Departing Marks & Spencer veteran Steve Sharp, who played a key role in defending the audacious attempt to take over the retailer in 2004, has publicly backed beleaguered boss Marc Bolland and the retailer’s management.

Sharp, a pivotal member of the Sir Stuart Rose team that famously fended off takeover interest from tycoon Sir Philip Green and restored profits to £1bn, threw his weight behind M&S’s top brass as they prepared to launch an autumn/winter range on which hopes of recovery rest.

Speaking this week at his final AGM as a board member, marketing mastermind Sharp gave his backing to Bolland and a management team that has changed significantly in the past year.

Sharp said: “I’ve got every confidence in this amazing team, this new team that’s been brought together.”

Many expected Sharp to leave M&S at the same time as comrade-in-arms Rose in 2011, but he stayed on and this week paid tribute to Bolland for his support and for giving Sharp “the freedom to do what I need to do”.

First-quarter numbers showed M&S’s strong food business again overshadowed its general merchandise arm. While food like-for-likes rose 1.8%, general merchandise, largely comprising the crucial clothing offer, fell 1.6%.

It was the eighth consecutive quarter of sliding general merchandise like-for-likes and Bolland is under pressure to turn things around. Customer reaction to the new autumn/winter range, which launches in stores on July 25 and has been put together by general merchandise head John Dixon and style boss Belinda Earl, is viewed as critical in restoring confidence in M&S’s clothing offer.

Bolland said he was “not happy” with the clothing performance. He insisted that progress is being made but warned transformation would not happen overnight. “I think people will be pleasantly surprised by the product they will see in stores from the end of this month,” he said.

Although he has now stepped down from the board, Sharp will remain M&S’s creative director until the end of February 2014.

He indicated that he will retain an interest afterwards. In a comment that may have been a light-hearted reference to former Tesco chief Lord MacLaurin’s intervention at the grocer’s AGM last month, Sharp said: “Next year I’ll be here, on the floor, as a shareholder, standing at question point B.”