Sir Alex Ferguson retires. How does one even begin to write a piece that sums up the achievements and influence of this man? Can anything new and original be gleaned from the avalanche of tributes, salutations and platitudes paid to the old curmudgeon since Wednesday’’s announcement?
I could begin by peppering my prose with superlatives. A trophy cabinet in the Old Trafford corridors bowing with the sheer weight of his many triumphs is testament enough to the magnitude of his considerable ability to manage a football team. He is to all intents and purposes, the greatest manager ever to grace the game of football. Without peer. A visionary who simultaneously adapted but remained loyal to his own footballing principles. The most confrontational, Machiavellian, spiteful and inspirational manager of the lot. Dwarfing Mourinho, overshadowing Clough and whisper it quietly, knocking Shankly off his perch. But we live in a world where superlatives are so easily dispensed and as a consequence are rapidly diminished by the cheapness of comparison.
It would be much easier and less honeyed with the overuse of a hackneyed phrase if I saluted the man’s canniness for shaping language and soundbite so effectively. For half-time verbal tirades, you need only think of the term, Hairdryer. As the pressure mounts and levels of brinkmanship reach climactic levels during the final stages of a season, we now all refer to it through the metaphor of a Squeaky Bum. Define the stretching of time in order to fit the narrative that you desire. Fergie Time. All have passed into the vernacular of our game and are immediately and easily comprehended by all. Perhaps they’re even poetic. Of course, his language could be a lot colder, more earthier, less cerebral than all that. But this is no place for a seminar on linguistics and the power of allusion.
And speaking of allusion, I could choose to draw a connection between the manner in which he ruled and dominated his football club by the strength of his personality and iron of his will, with similar dictators from other spheres. A statue of him bestrides Old Trafford and his name looks down from the stands much in the same way those members of the politburo did when they ruled Soviet Russia. And like those old tyrants, Ferguson would denounce and exile enemies of his regime for thinking differently. Cast out into the wilderness, their names would be expunged from his vision of perfection. Keane and Stam, van Nistelrooy and Beckham all felt the cold chill of his wrath. But nevertheless, with his retirement they all came to pay their respects. As did his worshippers, the average man and woman of the street, who wept and spoke into cameras, agog with disbelief even though they always knew such a day was inevitable. But his presence will continue to stalk Manchester United. He was instrumental, so we were told, in choosing his successor, almost as if he was unveiling his very own Babushka doll. The man who takes over is very much made of similar ‘old school’ stock. For Five Year Plan, substitute Six Year Contract. But this is not a time for political symbolism and tenuous threading. It is a remembrance.
So I could take the anecdotal path and tell you of how I was only eight years old when Ferguson took over at Manchester United. How my dad, a Manchester United supporter bought me a replica shirt after Ferguson had been appointed and told me that I would support a team that I had no geographical or cultural reason for supporting. I was finding my bearings as a young football fan and my heart was rapidly won over by a team of perennial underachievers in North London. I could at least see them often. And I did see them often against Ferguson’s United. And they invariably lost. Apart from once, in the matches I attended. In 1990, when we beat them at home but my dad jumped up in celebration in the home end when United scored and nearly got us lynched. A twelve year old kid apologising for the childish behaviour of his old man. Then again, autobiographical information in this instance is too personal and does not adequately capture what a United without Ferguson means in general terms.
I could just re-count those common moments we all share. Watching as we did as United steamrolled all before them. All those players. All those challengers seen off with those fabled mind games. How he got under Keegan, Benitez and Wenger’s skins. That celebration that is oddly reminiscent of a flailing dad doing a dance at his daughter’s wedding. How those burst capillaries and that vigorous gum-chewing are as part of the landscape of football as anything else I can remember. And more importantly than all of that, the swagger with which his teams played, especially that first great team of Giggs, Kanchelskis and Cantona. But all that is perhaps a little too broad, a little too general. Everybody knows about all that after all.
So I could just be honest and admit that as the years have passed, I’ve grown fond of him. Time was when, like many, I hated Manchester United and in particular Sir Alex, more than I loved my own team. Such are the follies of youth. With maturity, I’ve learnt that I can sit back and respect my apparent foe and enjoy football for what it is, an artform, a hobby, a distraction. With maturity, the zealotry of early football fandom gives way to an appreciation of the capabilities and talents of its leading lights. Hence why past hate figures such as Drogba, Keane and even Tony Adams, eventually earned my respect. Ferguson has been around for so long, any enmity I used to have for him faded away years ago. I will genuinely miss him next season. Football, not just Manchester United, will be a very strange place in the coming months.
I could have written about all those things. But what would be the point? You’d have read all that or something of similar effect and affectation somewhere else over the course of this tumultuous week. What more would I be able to add to all that’s already been said? Ultimately, it comes down to three words that he disbelievingly gasped fourteen years ago as my then-girlfriend, now-wife danced for joy in Reading University’s Student Union bar:
“Football. Bloody hell”
Thanks for the memories, Sir Alex.
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