Manchester United have announced who their new manager will be. That’s the first time in 9,681 days that anyone has been able to say that. The longevity alone of Sir Alex Ferguson’s reign at United is staggering. Factor in the unparalleled success and his record becomes untouchable.
I was about to turn three years old when Fergie was appointed United’s manager, and although it wouldn’t be for another 10 years— on 17 August 1996— that I became a football and Manchester United fan, it’s impossible to separate his time at United from my life’s timeline. For anyone who considers themselves a serious sports fan, a lifetime is marked by what’s happening in the world of sports. It’s impossible to remove Sir Alex from the history of the club and impossible to separate the club from my life so as we move into the David Moyes era, the situation is indescribably more difficult to accept than simply “a man I’ve never met is retiring thousands of miles away.” It feels more personal, more life-altering, perhaps even more so than it should.
It’s become cliche now, but back in December 1989, supporters were restless after a trophy-less start to Ferguson’s United career. A banner was famously unfurled reading, “3 years of excuses and it’s still crap… Ta Ra Fergie,” Ta-Ra being a Northern English farewell. The story goes that, without United going on to win the FA Cup against Crystal Palace that season, Ferguson would have been dismissed and all the accomplishments that have come since would have been written very differently in the history books.
There are no banners like that anymore. Instead, Fergie’s ta-ra comes very much on his own terms, with a personal trophy haul of 49, including the recent addition of this year’s Premier League (his 13th and United’s 20th.) Ferguson brought United a stability that no other club enjoyed. Season after season, having him on the touchline has meant a guaranteed chance at success. As Cantona, Yorke and Cole, Staam, Beckham, Keane, Schmeichel, van Nistelrooy, Cristiano Ronaldo, van der Sar and countless others have all come and gone, only Ferguson has been the constant. The sun around which the club revolved.
Ferguson was United’s unwavering guide into modern football. Only through his leadership was the club able to change what a modern football club was. From having not won a league title in nearly 20 years into a Football Brand known the world over, Ferguson’s leadership through football’s era of change was singularly important.
His remarkable success created a mystique, a legend that far surpassed his being just a football manager. “Fucking perch”, “squeaky bum time”, “noisy neighbours”, “born offside”, “the hairdryer”, “football— bloody hell.” Ferguson’s career is littered with quotes and concepts that have become ingrained in football’s lexicon. There’s Fergie Time— those extra, extra seconds United always seemed to get when they needed it most, after Ferguson had been reliably stalking the touchline, checking his watch.
And of course, there were the Mind Games. The public digs at referees, agents, the FA, reporters, rival managers and clubs, basically anyone in order to shift attention and pressure from his players to gain an edge. There were times when even I found it hard to read some of the nonsense he’d come up with, but I always read it with a smile because you knew there was method to the madness. Mind games gave us then Newcastle manager Kevin Keegan’s 1995/96 “I would love it” meltdown which saw his side famously collapse, giving United the title. Then there was Rafa Benitez’s “facts” rant, delivered in such a strange and pre-meditated manner during the 2008/09 season when Liverpool were atop the table, only to finish second in the league behind United.
Gary Neville, one of Ferguson’s greatest servants, said earlier this week that Ferguson’s retirement was a day that United fans have dreaded over the years and he is exactly right. We all know that United’s continued success has rested firmly on Ferguson’s shoulders. Since the dismantling of his last great side, the Champions League winning side of 2007/08, United have won 3 of the last 5 league titles during a period when their rivals have possessed both greater talent and greater riches. Only Ferguson’s managerial nous have separated them.
Football will miss Sir Alex Ferguson, Lord Ferg, Sir Fergie fi Govan. If football is theatre, he was both the perfect hero and perfect villain, depending on who you ask. While there’s a certain excitement about the uncertainty the club now face, when Moyes steps out of the tunnel at Old Trafford, next to the Stretford End and across from the Sir Alex Ferguson Stand this August, millions of United supporters’ and I will share a pang of sadness as we wonder where Uncle Fergie’s gone.
Thanks for everything, Boss. twitter.com/Cristiano/stat…
— Cristiano Ronaldo (@Cristiano) May 8, 2013