“I am not really interested in what has happened here in the past,” said Alex Ferguson in his first programme notes as manager of his new club in 1986. “I don’t mean any disrespect to the great achievements of Manchester United over the years. It’s simply that now there is only one way to go, and that is forward.”
If by that Ferguson meant winning 36 major honours in 25 years, then he has indeed taken the club ‘forward’. For United, with the Scot in the dugout, glory is almost always assured even before a ball has been kicked. And although the Scot might never have envisaged achieving such a feat, there is still the feeling that, remarkably, he wants more.
Ferguson has no plans to retire, he tells us this annually, with the sound of a man fed up of hearing, and then answering, the same old question. And yet, you can hardly blame people for asking it. It’s inconceivable, unimaginable even, in the modern footballing world that anyone can hold onto to their managerial post for so long and still, somehow, be able to dumbfound and succeed in equal measure.
This is especially true in the modern climate, where unforgiving men in suits ruthlessly wield the metaphorical axe in the direction of the person they once entrusted to guide their team to glory. After all, the average tenure for a coach is about two years and since Sir Alex took charge of United all those years ago well over a 1,000 managers have come and gone.
And so with all this considered, you would forgive anyone in his position for getting ahead of themselves. But Sir Alex doesn’t work like that. Ferguson remains driven: the same fiery character he was when he had first started, because it still matters to him.
“I don’t doubt the stories that if sufficiently angry he will throw boots and teacups across the dressing room,” wrote David Meek in the first issue of United Review after Ferguson was appointed. This was a time before the Scot was affectionately called ‘Sir’. David Beckham has no doubts, either. Meek also noted that here: “lies a manager of great determination” and even now, that observation is still evident.
Back then, Ferguson’s aim was to knock Liverpool off its pedestal. The claim was laughed off, but a 19th League title last May proved the doubters wrong, and made the achievement all the more special because of it. Now that’s he done, Fergie can afford to put his feet up. But, no, the Scot wants to win another Premier League title, another European Cup – he feels he hasn’t won it enough – and will not rest until he does so.
Yet, Ferguson’s flirtation with retirement in 2002 goes some way in creating the counterargument; that he was, in fact, not all that determined to emulate Liverpool if he was ready to call it quits. It is an unfair observation. Ferguson was well within his rights to leave it all behind. He had a family, and at 60, had already achieved more than most. The glorious treble winning season of 1998-99 could not be topped – and Ferguson’s legacy was protected, no question. And although, back in 2002, Liverpool still had more English league titles to their name the power had long shifted in United’s favour.
In that sense, Ferguson had achieved what he set out to do: United was a force again, and rivals were left to chase their tails. Since the infamous u-turn Ferguson has given the impression that he’s glad he hadn’t called it a day. And today there isn’t a United fan in the world that wants to see the back of the Scotsman.
Longevity isn’t the only thing Ferguson is blessed with. Team-building is another of the manager’s great assets; perhaps so good that even the great Dutch manager Rinus Michels, who knew all about constructing a winning team, would be a little envious. Even now, United is building towards a new generation, investing both time and money in youth in a bid to avoid a repeat of the brilliant United side of 2007-2009, which was potentially one of the best, yet short-lived because of over reliance on individuals.
Although still in its early days, there seems to be more of a focus on being a collective in Ferguson’s latest incarnation. This is exactly what Fergie set out do in 1986, when he spoke of the importance of collectivism. Football isn’t a game of individuals. It is about the club and its fans.
“It’s very easy to change in football, to let a little success carry you away, become bigheaded and uncaring about people. The game is for the ordinary supporter,” said Ferguson before his first home game against Queens Park Rangers.
“The players should have time and concern for people, and maintain a sense of proportion.” And, sounding as if he was talking about himself, he added that: “I have always felt that the ultimate accolade for a successful man is if it can be said that he didn’t change… he didn’t get carried away.”
If you were to present Ferguson with these quotes today, would he regard himself a ‘successful man’? Amusingly, he perhaps would not, as one of the qualities he most admires is modesty: “humility is what you fall back on at the end of the day.”
Fergie has seen his team dominate for two decades and yet isn’t complacent about it. He is, in fact, always wary. Aware that he isn’t flawless. And, it is not being perfect, that makes him perfect.