‘People say mine was a poor upbringing. I don’t know what they mean. It was tough, but it wasn’t bloody poor. We maybe didn’t have a TV. We didn’t have a car. We didn’t even have a phone. But I thought I had everything, and I did: I had a football.’
On the final day of the 2000/2001 Premier League season, Manchester United played Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane. Coming as it did, just a few months before the remarkable 5-3 at the same venue, the match is not so well remembered. With the league already wrapped up, the game was largely an irrelevance for those of us standing in the away section. United lost 3-1 and, unlike our next trip to the Lane, very little about the occasion sticks in the mind. Bar one thing. For the duration of the second half, without interruption, the fans sang ‘Every single one of us loves Alex Ferguson’ ad infinitum. Forty-five minutes without a break, the longest sustained piece of chanting I have ever heard. You see Sir Alex Ferguson had talked about retiring at the end of the season. We had come to praise Caesar, not to bury him. Part thanks, part plea, the noise would not let up. And though received wisdom suggests repetition leads to a loss of meaning, on that particular day nothing could have been further from the truth.
Fast-forward a decade. In November 2011, Fergie celebrated twenty-five years at the helm. On the day that the North Stand was renamed in his honour, I texted a friend to remind him of another occasion, in 1998, when an acquaintance of ours had suggested it was about time the gaffer was handed his P45. This pal, a Spurs fan, texted back with the words, ‘I can’t wait until you have a normal, human manager.’ Quite. In his very first set of programme notes all those years ago, plain old Alex wrote ‘A man is very fortunate if he gets the opportunity to manage Manchester United in his lifetime and I can assure you that I have no intention of wasting my opportunity.’ Consider us assured. We used to taunt the City fans with chants of ‘25 years, fuck all.’ Perhaps we should have replaced the expletive with ‘it’ and directed the song at the man for all seasons.
Though gushing, the bulk of the press coverage around that particular milestone focused on the myth rather than the man. The papers have always preferred archetypes and love to paint Ferguson as the furious masticator, angrily berating his players for any perceived inadequacies, not much of a tactician but a masterful man manager ruling with an iron fist. Though tempting, this somewhat misses the point. Cristiano Ronaldo, for one, has claimed he never saw a single example of the infamous ‘hairdryer’ treatment during his 6 years at United. Mark Hughes coined the phrase in relation to his old mentor way back when but people change and none with quite as much success as Sir Alexander Chapman Ferguson.
In that same set of programme notes, that mission statement, Ferguson, perhaps surprisingly, insisted he was not interested in the past, concluding ‘There is only one way to go, and that is forward.’ This is the man’s entire M.O. in microcosm. Alvy Singer in Annie Hall was right, a relationship is like shark and does have to constantly move forward or else it dies. It’s just that in this case the relationship is with a football club. It is a simple case of adapt or die.
To paraphrase another manager with a decent claim to be amongst the greatest ever to have drawn breath, Brian Clough, I wouldn’t say Ferguson is the greatest manager ever to have lived but he’s certainly in the top one. Clough, of course, made the claim about himself and yet, for all his success, Fergie rarely talks about himself and the extent of his achievements. Even that twenty-fifth anniversary was marked only by his insistence on extolling the virtues of the great players he feels he’s been ‘lucky’ enough to work with down the years. Winning is everything, the glorification of the Ferguson name means nothing. For all the flak he has received over time, I can think of very few decisions he has made that weren’t at least intended to be for the good of Manchester United Football Club. His outbursts are never about showmanship or a desire to be the centre of attention (an accusation that could be levelled at Clough on occasion and Jose Mourinho in more recent years). Even the feud with the BBC suggested a man unfussed by how history will remember him. Or perhaps he realises that it tends to be written by the winners.
The difference between the two managerial heavyweights is aptly summed up, oddly enough, with reference to Frank Sinatra. The idol of both coaches, the Forest legend once claimed of ol’ blue eyes, ‘He met me once.’ This soundbite is quintessentially Clough; pithy, witty, arrogant but brilliant. Sinatra did not meet Ferguson though. In 1989 the two were supposed to have dinner together. United lost away at Charlton during the day leaving the boss in such a foul mood that he cancelled dinner and went home on the bus. It is one of the few decisions Ferguson regrets to this day and tells one a good deal about the nature of obsession. Watch his interviews carefully and you’ll notice the word ’challenge’ recurs more often than any other. He’s much more likely to reflect on the final day on the 1994/1995 season than any of the 13 title successes. The man will be seventy-two on New Year’s Eve and has won everything there is to win yet is still driven by an obsessive fear of failure. I happened to catch a quiz show between players and staff on MUTV a few years back and Ferguson’s side wiped the floor with Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville and Michael Carrick. Not the strongest opposition perhaps but the manager’s single-mindedness shone through as he barely consulted his team-mates and still stormed to victory. I suspect in that moment they knew how Mike Phelan feels.
It is almost impossible in sport to compare different eras. For a multitude of reasons there can be little doubt that the Spain of today would beat the 1970 Brazil side. Context is everything and this doesn’t necessarily make modern Spain the greatest ever football team. What is remarkable about Fergie is the manner in which he has straddled the divide and succeeded in an era of Clough, violence and pitches resembling the Somme all the way up to the present day. The game is almost unrecognisable yet the result is identical. Perhaps the most significant thing you can say about the man is that the story of the Premier League is his story, the one constant pushing the narrative forward. The hero or anti-hero depending on where you came in the lottery of life. The protagonist.
