“I certainly don’t have any plans at the moment to walk away from what I believe will be something special,” said Sir Alex Ferguson in his programme notes accompanying Manchester United’s fixture with Chelsea last weekend. Forget the Italians, if Ferguson says it’s pasta, check under the sauce. For less than three days later United’s modern-day patriarch has gone. Retired and replaced. The king is dead. Long live the king.
Ferguson’s has been a remarkable journey these past 27 years. From a club on its knees, without a league trophy since 1968, to the global monolith that oozes silverware from every pore. Ferguson has overseen it all.
Along the way there has come more than 30 major trophies, countless rows and the unsavoury support for the Glazer family.
Yet, strangely almost, by the time United’s official announcement came on Thursday there was no surprise in Ferguson’s passing. Perhaps it is the numbness that comes with shock. Or, in truth, that the expectation of the unexpected was so ingrained that Sir Alex’ news, coming out of left field, was at least from clear blue skies.
Victory over Manchester City, such comprehensive victory at that, has proffered a send off better than any could have hoped. Not for this manager did it all end in failure.
And in the passing of time and glory it is so easy to forget just how decrepit the club that Ferguson found in 1986; unstable financially, a squad bent more on drinking than winning, and an opponent in Liverpool that conquered all before it. The perch wasn’t even in sight.
The legacy is complete now. By any measure Ferguson’s reign is without peer. Not at United, nor in England, or globally. And he will leave a club far stronger than he found it.
“The decision to retire is one that I have thought a great deal about,” said Ferguson on Wednesday.
“It was important to me to leave an organisation in the strongest possible shape and I believe I have done so. The quality of this league-winning squad, and the balance of ages within it, bodes well for continued success at the highest level whilst the structure of the youth set-up will ensure that the long-term future of the club remains a bright one.”
There is so much that has already been written; Fergie strolls into retirement having created a surfeit of memories. It is an end none could have foreseen on 6 November 1986 – the day Ron Atkinson was sacked, and Ferguson hired as his replacement.
Indeed, there was little hope that Ferguson would last five years at a club that had sought glory, but failed to deliver in more than a generation. It has been one of the most remarkable tenures in the history of the game.
Then Ferguson is one of the most remarkable men to have graced the sport. A force majeure of control freakery, with an uncanny ability to cajole, bully and inspire. Each has contributed to Ferguson’s success.
As has luck. Barrel loads of it. But then, as Lefty Gomez, the post-war pitcher famously said: “I’d rather be lucky than good.” Ferguson is both and modern United owes him all for it.
But Ferguson’s appointment was a gamble, whatever the manager’s success in Scotland. As it turns out, ending the Auld Firm duopoly and taking provincial outpost Aberdeen to European glory was just the beginning of Ferguson’s iconoclasm.
Yet, United, as Fergie was to learn, is nothing like Aberdeen, and the expectation of success has always been different, even if it was rarely achieved between Sir Matt Busby’s heyday and the late 1980s.
It has long been said that Ferguson’s mission on joining United was to “knock Liverpool off their perch.” In truth that came much later. United, on its knees after Atkinson’s dismissal, had far more modest ambitions.
The club’s final position of second in the old First Division at the end of the Scot’s first full season in charge was entirely false. Simply becoming competitive with Liverpool was the imperative. After all, at Liverpool they said ‘winning is winning and second is nowhere’.
United was nowhere at best.
Most destructively, Ferguson inherited a deleterious culture of alcohol among a clique of senior pros. That Ferguson set about systematically re-engineering the club, and ultimately succeeding, is testament to the enduring influence the Scot has brought on what is now a multi-billion pound institution. And he did it all in Busby’s shadow.
Ferguson ripped apart United’s youth system – a decision that would prove fruitful nearly a decade later – laying the foundations for squad changes ahead.
By the end of the 1988 campaign Ferguson had released, sold or accepted the retirements of seven players. Within two years Ferguson had overseen the departures of more terrace heroes, including Gordon Strachan, Norman Whiteside, and Paul McGrath.
This, however, is United and progressive change, no matter the club’s state in the mid to late 1980s, was never so copacetic. By the turn of the decade Ferguson was under pressure from within, many calling for or anticipating the manager’s departure.
