Ferguson was the fire of England’s winters
‘If you were United, you adored and trusted him. If not, you pretended to loathe him but were always fascinated and envious’
Is there even a point to English football now that Alex Ferguson has exited the stage? It is likely that Ferguson’s peers – the younger managerial whizz kids with snazzy ties who have enjoyed perfectly respectable careers in his shadow – breathed a sigh of relief when the Scotsman announced he is done with the game.
And there are thousands of men across the provincial football towns of England – Blackburn and Sunderland and Wigan and Birmingham – who since the winter of 1986, have stood close enough to Ferguson to scream oaths and curses at him and sing their paeans of hatred who will also feel liberated at the idea of a football season without his omnipresence and that single malt, musical Scotch voice of his.
There must be several good footballers who were signed on the books of Manchester United who felt Ferguson judged them harshly. The gaffer’s eyes would glaze over at training and sooner rather than later, they were on their way out.
Among the avalanche of tributes and reminiscences this week was Dwight Yorke, whose goals helped to deliver the 1999 Champions League and the treble to Ferguson, recalling how the boss told him that he was finished at Old Trafford.
“The club will never forget what you have done,” he was told.
It was brisk and compassionate and only half true: the accomplishments and titles and winning seasons came so thick and fast that “Yorkie” is just one of the many heroes who have come and gone and grown old under Ferguson’s long reign.
When he took over at Manchester United, the rancorous days of the coalmining strikes were still fresh in the mind and English football was banned from Europe and in disgrace following the Heysel disaster. The Bradford stadium fire had occurred a year earlier, the Hillsborough tragedy was a trauma yet to happen and Manchester United seemed broken; a failing club wedded to the sepia triumphs engineered by Matt Busby.
Sometimes, it seems as if nobody managed the club between Busby and Ferguson, the two towering Scotsmen. Jimmy Murphy, Wilf McGuinness, Frank O’Farrell, Tommy Docherty, Dave Sexton and, of course, Big Ron Atkinson make up the case of men who left Old Trafford in various states of disillusionment before Ferguson came down from Aberdeen.
What would have happened if they had sacked him in those early years, as nearly happened? Would the creation of the Premiership and the new money available from Sky television rights have ensured the resurrection of Manchester United regardless of who was in charge?
Or would the club have gone the way of Leeds United, flaming out of the big league, or of Liverpool, always striving and just failing to master the new demands of commerce and spiralling wages and what it took to win titles?
Two generations of children grew up watching Ferguson on MOTD and on the live satellite broadcasts. You know you have had at least a dozen conversations about “Fergie” with people who have never met him but speak of him as if he is a best friend, a confidante, a hero.
If you were United, you adored and trusted him. If not, you pretended to loathe him but were always fascinated and envious. He was impossible to read: loquacious and charming and loyal to his players and always that bit menacing and intimidating. He drove people up the wall. The way he chewed that gum.
And did he really have to celebrate all those mundane away wins – those drab 1-0, 79th-minute headed goals from corners by Brucie or big Gary or Jaap – like it was the first and last goal that the world would ever see? It was Ferguson’s absorption in those ordinary games which set him apart more than anything, his ability to bring the steel and application into grim, hostile away stadiums to make sure his teams won the games they were expected to win more than the other strong teams did. It was all the 1-0s in November against Villa that made him great more than the night Keane scored against Juve or when they beat Bayern or Chelsea to become European champions.
He was supposed to retire in 2002, when the United board was ready to hand control of the club over to Sven Goran Eriksson. The popular story is that his wife Cathy persuaded him to change his mind. Back he came. Frank Richards, who wrote the classic Billy Bunter series of books had this phrase for Mr Quelch, the irascible teacher. He referred to his “gimlet-eyed” stare. It was hard to visualise what that meant until you saw Ferguson in bad mood, querying some goal or giving the death look to some TV journalist who phrased a question badly, or losing it, really going Govan boot boy on some anonymous linesman who did or did not raise his flag. Those eyes were livid.
It didn’t matter how much he had won or how many players came and left, he never lost interest in the next season, the prospect of another Keane or Giggs, the thought of keeping Liverpool and the rest subdued or in the importance of another training session on an icy English morning. Of working, in other words.
In the last decade, Ferguson’s presence was a kind of comfort. He was an ageless presence, impossibly fresh-faced and driven year in and year out, as if Time itself was too intimidated to bother with him.
It was strange to watch the Old Trafford heroes like Cantona or Schmeichel or even Keane gradually accept the limits of youth and, one by one, retire. Not Ferguson. The only concession to age he ever made seemed to be in the zip-up sweaters underneath his winter coat in recent seasons.
They sought for superlatives this week. Is it a good thing that when he retired, the share price dipped by five per cent? Whatever about that he leaves with his personal stock soaring.
Consider this sentence from the Wall Street Journal which, in an attempt to give perspective to American readers invoked a cast of gridiron, basketball and baseball immortals. “Compared to what Ferguson has done as leader of the most famous team in the most professional league atop the world’s most participated sport, all comparisons crumble.”
He was a big player in the transformation of English football into what it has become – a fantasy league which has almost nothing in common with the game as it was in 1986. But because his ethics – the relentless, Protestant work ethic and toughness and ambition – were inherited from the old football tradition, he remained the great symbol of that time. If Ferguson at 70 could care so much about beating Spurs, then the game must be worth caring about.
English football has lost its anchor and its winters won’t seem as important without his seething and shouting and, of course, winning his way through them.