The knight has decided to call it a day.
The time has come and Sir Alex Ferguson is going. In years to come, tales will be told about this Scottish manager who has so transformed the game of football. Some of those tales will be true, some will be false, and some will very much border on the mythological.
Because wherever you look, Sir Alex’s achievements seem unbelievable. Not just the sheer quantity of them, but also the longevity. Success is a nebulous quarry, and few achieve it for such long periods. Sir Alex Ferguson is one of them.
Such a phenomenon is rare, as is evidenced by how Harvard Business School has prepared a paper on him. He transcends football: his is a model of management that business and other walks of life can emulate. Yet, to attempt to do so would be near fatal.
For Sir Alex is like no other. Deep within him lies a relentless winning spirit; a flame that could never be extinguished. It is this quality that now separates him from all his contemporaries. He is not the first to have managed for so long at one club with recurring success – but he may just be the only one to have constantly maintained such a high standard.
Unlike Arsene Wenger, he has not gone on a long trophy drought. Unlike Jock Stein, he is not leaving a club in acrimonious circumstances. Unlike Sir Matt Busby and Brian Clough, he has not overseen the failure of relegation.
He leaves still at the level he always craved. Manchester United at the summit of English football.
The summit that he himself climbed. When he joined Manchester United in 1986, he found a club wallowing at the bottom end of the table that had gone 26 years without winning an English League title. By the time he is leaving, 26 and a half years later, United are established at the top end and are without argument the most successful club of the Premier League years.
It was no fluke however. Sir Alex had already began that at Aberdeen where he broke the Old Firm’s grip on the Scottish League. His successes meant that when Jock Stein suddenly died prior to the 1986 World Cup, it was he who was called as an emergency replacement to lead Scotland to Mexico.
However, obvious constraints mean that there was no way Scotland were ever going to upstage the likes of Diego Maradona’s Argentina – and there was no way he would find the recognition he deserved with Aberdeen. Old Trafford came calling, and logically, he answered.
In a way, no club was ever going to suit Sir Alex better than the Red Devils. He was a man of character and resilience, plus he believed in the same values of youth development that Sir Matt Busby espoused in yester years. Indeed, for a club that rose from the ashes of the 1958 Munich air disaster, Ferguson was its perfect fit.
Yet, he eventually surpassed the club itself. Nobody believes more in the mantra that no individual is greater than the club. But Sir Alex certainly has become the greatest single factor to United’s success.
He dispelled the myths. He showed that a League title can be won with kids. He wrestled the winning dynamic from Liverpool. He made tough decisions – it was either his way or the highway as David Beckham, Jaap Stam, Ruud Van Nistelrooy and Roy Keane will all attest to.
And, as is the quality with all managers who have stayed at the top for so long, he constantly evolved.
In those 26 years, there were many challenges he had to deal with. Tactical innovations, Liverpool’s tradition, Kenny Dalglish’s Blackburn Rovers, Arsene Wenger’s philosophy, Jose Mourinho’s specialness and ultimately, Manchester City’s millions. Like Odysseus, his odyssey took him through tasks that required brute force as well as wit to overcome. With the dethroning of Manchester City, it is safe to say that he has overcome all.
Yet, for a man so successful, one thing may remain a cause of regret. The European Cup was probably not conquered as often as it should have. However, on the face of it, his record is not that bad. Two European Cups is the maximum for most managers, and only Liverpool’s Bob Paisley has three in the competition’s entire history.
Certainly, the way in which he won his first European Cup epitomised everything about him. On that night in 1999, the relentless will to win brought his team from the jaws of defeat to the cusp of victory in a mere final three minutes. That night at the Camp Nou will never be forgotten.
Ironically though, it is the men from the Camp Nou who ensure that his legacy on Europe’s elite competition is not more decorative. In 2009 and 2011, his side was completely eviscerated and got nowhere near Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona. Indeed, that Barcelona may have been the greatest side in football’s history – and it denied the greatest manager in history the chance to leave a lasting legacy.
Overall though, it will be a while before we ever see the likes of him again. In a constantly changing world where short termism and instant success is the norm, Sir Alex Ferguson is an anachronism.
Yet, as much as he evolved with the times, he eventually could not evolve past time itself. That seems odd, considering that retirement at 71 years of age still leaves a glaring hole not only at Manchester United, but in football itself.
Never again will he stand on the touchline and bark orders. Never again will he prepare a pre-match team talk and a half-time hairdryer. Never again will he chew gum ferociously, wave around his watchto the fourth official or celebrate another inevitable trophy. From now on, whenever the words Sir Alex and Manchester United manager go hand in hand, they will not read ‘1986-present’. There is now a stop. 1986-2013. And in between, numerous memories, trophies, mistakes, lessons and memorable moments.
Fergie time has eventually run its course. In true Fergie fashion, it has done so on Ferguson’s own terms and with him still in a victorious state.