Ferguson has risen to every fresh challenge over the twenty-seven years he has managed United. Initially he had to overcome Liverpool and the weight of history, then he had to take on Blackburn and Jack Walker’s millions, Wenger’s Arsenal came next with some of the finest football ever seen on these shores, before he bested Chelsea and Abramovich, outlasting even the ‘special one’. For the record, Mourinho himself refers to Ferguson only as ‘the boss’. Hard to believe there was once a time when there was actual discussion of whether Wenger was the greater manager. Many feared Manchester City and their unprecedented wealth would finally see the old master come unstuck. We clearly don’t know our history quite like the man himself. This season, Fergie continued his astonishing streak of always winning the league the season after finishing second. It has now happened on six separate occasions. They say it’s an unprecedented 13th league title but what were the previous 12 if not precedent?
The statistics are staggering. United, arguably a team in transition, have not lost the league by more than a single point in the last 7 years. Transition at United seems to be unique in that it does not preclude success. Ferguson has now accrued as many top-flight titles as Bill Shankly, Arsene Wenger, Brian Clough and Herbert Chapman combined. His is a record never to be beaten. As Fergie himself is so fond of saying: ‘There’s no question about that.’
If one was in any doubt about whether the man still has the desire to continue, the image of him barking instructions at his players deep into the second half against Aston Villa with the game and title all but confirmed should tell you all you need to know. Incidentally, if you want a measure of the consistency of the team over the last two decades, take note of the fact that United’s opponents, Aston Villa, were the main challengers for that first Premier League title under Ferguson way back in 1993. Villa are now attempting to stave off relegation while Ferguson and company continue to do what they’ve always done – rack up trophies. The club keeps Fergie young, why would he possibly walk away? No less a judge than Ryan Giggs went one further and said: ‘Alex Ferguson is Manchester United.’
Last Yom Kippur I went to synagogue with a book of Ferguson quotes disguised as a prayer book and read it cover to cover. Initially I felt bad about breaking the second commandment on the holiest day of the year but then I recalled I need only beware false idols. It brought to mind a Passover choon entitled Dayenu in which we list all of the gifts God has bestowed on us (brought us out of Egypt, gave us the Torah, yada yada yada) and conclude each line with the titular word, the rough translation of which is ‘That would have been enough.’ Even just one such wonderful blessing would have sufficed.
If He had brought us our first title in 26 years? That would have been enough.
If He had brought us our first European trophy since 1968? That would have been enough.
If He had brought Cantona to the club? That would have been enough.
If He had brought home 2 European Cups? That would have been enough.
If He had placed us on top of a certain perch? That would have been enough.
A successful manager need simply get it right more often than he gets it wrong. In football, you don’t have to be good; you just have to be good enough. This season’s title triumph was perhaps the most pragmatic of the 13 but in a sense that makes it Ferguson’s finest achievement. The team reflected their maker, as always, and proved extremely difficult to beat. Even in his finest hour, the treble triumph, unprecedented in the history of English football, United, as so often before and since under Sir Alex, left it late. It happens too often to be deemed mere coincidence, that never-say-die attitude comes from the top. Fortune favours the brave. Pundits have lost count of the sheer number of great teams the man has fashioned, four or five at last check and always with an eye on the future. Put it this way, if I had access to just one immortality pill then I’d give it to Sir Alex Ferguson and die safe in the knowledge that I did the right thing. Football? Bloody hell.
In late 2010, when Wayne Rooney requested a transfer and all seemed lost, Ferguson delivered arguably the greatest performance of his reign. One could have formulated a hundred different ways to handle that situation and none would have been quite so effective. Ferguson opted not for silence, anger or histrionics but instead for emotion. He displayed his fragile side and allowed himself to look vulnerable, quite unheard of prior to that press conference. Like Mel Gibson in Ransom, he turned the situation on its head and used the cameras to his advantage with all the cunning and guile acquired through years of experience. One can only hope that, when May rolled around, some of the Premier League prize money was used to buy young Wayne a dictionary in order to look up the definition of ambition.
I believe, as a fan, the most one can hope for is that come April your team is still involved in some important games. For over two decades now, United have been there or thereabouts in the league during the latter stages of the season along with an outstanding record in the cups. I was born in 1984 and as a result, in pure footballing terms, I know nothing of pain. I say this not to gloat but because I actually realise quite how lucky I have been. I trust Fergie enjoyed a decent glass of red along with his champagne last week. Here’s to the next twenty-seven years.
Although the pressmen of the 1990s loved to characterise Ferguson and Wenger as polar opposites with the cultured, professorial Frenchman at odds with the abrasive Scottish football man, nothing could be further from the truth. By all accounts Wenger has very few interests outside the game and spends his spare time almost exclusively viewing matches whereas over the years I have heard Ferguson espouse on topics ranging from Shakespeare and American military history to the Coen brothers and classical piano. Astonishingly well read, I wonder if Sir Alex has ever come across the following quote, from Jonathan Safran Foer, a particular favourite of mine:
‘If you love someone, you miss them while they’re still there.’
Every single one of us loves Alex Ferguson.
Darren Richman also writes for The Independent. Follow him on Twitter.