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Sir Alex Ferguson and the three ages of Manchester United

I’ve been trying to understand Sir Alex Ferguson’s effect on Manchester United, and to do so I have had to go back in time.

About half my life ago – well, seventeen years back, but it sounds more grand when I express it as a fraction – I studied Medieval History at school. It was a privilege to take that course. You see, I think that Medieval History – roughly everything from about 500AD to 1500AD – gave me pretty much everything I needed to appreciate why our world has turned out like it has. Ancient History, with its impossibly wise Greeks and long-deserted pyramids, always felt a little too remote; and by the time you got to Modern History, to Western empire, Nazis, and the nuclear bomb, it all felt like the wheels were well in motion, and that there was little more that you could learn about the roots of all this. But Medieval History? It was all Vikings, Crusades and international trade, slavery and Christianity, Islam, Rome and Constantinople. This, I felt, was when the ball of modern history was truly set rolling.

Increasingly, I feel like there are three ages of Manchester United: ancient, middle and modern. The ancient history of the club, in my mind (or, at least, in my heart) was everything that occurred until the early Eighties, right before the arrival of Fergie. Being only thirty-three, I look back on everything prior to that with respect, but with a sense of distance. The names of the Busby Babes have the beautiful and painful echoes of legends long gone; those players and their true marvels are unknowable to me as the original wonders of the world.

The middle age of Manchester United, as I see it, is pretty much everything from the early Eighties to, I would say, the turn of the 21st century. During that time, its supporters came to treat success if not quite as a birth-right then certainly as an expectation. In the two years following the Treble, the club added footnotes to its tale of domestic dominance, completing a hat-trick of league titles.
And now we are in the modern age of Manchester United. In this age, we have witnessed the startling emergence of new and sustained challenges to Old Trafford’s hegemony. The greatest threats, more so than Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal or Liverpool under Rafa Benitez, have come from Manchester City and Chelsea. The latter club, under Jose Mourinho, looked for a time as if they would extinguish every opponent in sight, which is why Manchester United’s title triumph in 2006-07 – which, by no accident, coincided with the arrival of Michael Carrick – is perhaps Ferguson’s greatest victory of this period. Running that achievement close is the league championship that Ferguson narrowly claimed ahead of Chelsea in 2010-11, that year when Wayne Rooney launched himself airborne in the local derby.

Why does all this matter? Well, because it’s unheard of in history to have a dominion that lasts through three ages. After all, Ferguson has been in charge at Old Trafford for 26 years, or about one-sixth as long as the entire sport of association football has been in existence. The only thing I saw in Medieval History with the same sort of epic longevity as Ferguson’s reign was the Byzantine Empire, which ran pretty much unchecked for about a thousand years. During the course of that millennium, the Byzantine Empire saw off all manner of opponents. Central to its success was Constantinople, its capital; from the day of its founding in 330AD, it was understood that whoever overwhelmed this forbidding city would take control of the empire. So it was that, when the Turks sacked Constantinople in 1453, the Byzantine Empire also fell; and it gave way to the Ottoman Empire, which would hold sway for five hundred years.

As it was with Constantinople, so I thought it would be with Old Trafford: once the home terrain fell, then so would everything else. The Theatre of Dreams has a rare aura that is the foundation of so many of its victories; and that’s why, when Manchester City eviscerated us by six goals to one, I genuinely thought that the club had lost its mystique. Being dethroned as champions by Sergio Aguero’s late goal was not so agonising as this defeat.

I should have had more faith, I know, that Sir Alex Ferguson would restore us to the peak. It’s just that, as history tells so often us, there are very few forces that come back from a reverse as resounding as that. After all, the Trojans were toast after that horse got past their walls. Napoleon was done for after Waterloo. Yet, after that bloodletting at Old Trafford, Fergie managed to rouse his men again, for a campaign more compelling than most he has mounted.

This season, in many ways, has been as remarkable as any in which the great Scot has been in charge. On one hand, it has been thoroughly modern: in an age where the average full-back is more valued for his attacking rather than defensive contribution, Ferguson has put his faith in firepower rather than a tight rearguard. On the other hand, it has been reassuringly ancient: the resilience Manchester United have shown in coming back so often is in the finest traditions of the club, reaching back to the glorious era of Sir Matt Busby.

