal followers has long been usurped by a battle for power, influence and line of blood.
This was not an episode from HBOs much anticipated Season 4 of Game of Thrones though, but the real live drama unfolding at Manchester United as David Moyes was sacked and the battle for his successor starts to take place.
There has been much head scratching about what has been going on at Old Trafford, but really it can all be explained by watching Game of Thrones. This is an age-old battle taking place.
The pivotal figure in the Old Trafford drama is Alex Ferguson. Ferguson ruled for 27 long years, from a time before the long summer, when Manchester United did not dominate the land, but had to duke it out with others and often didn't win. They became battle hardened during this time and rose to rule supreme.
The pivotal figure in Game of Thrones is Tywin Lannister, played by Charles Dance, the patriarchal head of House Lannister. To understand what has happened and is happening at Old Trafford all you need to do is watch the first season of Game of Thrones. When we are first introduced to Tywin he is skinning a stag he has caught hunting in particularly muscular fashion while laying out his plans for the family to his swashbuckling son, Jamie. While Ferguson was never known for actually skinning players with a knife his legendary 'hair dryer treatment' probably instilled a similar level of respect and fear. Jamie Lannister is the David Beckham of Game of Thrones, and the scene made me wonder how the similarly golden Beckham might have been when Ferguson was holding court. Tywin is the only man who can make the cocksure Jamie quake in his most splendid boots.
The motivations that Tywin reveals in this opening scene not only informs every thing that comes after in Game of Thrones, it also explains everything that is happening at Old Trafford, a ground we might think to rename North Westeros when the saga is over. The only thing that mattered to Tywin was his family retaining influence and power - and so it is becoming clear with Ferguson.
The installation of David Moyes as manager of the most valuable sporting franchise on the planet made no sense until you know this. Why would you take a man who had a very ordinary career as a player and no track record of real success as a manager and install him as Ferguson's successor when there was an abundance of talented and successful managers who would have only been too ready to take on Manchester United? Why would you step over the opportunity of having the supremely able and confident Jose Mourinho, someone Ferguson was known to respect, take over when he was clearly available and keen? So dazzled were many by Ferguson's aura that these questions not only went unanswered but went unasked when Moyes was suddenly plucked from mediocrity and installed at the end of last season. The popular thinking was that Ferguson must know what he was doing.
And so he did. But what he was doing was not acting in the interests of the Realm but actually for House Ferguson. What installing Moyes allowed him to do was retain influence and power. Ferguson became the power broker behind the Manchester United throne in the same way that Tywin Lannister became the power broker behind the Iron Throne when his grandson, the supremely potty Joffrey, was installed. Moyes is clearly a good man, while Joffrey is evil incarnate - but they both have the same tendency to look very nervous, do strange things with their eyes, and then make ludicrous decisions. Moyes transfer dealings were about as strategically savvy as Joffrey's decision to cut off Ned Stark's head.
Once you know all this looking at what Ferguson is now doing makes total sense. This week he declared that Ryan Giggs had his backing to take on the role fulltime - a man hastily put in temporary charge in the same fashion as Ned Stark was given the throne when the original king, Robert Baratheon, died. In football terms this is insane. Giggs is a great player, a good man, and is Manchester United through and through, but he has no track record at all in managing. As has been shown over and over again if you install someone who has been a player straight into a management role he doesn't have the authority, or the emotional intelligence, to separate himself from being 'one of the lads' - that Giggs will be backed by what looks like the whole of the team he used to play with supports this hypothesis. What Manchester United need is a big character with a proven management record, someone who knows how to exert influence and power over a team of supremely talented but highly egotistical and pampered young men.
The issue for Ferguson though is if this happens he will lose his grip. A powerful new leader doesn't want the old one hanging around. Ferguson might be allowed some sort of superannuated 'brand advocate' role, but essentially this would mean he was out to pasture. And as was shown at Apple way back when John Sculley took over, there's a strong possibility the new leader would want him banished to afar. What installing Giggs would mean was Ferguson could still pull the strings. The Welshman might sit on the throne, but to him Ferguson would always be the gaffer and thus be able to cajole, influence and ensure the club remained shaped in his image; what Giggs and Ferguson call 'The Manchester United Way", but what is really "The Ferguson Way".
Like all deeply political battles, some of the most power influencers are not obvious. In Game of Thrones the wonderfully cunning Lord's Varys and Baelish have little power but have immense influence through their abilities to whisper, manipulate and sway. It is not clear who these people are in North Westeros.
What is clear though is the next appointment will define Manchester United for a generation - if a powerful new King is installed in the short-term things might be bloody and it could take some time to stabilize the kingdom, but in the mid-term Manchester United will most likely thrive again. If House Ferguson retains its grip though, and Giggs or another of his former Kings Guard is permanently installed then the words of Lord Baelish may well ring one day in their ears:
"Chaos isn't a pit. Chaos is a ladder. Many who try to climb it fail, and never get to try again. The fall breaks them.... Only the ladder is real. The climb is all there is. But they will never know this. Not until it is too late."