On 19th May 2013, Sir Alex Ferguson relinquished the reins at Old Trafford as the most successful manager in the history of English football. An extraordinary reign of 26 and a half years which has seen the club achieve unparalleled success in the form of 13 league titles, 5 FA Cups, 2 Champions League crowns among many others. His longevity has been pivotal to the success of Manchester United and allowed him to stand out among his peers in times when clubs rush to sackings in the hunt for short-term success. Sir Alex himself could easily have suffered such a fate in his earlier years at the club but for a commendably far-sighted and supportive employer. And let’s not forget the highly successful spell he enjoyed as manager of Aberdeen.
Sir Alex’s career is as close as it gets to immortal. Truth be told, his United career has been ageless, intangible and simply historic. Even those football fans who hate him are forced to admit – he is the greatest ever, and there cannot be any argument about that. In his statement, he said “The decision to retire is one that I have thought a great deal about and one that I have not taken lightly. It is the right time.”
“It was important for 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 … the long term future of the club remains a bright one.”
What would probably remain as SAF’s only regret during his time at Manchester United is that he won the coveted Champions League crown just twice. Those victories though clearly underlines the “desire to win” and the never-say-die spirit that Ferguson had managed to inculcate into the United system. That spirit is a major ingredient of the success he achieved at the club. Then again, United fans will be quick to lament the luck that went against them in the second leg of the UCL semifinal against Borussia Dortmund in 1997. Or point towards Paul Scholes’ disallowed goal against FC Porto in 2004, which would eventually allow Jose Mourinho to write his own chapter in footballing history. Throw Nani’s incredibly harsh and hugely controversial red card v/s Real Madrid into the mix and United fans have reason to believe that their team were better in Europe than the results reflected.
Ferguson’s time at United wasn’t always a walk in the park. Far from it. But whenever one thought the sands of time were being eroded, Ferguson would stand the egg-timer on its head. United slumped to a disappointing 10th place finish in his 3rd season in 1988-89, and it would take until 1993 for United to capture their 1st league title in 26 years. But once the first hurdle was conquered, Ferguson never looked back. His time had come. He built his 1st championship winning side around the French wizard Eric Cantona, whom many regard as Ferguson’s greatest signing in his glorious reign at the helm of Manchester United. Then a few years later, came the magnificent treble winning side of ’99 – of which Beckham, Giggs, Scholes, Butt and the Neville brothers came through the United Youth Academy. The academy, till today, under Ferguson’s watchful eye continues to unearth some of the brightest young talents in English football. Then came another blip following the premature and unexpected announcement of his retirement in the ’01-’02 season. But Sir Alex had his doubters choking on humble pie the very next year, delivering another title. Many questioned whether United would be able to continue their success amidst the uprising of another superpower in North London. Not to mention the arrival of Russian money into the English game, but he answered his critics in a manner most fitting of the great man. Three seasons without the title was followed by 4 Premier League crowns in 5 years. The side inspired by Cristiano Ronaldo went on to script Champions League history on that tumultuous night in Moscow in 2008.
The fact that United surrendered an eight-point lead the previous season and allowed their bitter rivals Manchester City to clinch the title on the final day must have been a tough pill to swallow. But he reacted swiftly, securing the services of Japanese International Shinji Kagawa, and more significantly, Dutch hitman Robin van Persie, which raised many an eyebrow. But it was his last stroke of genius, as the former Arsenal skipper went on to lead United’s title charge with an impressive 25 goals in 36 appearances. What has followed since last season has been Ferguson’s crowning glory, a befitting way for the great man to sign off. The transformation of a supposedly ‘ordinary’ United side, into a side that clinched the Premier League with six games to spare, almost cruising to the finish line in several games.
His legacy will, of course, be the stunning array of silverware he brought to the club, transforming the club, as Gary Neville puts it, from a “laughing stock” to the biggest club in the world. But his role in the marketing and global appeal of the club can’t be overlooked. And his genius doesn’t just lie in the fact that United continued to churn out title-winning sides year after year. Ferguson also insisted that United play a certain attractive and exciting brand of football, with almost an obligation to entertain their legion of fans around the world. He sent his sides out to play with flair and to keep fighting till the end, refusing to settle for anything but a win. Right to the final whistle, and deep into the proverbial ‘Fergie Time’. Sir Alex’s greatest strength was that he could motivate his players and simply extract the best out of them week-in week-out, winning titles with sides, with which some managers might just about scramble to 4th. Couple of seasons back, his Manchester United side surprised everyone, not only regaining the league from their rivals Chelsea, but reaching the Champions League final, falling short at the final hurdle to Barcelona.
Arguably the greatest side managed by Ferguson was the 1993-94 squad built around Eric Cantona. Peter Schmeichel in goal, Paul Parker, Steve Bruce, Gary Pallister and Denis Irwin at the back. Andrei Kanchelskis, Roy Keane, Paul Ince, and Ryan Giggs in midfield, and the forward line of Mark Hughes and Eric Cantona. Then came the treble-winning side of 1999 when Neville, Scholes, Beckham, Cole and Yorke were vital components of the setup. Throw Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra, Wayne Rooney, Edwin van der Sar, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Robin van Persie into the mix, and one realizes that Sir Alex managed, and more significantly motivated some of the finest players in the game. One just feels that Sir Alex was never quite able to guide Wayne Rooney to graduate from being one of the brightest young prospects in world football, to the stature of a truly global superstar. Something that everyone expected him to become. Another one of his regrets would be that he was never really able to fill the void left by Roy Keane’s departure. United have badly missed a midfield General, although he would take some heart from Michael Carrick’s consistent performances.
Many people believe that concerns over his health has caused him to make the decision to step down as Manchester United manager. The hectic schedules, the impending hip operation this summer, the insertion of a pacemaker nine years back, and the sums start to add up. After his retirement, he revealed that he had decided to call time on his career as early as last Christmas. “Things changed when Cathy’s sister died. She’s isolated a lot now and I think I owe her a lot of my own time. I think she’s lost her best friend, her sister Bridget, so I think I owe her time, that was important.”
Sir Alex is on his way – and he is going out at the top. He will step down as Manchester United manager after the Premier League fixture against West Brom, writing the greatest chapter in the history of the fabled sport. He deserves a great retirement, but how will the footballing world cope without the great man remains to be seen.
He’s all yours, Mrs Ferguson.
This piece was written by Pratik Sarkar. Follow him on twitter @PratikSarkar17