When football’s historians come to consider this period at length, they will remark at length on Sir Alex Ferguson’s tactical nous, and his ability to motivate his players. But what will give them greatest cause for respect is the incredible ability that he has shown to renew his team year after year, decade after decade. Indeed, Ferguson has been so good for so long that, if football were a Bible, then he would have a starring role in both the Old and the New Testament: and few can say fairer than that.

Follow Musa Okwonga on Twitter and check out his other work on his website (and his Hail to the Tempest poem about Roy Keane).



  1. Heywood Red says:

    I absolutely fucking dread the day Fergie leaves. He won’t leave us on a low either, think it’ll
    Be after we win the league one year

  2. FletchTHEMAN says:

    In footballing terms Madrid have been more dominant.

    Also United have ebbed and flowed. I started following United in the mid sixties about the time Best was signed. Loved the second half of the Busby years. But we got relegated in the 70s and were a piss poor side, then a cup side at best for a couple decades. Still had unbelievable support. Though! Good memories even from our dark days.

    Predictions for PFA POTY nominations?
    Hope RvP and Carrick get on the long lists.
    Hope De Gea is on the young POTY list.

  3. FletchTHEMAN says:

    Carrick and van Persie make the shortlist for PFA Player of the year.

    Danny Welbeck makes the young player of the year list as well.

    Well Done United!

  4. Fergie's gum says:

    Sir Alex is a legend

  5. Ooberpixie says:

    Brilliant article, which brings together two of my favourite things – football and history – beautifully.

    However, I can’t wait for Ferguson to finally retire. No doubt, he’s achieved amazing things (for which I am eternally grateful), but he’s also done some dreadful things – letting the club and fans down over the Glazers, for one. Furthermore, for the last three years we’ve been unwaveringly awful. We’re only heading the league this year because the Premier League is completely lacking in quality, and has done for some time. I used to be so confident we’d win every match, but now I dread playing even the most atrocious of teams; hardly any of the players seem to be bothered about fighting, playing well, winning – the sort of attributes I’ve come to expect of United players.

    Sure, Ferguson should be hailed as one of the greats, but the time has come for him to retire and allow another potential ‘great’ to take over.

  6. wayne says:

    Ooberpixie yeah well you need to retire from this blog,troll cunt fuck off

  7. 0161-Jon says:

    Unrelated but just found this comment on the bbc website:

    2 Minutes ago

    “We keep hearing about United’s 19 titles… I’ve been around for the most recent 12 and not one of them was deserved… they’ve not been won fairly, they’ve been won by systematic targeting and abusing of officials on and off the pitch, systematic fouling of opponents’ star players, … systematic cheating. None of those titles are worth anything at all.”

    Possibly the funniest thing I’ve read online all year, what a moron.

  8. Joffrey Baratheon says:

    Andylfc just sums up your average football fan there. A whole hearted and completely unbiased and fair analysis from him. He could be a wind up merchant but I wouldn’t put it past that being a serious comment.

  9. Joffrey Baratheon says:

    Brian Kidd also coming out and saying United have jitters and City are ready to cash in. I know he’s an employee of Man City now and has to be professional, but is there really any need for comments like that about his former club? I’ve lost a lot of respect for Brian Kidd not that he would care if he’s lost the respect of a lot of United fans.

  10. Heywood Red says:

    Yeah ooberpixie, it’d been much better if fergie had ogf left in protest when the glazers took over
    Then they could of got someone in who doesn’t give a shit about the club to oversee the turbulent time and still deliver trophies..

    And yeah I can see the team not bothered about winning or fighting for the club. I mean its piss easy to come back twice against west ham away aint it. Not gonna win every game but considering were this far ahead by now we’d of been in much better position if fergie left and the players at least tried hey??

  11. FletchTHEMAN says:

    Think most of us here will be absolutely gutted when Sir Alex steps away.
    I do think United could possibly hier a manager that could handle the pressure. But handling the pressure and solving the mystery of the United locker room are 2 completely different things.
    My bet is that 90% of you guys (ROM regulars) won’t be here 5 years after Sir Alex leaves.
    Probably be slated for that, but we will see eh.

    Basically, United have had only 2 even marginally successful managers in what 60 years? Since 1945 anyway.

