I was about 12, and playing Playstation at a friend’s house. After roughly our 60th head-to-head match, he suggested we start a career game together. He was one of those odd sorts that didn’t support a particular team, “just the game in general”, so we were Manchester United. “Ah”, he said. “There’s only one manager, and two of us. What will we name the manager?” I was confused. Whenever I played as Manchester United, I never named the manager after myself, as fans of other teams seemed to do. “Alex Ferguson,” I insisted. “The manager of Manchester United has to be Alex Ferguson.”
And yet, as of roughly 6 o’clock on May 19th, a few minutes after the other 9 Premier League matches have ended, the final whistle will blow at the Hawthorns and the manager of Manchester United won’t be Alex Ferguson. It’s an odd thought, a world without Ferguson as the United manager. It’s all a lot of us have ever known. The thought of Alex Ferguson not being the United manager is like waking up when it’s still dark outside. It should always be bright when you wake up and Ferguson should always be the United manager.
The statistics of his success have been and will be printed in just about every eulogy (‘eulogy’ – he’s not even dead, even if it feels like it), but I prefer to think of the moments that he created.
How many pints of beer did he cause to overspill?
How many screams of maniacal joy – the lusty, throaty, primate ones you think will never end – did he create?
How many Monday-morning winks and smiles upon entering school or the workplace, how many passionate arguments, how many pumped fists (or fists hit off walls for those not fortunate enough to be Red), how many moments where you just lost it, threw your head back and thought ‘I am alive. This is fucking living.’
A lot of people didn’t like him. Mainly, you found, these were people who he beat, or whose teams he beat. They were also generally people who had never met him – y’know, in real, actual life. The man possibly called a cunt more times than any other of our era attended dozens of funerals of ordinary fans, wrote hundreds of letters to bereaved families, went out of his way to help young managers, and unlike some others, did not summon a camera to capture all of this. Bar his adorable old-man celebratory dances, he didn’t particularly care to demonstrate the fact that he’s probably a likable guy in the public eye. Ferguson is a fucking warrior. Fucking warriors don’t especially care if you like them or not. They care about winning, and my god did he win like no-one before him. He won with style, with panache, and most of all, with drama. In a way it’s a little unfitting that his last major success will be a Usain Bolt-esque stroll across the finish line, as his most memorable were those where United gritted their teeth, and won in a red blur, dipping before the line.
Those ones felt better than the strolls, didn’t they? Barcelona in 1999, won after Ferguson replaced one of the finest strike partnerships of all-time with a wrinkled Londoner and a Noggie plucked from obscurity. Bedlam. One of my fondest childhood memories is jumping up and down in pure glee on my sofa as Solskjaer prodded home, whilst my neighbour sprinted across our estate to bang on the window of an Arsenal-supporting friend.
How many of those orgasmic moments did Ferguson and his teams create? If not for him, that would have been an anonymous night where I would have done normal things I did other nights. That night would not be part of my life. Ferguson ensured that night is part of my life. It’s a funny feeling to think about – that a man who you don’t know, a man who organises people to kick a ball and happens to be very good at it, has been a serious part of your life, one of the parts that you’ll actually think about when all is said and done. The best nights of my life were made by either my friends, my girlfriends, my family, my surroundings or by Alex Ferguson.
There are gripes to be had with the man, sure. His support of the Glazers sticks in the throat. Whatever about doing what’s best for the company and avoiding a civil war, he has gone out of his way to praise to the heavens those who gambled the future of something that so many care so deeply about, shed its earnings and made it harder for those who loved it most to continue to go. Even his retirement announcement contained a thanks to them that elicited an awkward skip of a few lines for some who read it, lest they retch. However. There’s a great scene in Old Simpsons (capitalisation sadly necessary) where Mr. Burns berates a monkey working on a screenplay. “It was the best of times, it was the BLURST of times?! You stupid monkey!” Criticism of Ferguson that plays a dominant part in your memory of him is like criticism of a monkey for a typo – he’s achieved so much more than what anyone could expect that it feels wrong.
Those who don’t get sport were confused today. As discussions took place in either hushed tones or excited yaps, some pondered and others openly questioned whether someone had died or merely retired. Well, someone has retired, but something has died. That part of your life when Ferguson was the manager of Manchester United and anything seemed possible. You can take solace that they’ll never know. They’ll never know what it’s like to punch a hole in a wall that turned out to be more plastery than you thought, as United beat City 4-3 in the 96th minute – a minute that may not have been a minute at all if Ferguson wasn’t around. They’ll never know what it’s like to tumble forward several rows of seats and lacerate your shins as Federico Macheda, scorer of a midweek hat-trick for the Reserves and promptly promoted by Ferguson, did that turn and effectively sealed one of Ferguson’s 13 titles. 13. Man. Arsenal, the great Arsenal, the Arsenal of Herbert Chapman and Liam Brady and Dennis Bergkamp, have 13.
And there’ll be other moments like City, like Villa. It just seems distinctly less possible with Ferguson not around. The old boy thrived so much on drama, he seemed to plan on it. He usually signed players most capable of the dramatic, even at times where a little sensibility might not have gone amiss elsewhere. He signed Robin van Persie instead of a central midfielder, and Robin van Persie provided moments that spilled beer and put smiles on faces.
That’s what I’ll remember him for. The moments he gave to me without even knowing.
It was the best of times. It may now be the blurst of times. Oh, and Moyes? Let’s hope he’s not the New Simpsons to Ferguson’s Old Simpsons.