“Three years of excuses and it’s still crap…ta-ra Fergie,” read the now infamous banner following a run of six defeats in eight games during late 1989. Ferguson would later describe the period as “the darkest” he had ever suffered.
If there was a turning point in Ferguson’s tenure then United’s FA Cup win over Nottingham Forest at the City Ground in January 1990 is often the illustration. It has become a Fergusonian cliché, but the pressure to dismiss the Scot had United not secured the 1990 FA cup may well have become insurmountable.
The Cup win was never enough for the Scot though. Ferguson’s assessment that United had become a ‘cup team club’ was always on the money.
Success in Europe came in 1991 with a remarkable, and thoroughly unexpected, run in the Cup Winners’ Cup, triumphing 2-1 in the final against Barcelona. It would not be the last time Ferguson would meet the Catalans in European competition. Once again, however, United failed to put up a genuine challenge for the First Division title.
Not until narrow failure a year later, with Paul Parker and Peter Schmeichel adding to the growing influence of youngsters Lee Sharpe and Ryan Giggs, did United genuinely challenge for English supremacy. It was the first time in 25 years that the club had done so.
The Holy Grail was found a year on amid the late drama of Steve Bruce’s unforgettable headed double against Sheffield Wednesday. Champions of England at last, with Brian Kidd’s praise sent to the heavens.
The deluge started then. The double came in 1994, with the most combative team modern United has known. “So many of them, real tough bastards,” Ferguson would later note. The ‘double double’ came two years later under the magnificent influence of Ferguson’s finest signing, Eric Cantona.
By 1999 United conquered Europe’s best, driven not through expensive acquisitions alone, but by the youthful evolution Ferguson had instigated 13 years earlier.
United may have been lucky that remarkable night at Camp Nou, but it was Ferguson’s due having revived the club root and branch from a generation-long malaise.
In that Ferguson has never been a coach alone. Whether United’s board truly understood this in 1986 is moot; it was a decision that transformed a football club.
The Scot’s chameleon-like ability to adapt to an ever-changing environment has ensured that the club has continually met new challenges. He has personally evolved for the modern era by entrusting an ever-increasing sphere of influence to an army of coaching, fitness, health and science professionals.
There are failures though. Ferguson’s ability to succeed in the market has often been mixed. Eric Cantona, Peter Schmeichel, Steve Bruce, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Denis Irwin – all bought for a song. The Scot also wasted money on a plethora of the average, particularly as the 1990s gave way to a new millennium. The scattergun policy still unearths rare gems, but mediocrity is often a by-product.
Then there are the personality failings: Ferguson’s requirement for total control has seen Paul Ince, David Beckham, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Jaap Stam leave in acrimony, each before their peak.
Too often, with embarrassing results, Fergie picked fights with the Football Association, media, referees, fellow managers, coaches and, eventually, United’s supporters. Much of it was counter-productive.
“Sometimes I lose my temper,” he once noted. “If someone argues with me I have to win the argument. I can’t lose an argument.”
And no mention of Ferguson’s failings can come without an assessment of his role since 2005. The Scot’s acquiescence to the Glazer takeover, the decision to ‘look after his staff’, and to repeatedly, vocally, support a regime at the height of supporter protest was unnecessarily divisive.
Ferguson’s refusal to acknowledge even the basis for supporter concern was an error. Fans cannot, as Ferguson once urged a travelling supporter, simply “f*ck off and support Chelsea.”
Yet, the bitter after-taste of Ferguson’s loyalty to the Glazer family will fade before memories of the glory will. There is a generation of United supporters that know nothing else but Ferguson, good and bad. Those supporters have experienced little else but unbridled success.
The new journey begins with David Moyes in the dugout, and Fergie in the directors box. Sir Alex’ shadow will surely be long and dark. But that is for the future. In focus for now, the goodbye.
“To the fans, thank you,” concluded Ferguson on Wednesday.
“The support you have provided over the years has been truly humbling. It has been an honour and an enormous privilege to have had the opportunity to lead your club and I have treasured my time as manager of Manchester United.”
It is mutual. It has been a drama, a pleasure, and, frankly, an absolute honour.