    Even on those terms, Matt Busby (who nothing bad about will ever be said by me). Couldn’t win a title in his last 3 years, even with Best, Law and Charlton in the squad.

    We have been spoiled by Sir Alex make no mistake. Hard to put a finger on what exactly he has. But he has chemistry that just works in this place.

    You need to have chemistry somewhere in a club.
    In the manager, or in upstairs staff.

    If any of you are banking on the Glazers and Ed Woodward to replace Fergie effectively you are in for a shock I fear. Every single one of us thought it wouldn’t be a problem in 1969. But it took another 20 years to find a suitable replacement.

    Sure, hire Mourinho and he might bring us a trophy or 2, but he will be gone in 2-4 years. Then what. There are exactly 2 other teams in europe that have successfully kept winning leagues and european cups over 20 year spans since United hired Ferguson:

    1) Madrid
    2) AC Milan

    (United, Barcellona, Bayern and Ajax are on a separate list, winning their own leagues, but only having brief periods of sustained CL success.

    What Ferguson has accomplished in the last 5 years is amazing and Unique. Lads like Rio, have been in the last 4 of the CL played in 3 finals. That is beyond remarkable.

    Make no mistake: Replacing Ferguson will require and immense amount of will from someone at United.
    It won’t happen from the will of the fans (Bayern, Ajax, Porto, Inter, Barca, Liverpool) can all attest to the fact that fan base is not enough.

    I will give credit to the Glazers if they manage to do it.
    At some level, money will not have much to do with it. It will be down to a management strategy and a manager (or succession of managers) that can make things work at the highest level.

  12. FletchTHEMAN says:

    Keeping United successful will take someone at the highest level of the club who fundamentally believes in and loves Manchester United with every fiber of their soul.

  13. wayne says:

    Just getting back to my point on all the fans taking shots at the team against the gunners.Big Sam’s teams play old fashioned football designed to put more skillful teams off their game,all that shit been written honestly you’re either trolls or just don’t understand football
    Sir Alex on the game

    Goalkeeper David De Gea took a blow to the head after a collision with Hammers’ forward Andy Carroll, although Ferguson confirmed he will be fit to play. “We have a few bumps and bruises. David De Gea has a beautiful bruise on his cheekbone,” the United manager told reporters in Manchester.

    “I think after coming out of that war zone I am pleased there is no-one seriously injured. The team were fantastic that night in terms of standing up.

    “It’s the type of games you get against (West Ham manager) Sam Allardyce’s teams. We had to deal with it. A point was deserved and we could have won it in the last 20 minutes but it’s satisfying to come back from going behind twice in the game.

  14. medumtum says:

    Ferguson has something that precious few have, a deep love for the game, with an incomparable hunger for success. His name was already up there with likes of Stein, Shankly, Paisley, Clough, etc. Now over the past five years it is almost in a league of its own. His sustained success has come at a time of unprecedented changes in football. I dont think youngsters coming in today really understand just how much football has evolved, or indeed how incredibly spoiled we have been. The difference in the way finances work, players train, the culture around the players and management, etc has flipped, and through it all Ferguson has been the one constant. Indeed the Premier Leagues ascent to become the the most valuable football league was coupled with Uniteds success, including continental success, which at the time no other british club looked close to achieving. His last five years have embellished that ability to deliver. I am not one who believes the the Glazers are evil incarnate, but its largely down to Ferguson that we were able to win under financial constraints while seeing off the frankly ridiculous oil money that was, and continues to be, poured into the game. Sir Alex finds a way to win, and with him a defeat is rarely a prelude to disaster. It usually turns into an opportunity where the seeds of our next triumph are laid. And now finally the financial shackles look to be loosening, who knows how the club will move forward but we know it has been irretrievably changed. If this special Barca side had not emerged in the past few years, then maybe Sir Alex would have taken a couple of CL trophies and gone into retirement. A terrible loss for football as a whole it would have been. It will happen one day and we will be grateful to have had the privilege of being here.

  15. jamesy1314 says:

    When you where studying ancient history, did you stumble across the successful period of Liverpool football club? bound to be ancient history now!

  16. ididnotzeeit says:

    “And with him, a defeat is rarely a prelude to disaster. It usually turns into an opportunity where the seeds of our next triumph are laid.”

