Boxing Day 1989, Villa Park. Not much Christmas cheer; another defeat, another dreadful performance and real anger on the away terraces. Predictably, the final whistle was greeted with a cacophony of jeers and boos, but as the players troop off towards the tunnel the fans find one voice and one target. The noise is deafening: ‘F*ck off Fergie, f*ck off Fergie …’
More the 20 years ago the protest came as no surprise. Two weeks earlier United fan Pete Molyneux had unfurled a banner in the empty Scoreboard End seats waving ‘ta-ra’ to Alex Ferguson for ‘three years of excuses’. Only months earlier Ferguson had disappeared under his own duvet after Manchester City hammered the Reds 5-1 at Maine Road. No wonder when former players, TV pundits and just about everyone else lined Ferguson up for criticism. Even so, the lowest point was to come later at Villa Park.
Ferguson had already revealed his pain in the wake of derby defeat in a revealing interview for the Sunday Times. Speaking of feeling like a “criminal” because he had “let down the supporters,” Ferguson admitted that “at Manchester United you become one of them, you think like a supporter, suffer like a supporter.” When those supporters rose up against him at Villa, Ferguson’s suffering was complete.
Boxing Day 1989 is long gone. Yet, the new season approaches with unrest in the seats, anger on the internet, and Ferguson once more at the centre of it all. In recent weeks United’s proposed Initial Public Offering (IPO) has placed the Scot in the spotlight, with accusations that the 70-year-old may benefit from the ‘2012 Equity Incentive Award Plan’, which will grant share options to selected senior employees and executives of the club.
Ferguson moved fast to clarify his position in relation to the proposed IPO, claiming that he does “not receive any payments, directly or indirectly” from the IPO. But the controversy was not solely a matter of money. Some things matter more.
“I’m speaking out because I do not want a situation to develop whereby the media and other parties create a rift, however small, between myself and any Manchester United fan,” added Ferguson. “I’ve spent 25 years of my life pushing this club forward and not only could I have not done it without those fans, I do it for them.”
Some supporters are suspicious of Ferguson’s defence. Some have separated man from manager, rejecting the idea that Ferguson thinks and suffers like a supporter, while accusing the Scot of treachery. Others erase the image of Ferguson on the back of a motorbike touring Paris looking for Eric Cantona, while considering the manager’s motives more sordid. Both will describe that night in the Nou Camp as the highlight of their lives
It is easy to understand why many are attracted to this interpretation; there is no doubt Fergie is difficult to like at times. The manager’s recently publicised views on “wee pockets” of militant United supporters misrepresenting the truth, and shouting down the “majority of the real fans” who look at the Glazers ownership in a more positive light, was simply outrageous. While appreciating Ferguson’s position as an employee of the Glazers family, the manager’s interpretation was still hard to swallow.
Yet, there is another side to Ferguson that still commands immense personal and professional respect. The manager’s days of supplementing respect with a healthy dose of fear are probably over, but Ferguson continues to drive those around him with an obsession and desire that are undiminished. Sir Alex is consumed by the game; the same man who played for Dunfermline on his wedding day, and then went training the following morning.
The game is nothing without its public. United’s supporters are not simply an audience to be entertained (or not), and then forgotten until the next match. The manager’s involvement with United’s fans has become a cornerstone of his life. Perhaps his personality makes that involvement difficult at times – Ferguson’s commitment is absolute, but so too are his demands.
Perhaps supporters have been equally unforgiving too. Despite Ferguson’s achievements, which have transformed fandom at Old Trafford beyond previous imagination, the Scot has always attracted criticism from within.
Does that mean supporters should appreciate the manager while rejecting the man? Only the Glazers would benefit from such a rift. Flawed Ferguson may be, but he cares every bit as much about the club, its traditions and future as supporters do. And he does so in the poisonous atmosphere of Glazer ownership, globalisation, the IPOs and all the commercial aspects that have become inseparable from the modern game.
Perhaps it is not yet time to party like it’s 1989.