Alex Ferguson: a winner, a great manager and the biggest bully of his generation

I’m not an ABU bigot, but the retiring Manchester United boss personified everything that was wrong with football

The wave of adulation that greeted Alex Ferguson’s retirement was a bit like the famous ending of the 1999 Champions League Final. It was the ultimate vindication, crowning him as a winner and a great manager. But it also obscured a lot of what went before.

So now that his career has entered “Fergie Time”, the often-prolonged period between the end of 90 minutes and the actual final whistle, it might be useful to counter-balance the eulogies. By remembering, for example, that as well as being a great manager, Ferguson personified everything that was wrong with the game.

I should declare, before any Man Utd fans dig it up, that I am a recovering Chelsea supporter. I publicly resigned from the role a few years ago, in protest at the club’s unaccustomed success and, more generally, because I could no longer ignore the absurdity of the typical Irish male’s attachment to an English soccer club: acquired at random in primary school and thereafter as indelible as a tattoo.

So maybe I was prejudiced from the start. Nevertheless, I have to say that Ferguson is part of the reason I fell out of love with football. And if I had to choose only one of the many things I so disliked about him, it was the relentless bullying.

Bullying is not unusual among football managers. It may even be part of the job description. But Ferguson was the biggest bully of his generation: towards players, rival managers, journalists, and above all referees. His endless griping about match officials was in part the result of a bad temper. Like most of the things he did, however, it had a tactical end too.


Marginal decisions
The cultivated trepidation of referees resulted not only in Fergie Time – the unwarranted extension of matches at Old Trafford whenever the home side needed a goal – but tilted many marginal decisions besides. And so there was poetic justice when, in what we now know was Ferguson's last Champions League game at home, a controversial refereeing decision cost United the game. For 26 years, it had usually been the other way around.

The intimidation was verbal, mostly. But not on one infamous occasion in the 1999-2000 season when referee Andy D’Urso, on his Old Trafford debut, made the double mistake of first awarding the visiting team a penalty and then failing to stand his ground against the inevitable outrage.

Backpedalling pathetically, he was chased off the pitch by apoplectic United players. It was like the cornering of a fox by a pack of hounds. Even if the manager wasn’t involved, it was his team.

One of the many other things I won’t miss about Ferguson was hearing so often about his alleged talent for playing “mind games”. I know this wasn’t his fault: it was the creation of football journalists who, when they weren’t being intimidated by him, had the task of trying to interpret his drawl and then translate his statements, however bland, into headlines.

His reputation for interfering with the heads of rival managers was cemented forever when the then Newcastle boss Kevin Keegan had a meltdown on live TV. Thereafter, even Ferguson’s most banal comments about the opposition were liable to be treated like the evil genius of Fu Manchu. That’s when he was speaking, of course. Sometimes, when the soft press he was used to didn’t oblige, he resorted to boycott, as in his seven-year sulk with the BBC about an investigation into transfer dealings.

Speaking of transfers, it is a fact conveniently forgotten by many Red Devil fans that before clubs of even more vulgar wealth, ie Chelsea and Manchester City, appeared, United happily bought their way to success too. They never stopped, either.

Yes, they introduced a famous generation of locally nurtured talent. But whenever necessary, Ferguson threw money at his team’s problems and, especially in the early years, he didn’t always throw it wisely. The record also shows that his last league title was achieved largely on the back of buying one of his rival’s best players: a fitting epitaph.

Speaking of Arsenal, Manchester United’s latter-day dominance of the Premiership was at least in part the result of the Greek tragedy that is Arsene Wenger. During his early years in England, Wenger threatened to outclass his indigenous rivals, including Ferguson, with his superior understanding of tactics and diet, innovative use of performance statistics, and unparalleled knowledge of the international game, which was then dominated by France.

But gradually, the British managers caught up. And simultaneously Wenger, an economist by profession, fell victim to his own caution. He runs the Arsenal team as if he owns the club, as if his own money would be at stake were he ever to pay a penny more than he thinks a player is worth.


Financial reckoning
It's also said that, for years, he foresaw a financial reckoning in football, like in the greater economy, wherein the spendthrifts would be punished and the virtuous rewarded. It didn't happen. Except for the odd Leeds Utd, there is no moral hazard in football. The big spenders thrive, while Arsenal's model finances condemn them to the status of also-rans.

Mind you, in European competition, Ferguson’s United were usually also-rans too. A pair of Champions League wins – both dramatic, but neither convincing – is not a great return for 20 seasons of domestic dominance. And even at their best, United could be outclassed abroad.

There was no shame in losing to the Barcelona of recent years. But if I had been a United fan at the 2009 or 2011 finals, I think I might have found their inability to hold on to the ball for more than two passes embarrassing.

I’m not an ABU bigot, honestly. I accept that Ferguson’s teams, as well as being winners, had many admirable qualities. For one thing, they always played open, attacking football: it was a Ferguson core value. I also know that in criticising them, I will only feed the siege mentality that the manager deliberately cultivated. That was a core value too.

But perhaps United fans should be more concerned about the future. A big worry for them, I suggest, is David Moyes’s well-known reluctance to criticise referees. His fairness in this regard is one of the many exemplary things about him.

In fact, he seems to have none of the selective myopia from which most managers, but especially Ferguson, suffered. So the question is, at Old Trafford, will Moyes continue to see clearly, even when his own players commit fouls? Or as part of the appointment, have they already fitted him with his predecessor’s contact lenses: the ones that allow you to see only red?