    Just about sums up #20 should we get there. When Aguero broke our hearts last year, Sir Alex quickly dusted himself off and devised a plan to get back on top. Losing on goal difference? Signing RVP almost ensured that wouldn’t happen again. If we were to lose this season it wouldn’t be from a lack of goals. The man is addicted to winning Premier League crowns. It is an attitude instilled in the club that has given us a platform to continue to be successful. League > Cups > Europe. If the great man delivers nothing but domestic glory until the time he calls it quits I will nod with great respect that it is the title that brings us the most joy. Moscow was a cherry on an anotherwise sumptuous decade of domestic achievement. Stay focused on what matters most and the rest will fall into place.

    God bless Sir Alex Ferguson

  17. Lee Martins Winner says:

    Just a few words,

    You never appriciate what you have until its gone.

    Great article btw, Interesting take of our history.

  18. nanisgranny says:


    Strange opinion dont agree whatsoever. the preimer league imo is the most competitive league in the world. look at spain u have only two teams that can win the title, germany the same, italy is a joke at the minute. while in england you have ourselfs, city, chelsea always challenging and then arsenal, spurs and liverpool. also in england the smaller teams are harder to play against and harder to beat esp away like your west hams and stokes there not easy games like madrid and barca have against teams like granada and celta vigo. hammering teams by five goals you rarely see that in england these days which highlights what a competitive league it is. United imo haven’t got the credit they deserve for being so far ahead and thats mainly due to the fact we fucked up last year and no proper fan wants to get ahead of themselves. if we had won last year this year would seem like a dream.

  19. King Eric says:

    Ooberpixie – Fuck off you ungrateful little prick, you won’t know what hits you when Fergie calls it a day. Spoilt fucking bastards that are an embarrasment to the club.

  20. dev says:

    Hi Musa,

    Great read. I’ve always enjoyed your articles and columns on ESPN’s Soccernet. Always thought you’re a brilliant writer. Glad to see Scott appreciates it too.

    Also thanks Scott for sharing this. Wasn’t aware Musa had a website. Got to bookmark it now hahaha.

  21. King Eric says:

    ididnotzeeit – Spot on pal , from the SECOND Aguero scored that goal Fergie would have been plotting his revenge,.

  22. Pav1878 says:

    Excellent article, and I couldn’t agree more.

    You summed it up brilliantly. I can really relate to this theory of three ages, and in my mind i picture it the same.

    SAF is revered now, but still not fully appreciated in my opinion. Still far too many people out there who pour scorn on his achievements and his tactical nous.

    However, his ability to motivate his (at times, inferior) players is nothing short of remarkable. He is the general that any army in history could only dream of, with more desire and charisma in his little finger than most other managers put together.

    I fear the worst for the future. For when he retires, we will truly see and appreciate his worth.

    Replacing him is an impossible task. It cannot be done. We need to maintain our identity and the. Ext appointment at old Trafford is the single most important decisionin our clubs history since the decision to hire SAF and the decision not to sack him.

    If we get it wrong, I feel we may go the way of the Byzantine Empire. But if we perhaps reinvent ourselves, we may be lucky enough to go the way of the British.

  23. Marq says:

    Sir Alex’s ability to get the most out of players is probably his biggest asset. To be honest, we have never had the most dominating of players apart with 98/99 and 07/08. But United as a team have always been very competitive. You can even say that on paper, we have punched above our weight in certain years and it is something that will be very hard to replicate when Sir Alex eventually retires.

  24. 2Coats of RED says:

    Love reading his articles. Musa deserves more print on ROM.

  25. Happy Devil says:

    Have been wondering would Fergie havesigned RvP had we won the title last year. Blessing in disguise?

  26. King Eric says:

    Marq. The team mate that trumps both them is 94. My favourite side by a distance. Huge characters all over park. Pete. Bruce and pally. Keano. Robbo. Eric. Sparky. Ince. Loved that side. If teams wanted a scrap they would lose. If teams wanted to play football they would lose!

  27. Ruks says:

    Mourinho and pep r gud options in terms of quality but who can give longitivity? Can definately nt the duo doin that;mourinho wil always move, and pep wil also. I think we hv been bleesed 2 have fergie

  28. Dela says:

    @Happy Devil –> I think he would have signed him. I think that the second Fergie realized the transfer of RvP was possible, he made it the #1 priority. It’s not often you can poach a rival’s talisman


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