Football serves an odd function – and if you are reading this there’s a good chance that you really care about it. I am endlessly fascinated by what football represents to those of us who become so invested in the outcome of a few men kicking a ball around that it is transformed into drama, beauty, frustration, sadness, joy, love, hate (more’s the pity), escape, togetherness. Family.
Manchester United are often called a family club – a massive global enterprise, at the centre of which, administratively at least, are a bunch of the same people that have been around long enough to remember the first Sir Alex Ferguson title win.[Of course, United are literally a family club, in the worst possible way, given that the club is run by a family of financial parasites, leeching millions away to line their own nest eggs, where presumably they nest their next generation who will grow up to do a leveraged buyout of a club in a developing market somewhere.]
Like all football clubs, United are also something families share, passed down from mother or father to son or daughter, from your uncle who cares about football when your dad doesn’t, or your best friend’s dad’s wife, since this is the modern age. Football has long been regarded as a place where it is acceptable for men to show emotion, letting out the tears that are borne of a deeper loss, but that manifest in the delight or devastation you experience because of the good or not-so-good kicking of a ball.
Somewhere in this mix, where the human unconscious is given an escape valve for emotions that can’t be expressed elsewhere, profound attachments form. And there can’t be many sporting attachments greater than that between United fans and Alex.
Forget the Sir, not just because it’s a weird relic of the feudal age, but also because it’s a latter day addition, it’s a millennial thing, arriving in time to make a handy three letter acronym for the internet age. Before he was Sir Alex, he was Fergie or Alec, and he represented something to me, to us. He was our family club’s dad.
It started straight away. Alex came in and replaced ‘Big Ron’, an avuncular, friendly figure (how little we knew…), and he was quite scary. I was nine, so I didn’t have a drinking culture, but United did and Ferguson put a stop to it, making the club professional, hitting some stumbling blocks, but building, always building.
I never lost faith in him, but I was only 12 when there were “three years of excuses” and living exiled in Zimbabwe, climbing rocks and preoccupied with working out if I could design a hoverboard. By the time I really really cared about football, he became the best dad ever, buying Eric Cantona and winning the league in the year I started sixth form college.
Ferguson brought through a whole generation of kids, and the surrogate father bit was given a whole new dimension. Those of the class of 1992 who became the heart of Ferguson’s team must surely be the players with the deepest relationship with him – David became the black sheep, Ryan, Paul and Gary stayed loyal. Little brother Philip was sent to live up the road with Uncle David so he could come back a few years later and tell us it would all be ok.
Then came the knighthood, and with it the passage to grand-parenthood. Cristiano Ronaldo certainly needed a father figure, and another generation removed, Sir Alex became one. We all watched on, as Fergie became an elder statesman, this great manager becoming the greatest of all time in front of our grateful eyes.
Like all families, there was betrayal and tragedy. He sided with the Glazers rather than the supporters, perhaps because he felt it was in the fans’ best interests to act as a buffer between them and us. Perhaps for less noble reasons. Fergie said that if we didn’t like it we could go and support Chelsea. (Or – we could go to our rooms without any supper, as it were).
Like all dads he embarrassed us, not with his bad dancing – the fist pumped goal celebrations were joyous, not cringeworthy – but his ruthlessness could grate on those with a more sensitive bearing. Jaap Stam, Ruud van Nistelrooy, the weird goalkeeping blind spot. But as you grow up you learn that your parents aren’t perfect, and nor is your football manager.
I’m in my 30s now, and I try to keep the level of emotional investment in men, with a certain colour top, who kick a football, to a manageable level. But Fergie pre-dates my attempts to do that.
I’m so sad that he’s not United’s manager any more, even though I’m happy he gets to retire. I didn’t cry at the montages or the announcement, but I did cry when I recorded Rant Cast and I tried to list all his positive qualities as a human being. A day later, I realise why that was the trigger for me
It’s because it’s complicated. Fergie has been ruthless, and leaves our club registered in the Cayman Islands. He hurt a lot of people. But that’s not the full story.
There has been so much human goodness – the generosity to those in need, the support to other managers in hard times. He is a trade union man, after all. The thousands of letters of condolence and congratulations, done without fanfare.
And whilst there have been times of apparent obstinacy, and masses of footballing frustration, Sir Alex has brought joy to those of us lucky enough to be United fans that no other club anywhere in the land has been even nearly slightly close to experiencing.
I love my dad, even though he is not perfect, and I love Ferguson, even though he is not either. So, thank you, Alex, for dedicating your life to doing something which has made the fans so happy, so often. It’s been absolutely amazing and I honestly cannot believe that it is over.
I understand that impermanence is the fundamental nature of the universe, but I sort of thought you’d be the exception. I am going to remember the joy you brought for the rest of my life, and the pain will fade.
Most of all I will try to remember a mantra I try to live by, something which gives perspective when that inevitable impermanence shows itself: don’t be sad that it is over, be glad that it happened.