Johnson: Sir Alex absolutely iconic during his lengthy tenure at Manchester United
Brilliant leader will retire at season’s end, leaving huge shoes to fill for incoming manager David Moyes
A wise Scottish proverb says:
“A tale never loses in the telling.”
Well, it seems certain that the tale of Alex Ferguson, son of a Glasgow shipbuilding plater’s helper who went on become a knight of the realm and indisputably the most successful British football manager ever, can only grow over the passing of the years. Down through the generations to come that will pass by the Munich clock, inhabit the Stretford End, swaying and singing and paying lifelong allegiance to Manchester United.
Far, far beyond the regulation 90 minutes, extra time and penalties.
By turns manipulating, masterful, maddening, bullying, brilliant, exhausting and entertaining, Alex Ferguson — like all defining coaches/managers in professional sport — was able to subtly adapt to the times, the restless changing tides of society, the needs and whims of the evolving professional athlete, while still retaining the essence, the hammer of authority, of what made them a cut above in the first place.
That is the key to longevity and when you consider two decades elapsed between Ferguson’s first and, as it turns out now, final Premier League title, he bent the times as subtly to adapt to him, as well.
“As a fan, I’m sad and I’m gutted,” former United midfielder Gary Neville, now a TV pundit for Sky Sports, told the Sun in Britain after news broke Tuesday of Ferguson’s retirement at season’s end. “As a player, I’m grateful to have worked for the greatest manager of all time. And as someone in the media, the game has got a bit less interesting.”
From Paris, David Beckham called him “a father figure” on his Facebook page. “Thank you boss and enjoy the rest!”
Through the falling away of the years, Alex Ferguson dealt with all kinds of players, personalities: Mad geniuses (Eric Cantona), style setters (Beckham), hard men (Roy Keane), consummate pros (Neville, Ryan Giggs), preening peacocks (Cristiano Ronaldo), aging icons (Bryan Robson), poachers (Ruud van Nistelrooy), prodigies (Wayne Rooney) and generals (Paul Scholes).
The common thread through all of them was the end result on the pitch.
That, and who was always, but always, in charge.
The Boss. In ways even Springsteen never dreamt of.
“It was important to me to leave an organization in the strongest possible shape, and I believe I have done so,” the 71-year-old Ferguson said in taking virtually everyone in world football by surprise. “The quality of this league-winning squad, and the balance of ages within it, bodes well for continued success at the highest level, whilst the structure of the youth setup will ensure that the long-term future of the club remains a bright one.”
On his watch, Manchester United transformed itself into the world’s most successful sporting brand, as famous in Tibet or Tahiti as on Tottenham Court Road, worth $1.86 billion according to Forbes magazine. Love him or loathe him, his single-handed rule of the Red Devils (and the entire Premiership, too, rival supporters have been heard to complain) produced stunning success, a total of 38 trophies, including 13 league titles, five FA Cups and two Champions League crowns (United’s historic 1999 treble among them).
Ferguson never did play well with others (“They say he’s an intelligent man, right?” he sniped, mocking rival manager Arsene Wenger. “Speaks five languages? I’ve got a 15-year-old boy from the Ivory Coast who speaks five languages!”). Even sometimes with his own, roaring against anyone at Old Trafford who dared challenge his command, and once infamously kicking a boot in the change room that hit Beckham in the head (“Just ----ing patch him up,” he ordered the stunned physio).
He could also summon up Churchill-esque oratory. During halftime of the ’99 Champions League final, down 1-0 to Bayern Munich on a sixth-minute goal in front of 90,000 strong inside the cavernous cauldron of Barcelona’s Camp Nou Stadium, Ferguson told his team: “At the end of this game the European Cup will be only six feet away from you and you’ll not even able to touch it if we lose. And for many of you, that will be the closest you will ever get. Don’t you dare come back in here without giving your all.”
Against the run of play, United would score twice in extra time to conquer Europe for the first time since ’68; since the legendary side of Busby, Best, Charlton and Law.
“Football ... bloody hell,” Ferguson muttered in awe and relief afterwards.
As the trophies and titles piled up, he became a part of the cultural landscape. The phrase “squeaky-bum time” coined by Ferguson to describe the last moments of a tight match, for instance, is included in the Collins English and Oxford English dictionaries.
And whatever your take on his methods or his influence, he passionately loved the game, the magic that took place within the white lines, and those capable of sprinkling the pixie dust.
“I remember the first time I saw him,” he once reminisced of Giggs. “He was 13 and just floated over the ground like a cocker spaniel chasing a piece of silver paper in the wind.”
Hard not to take a shine to a man like that, however flinty and autocratic he could seem.
Inevitably, when someone this successful, this influential, this controversial, decides to exit the stage, plaudits come thick and fast.
“Football,” they’ll say, “will never be the same.”
Well, of course it will. Football always goes on. But something quite unique is undoubtedly leaving the touchline on May 19, two games from now.
Everton manager David Moyes, who has never won a major championship in his coaching career, but who has long been a favourite of his fellow Scotsman at United, takes over for Ferguson.
But who on earth could really replace Fergie, everyone was clamouring to ask.
Well technically, a largely unknown Alex Ferguson took charge of United in 1989 from Big Ron Atkinson, but in reality he took over from the legendary Matt Busby. Every manager at Old Trafford had, in essence, taken over from the benevolent Busby since the great man’s retirement in 1969.
And all before had been found conspicuously lacking.
No one, people back then were convinced, could ever replace Sir Matt.
Well, a statue of Sir Alex Ferguson erected in November now stands outside the shrine that is Old Trafford, just around the corner from the statue of Busby.
“What an act to follow,” tweeted former United striker Michael Owen on Tuesday.
What an act, indeed.
George Johnson is the Herald’s sports columnist. E-mail him at email@example.com
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