Say it ain’t so, Sir Alex. Say it ain’t so. The man who provided more supporting glory before my 21st birthday than most people could ever imagine enjoying in a lifetime, finally retired last week – appropriately, taking his leave at the summit, with the Premier League trophy in hand. The tributes have tended towards the elegiac in tone, as though Ferguson had died rather than retired. While some questioned this outpouring of quasi-grief, for Manchester United fans, it is as though something has died within. An incomparable figure has departed us; and now the future will be forever uncertain.
To sum Ferguson up in numbers is to denigrate just how important he was to Manchester United; but nevertheless, to put the man’s value simplistically, his ludicrous roll of honour included: 13 Premier League titles, 2 European Cups, 1 European Cup Winners’ Cup, 5 FA Cups, 4 League Cups, 1 European Super Cup, and 2 World Club Cups. It really does take the breath away.
It is also beautifully appropriate that Ferguson retires around the 30th anniversary of possibly his greatest managerial achievement. For all that he won at Old Trafford, and the momentous occasions became almost innumerable – defeating Real Madrid with Aberdeen, Aberdeen, in the 1983 Cup Winners’ Cup final must be unsurpassable as a one-off accomplishment. His ability to get the most out of players – great, good and average alike – is surely unparalleled in the history of the game.
But it is Manchester United which Ferguson will be revered for the world over, as ruler of the most abiding regime football has ever known. In a way it was fitting that his last game at Old Trafford saw United ‘not making things easy for themselves’ and relying on a late winner; two of the enduring, eternal themes of Ferguson’s reign in red. The multitude of memories inspired by Ferguson includes, to name but a select few: Steve Bruce’s late double against Sheffield Wednesday, winning everything with kids, Cantona’s FA Cup final winner in ’96, the Ruud Van Nistelrooy-led title triumph in 2003, Moscow, knocking – in turn – Liverpool, Blackburn, Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City off their perches. He gave us it all.
And the treble. The treble. An achievement worthy of a paragraph to itself. A season unprecedented and still unmatched in English football – possibly forever. Ferguson’s delirious reaction to victory in the Champions League final against Bayern Munich summarised an unfailingly dramatic season where United continually, consistently snatched victory from seemingly impossible positions. That team, made in the unflinching image of their manager, stared the twin beasts of defeat and failure square in the face and sent them home, whimpering. Yorke and Solskjaer against Liverpool; Giggs in the FA Cup semi-final replay; Keane at Juventus; Cole against Spurs; and the two substitutes in the Nou Camp. Never, ever to be forgotten by any United fan. And it was Ferguson who made it all possible.
To hear rumblings of a potential departure last Tuesday night – despite my prediction that this would happen back in Fios 368 – provoked a shudder. For said rumours to be confirmed on Wednesday morning left one utterly reeling. Though you knew it must, there was a sense in which you felt this day would never come. The signs were there: the stand, the statue, the staggeringly distressed reaction to defeat against Real Madrid. And yet it was still a devastating shock. The emergence of Wayne Rooney’s transfer request was rendered almost insignificant in comparison: like hearing your Mum’s died and the milk’s gone off, as one wag put it.
The stories about the great man are abundant, but a personal favourite Fergie anecdote that illustrates his refusal to countenance anything less than the best comes from the aftermath of the 1983 Scottish Cup final victory over Rangers. This was before my time, admittedly; but is easily accessible on your favourite video-sharing website. Rather than drowning in a torrent of self-congratulation after vanquishing the Old Firm, again, Ferguson – his face as black as the ace of spades – began castigating his team in broadest Govanese on live television as they paraded in the background: “We’re the luckiest team in the world. We were a disgrace of a performance. Miller and McLeish won the cup for Aberdeen. Miller and McLeish played Rangers themselves. They were a disgrace of a performance. And I’m not caring, winning cups doesn’t matter. Our standards have been set long ago and we’re not going to accept that from any Aberdeen team. No way should we take any glory from that.” One can only imagine what the players thought, but not many examples better illustrate the man’s extraordinary desire for perfection in victory.
Notoriously loath to suffer fools, another amusing tale occurred at the after-match press conference following Manchester United’s humbling by the great Messi’s Barcelona in 2011. “If the owners of Man United gave you a blank cheque over the summer and allowed you to bring in one, just one, of Barcelona’s team – who would you sign?” ventured the interviewer. Ferguson, with a look of incredulous disdain, responded: “That’s one of the most stupid questions I’ve ever heard in my life. Mascherano.” He is that rarest of men; someone who could conjure humour from the lowest form of wit.
Ferguson could certainly be harsh, vindictive, irritable and aggressive, as any player, manager or journalist who encountered him in a dark mood would probably attest to. But this was merely part of the wider legend, a part that unfortunately obscured some of his more charitable work, including that as a patron of The Preshal Trust – a Christian charity founded by May Nicholson – in Ferguson’s native Govan. An unlikely partnership, granted; but one that displayed Ferguson’s softer side.
However, in the last days, it was also pleasing to see Ferguson indulge his vengeful streak and skewer the player who must have caused him more annoyance and irritation than any other throughout his career: Wayne Rooney. Their relationship fractured when Rooney asked for transfer in late 2010, with the implicit assertion that he, Rooney, had become bigger than the club. Ferguson indulged him then, realising that he needed the terminally unfit Scouser time in order to continue his dynasty at that particular time; before knifing him in the back the moment he became dispensable. And with Robin Van Persie’s signing and subsequent success, Rooney has become definitively dispensable.
As Rooney’s camp strived and strained to deny that he had handed in another transfer request last week – another transfer request, at Manchester United; the mind boggles – Ferguson stated, live on Sky Sports, that: “I don’t think Wayne was keen to play simply because he’s asked for a transfer.” Simple, yet brutally effective; Rooney tossed dismissively to the fans like a Roman Christian to the lions.
As for his successor, well, it is only fair, despite his apparent lack of credentials for the job, to give David Moyes – recommended vigorously by the departing Knight of Govan – time to prove himself. During his farewell speech on Sunday afternoon, Ferguson – perhaps sensing the unease – exhorted the fans to rally behind Moyes when he officially steps in on July 1st. Despite some murmuring and discontent over the appointment in the Twittersphere, I believe the supporters will unanimously back Moyes from the outset.
However, he probably has to deliver success within the first couple of years to retain that support. All the ingredients are already in place to contend for the league title and to challenge in the Champions League – a marvellous golden hello from the club. It is a sad but undeniable fact that the footballing landscape has altered dramatically since Ferguson was given an extended period of grace in the late 1980s. It is doubtful that Moyes will be afforded “three years of excuses and it’s still crap” as the infamous banner about Ferguson once so eloquently put it.
Ferguson’s dedication to family must be admired by even his greatest critics and listening to him speak on Sunday it became apparent that this was, undoubtedly, the right time to bow out, despite the appearance of health and potentially having several years left at the top. As he sheepishly shuffled through the Guard of Honour on Sunday afternoon, looking like a kindly grandfather rather than the widely-depicted hammer of referees and scourge of rivals domestic and continental, it was impossible not to feel more than a touch emotional. His like will never be seen again. The greatest of all-time, and a privilege to have supported.