Fergie

9 May

So that’s it, then.  Lord Voldemort finally hangs up his evil hood.  The original dark Knight is leaving Gotham City.  A helpline has presumably been set up for United fans terrified of a Fergie-free future.  Concerned well-wishers will be keeping a 24-hour vigil on Mike Phelan.  I couldn’t lace my own shoes when Alex Ferguson first took charge of Manchester United in 1986.  The DVD was still a decade away from mass production.  George Michael had yet to crash his first Range Rover in a ganja-fuelled haze.

I don’t like Alex Ferguson.  I think the English game is sourer as a result of him.  I disagree with the apologists who say you need a mean streak to make it to the top.  You don’t.  Pep Guardiola’s an absolute gentleman.  Roger Federer behaves impeccably.  When he’s not flogging pills to the stricken, Pele seems like a lovely bloke.  Unlike the sycophants of the national press, Stockhom Syndrome never took root in this football fan.

Pre-Ferguson, managers would never stoop to suggesting that another team wouldn’t try very hard just to stop Manchester United from winning a title (the comment which so riled Kevin Keegan and resulted in the “love it” outburst).  This wasn’t “mind games”, as it came to be lauded.  This was a lowering of the accepted level of courtesy that managers extended to other teams.  Keegan couldn’t believe that Ferguson would openly accuse other professionals of not doing their job properly.  It was anathema to him.  Yet we laughed at Keegan for his naiveté and praised Ferguson for his cunning.

A consummate list of Ferguson’s behavioural shortcomings would require a fleet of historians and a well of ink the size of the Mariana trench.  You know them all, anyway.  Whether it be accusing match officials of not being fit, pulling his loan players out of Preston when they fired his son, Darren, or breaching the obligation to give post-match interviews to the BBC for seven years.  It was the Scot that introduced the “tactic” of players deliberately mobbing refs after an incident, in the hope of persuading a decision.  A grim behaviour soon adopted by other managers and sadly now the norm.  Suffice to say that the current level of bitterness and sniping displayed by many Premiership managers can in large part be traced to Ferguson’s lack of respect for other clubs, for referees and for the FA.

This will form part of Fergie’s legacy.  I’ll not be so churlish as to suggest this will be our abiding memory of the Glaswegian.  But nor will I sweep it under the carpet.

Against this, you have a man who history is likely to regard as Britain’s greatest ever manager.  Bob Paisely has one more European Cup to his name (the only manager in history to win it three times – in a breath-taking nine years).  Paisley, though, took over the best team in the land by a country mile at the height of England’s dominance of European waters.  Bill Shankly paved the way for Paisley, but Shankly has only a solitary UEFA Cup in terms of continental honours.  And the title of “Greatest Ever” isn’t just a matter of domestic life and death.  It’s much more important than that.

In tandem, Shankley and Paisley would probably lay claim to dominion.  Solo, Brian Clough is the only real contender.  With Derby, Cloughie took an unfancied side from the Midlands to the very top of the English league.  He then repeated the exact same feat with Forest and threw in a European Cup to boot.  To top it off, Clough won the European Cup again the following year as an encore.  He achieved this managing teams that had nothing like the infrastructure that Manchester United have.  Yet he’s won as many European Cups as Sir Alex.  It’s a close one to call.

What probably tips things in Ferguson’s favour is the sheer number of domestic league titles to his name.  He’s won more than double his nearest rival (13 to 6).  Astonishing stuff.  If I’d known in 1992-93 that another 12 titles would follow the first over the next 20 years, I might have put my Panini sticker albums into storage and taken up cricket.

His teams are gallant, as well.  From a footballing point of view, Ferguson’s sides are always good to watch.  They’ve had some of the best strike partnerships (and, latterly, trios) I’ve seen.  Providing the service, Ferguson has always favoured fast, skilful, swashbuckling wing play.  Time and time again, Sharpe, Kanchelskis, Giggs, Ronaldo, Nani and Valencia would take to the flanks and stretch teams to a merciless breaking point.  And when things aren’t going their way, United’s spirit in adversity is probably unmatched in world football.  Too Good’s Honorary Life President once described Manchester United needing a goal in the last ten minutes of a game as the most exciting thing in football.  He likened it to Disney’s Fantasia, with all manner of inanimate objects coming to life and dancing to an enchanted tune.   Ferguson as Mickey Mouse, pulling the strings and orchestrating the fight back.

Part of this will likely now ebb away over time.  All teams are inextricably linked to the imposition of their manager’s will.  Only Fergie can manage the Fergie way.  United will have to find another Sorcerer’s Apprentice to bring the broomsticks to life.  God knows, I wouldn’t fancy it.  On matchdays, the new boss will take his seat in the dug-out and stare out at a stand named after his predecessor.  Ferguson is quite literally part of the Old Trafford fabric.

Sir Alex is correct when he suggests that the club is being left in great shape.  He has bequeathed United a winning blend of youth and experience.  In Rafael, Jones, Smalling, de Gea, Welbeck, Zaha, Cleverley and Powell, United have a crop of youngsters that could yet become every bit as good as the fledglings.  Provided they get the right tutelage.  Alas, for United fans, the one thing Ferguson can’t leave behind is himself.

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