Al Jazeera Blogs


Sport

Sir Alex Ferguson says goodbye

Celebrated manager of Manchester United announces retirement after being at the helm for nearly three decades.
Last modified: 8 May 2013 13:51

Three trophy-less years into Alex Ferguson's reign as Manchester United manager the fans were restless.

But the board stuck by him in those dark days of 1989.

Twenty four years and a record 38 trophies later - including 13 Premier League titles - it's just about safe to say Ferguson repaid the club's faith.

Now the most successful reign in English football history is coming to an end with the 71-year-old suddenly retiring. The football world will never be the same again.

The announcement may have been sudden, but it is clear Ferguson was sure the time for change had to be now. He feels the foundations and stability is there for continued success at the club he has developed so meticulously.

"It was important to me to leave an organisation in the strongest possible shape and I believe I have done so," he said.

What shoes to fill?

But we shouldn't presume the pressure on his replacement will be too much to handle because Ferguson won't want to be the ghost that haunts the stadium and corridors of Old Trafford.

Instead he'll be there in person to help and advise from his position on the club's board. And who better to be taking advice from.

Heartbeat of club

That said, there is an inevitability that one bad season, one bad run, even one bad result will lead to unfavourable comparisons to the great Scot - and the use of the word irreplaceable.

In modern football, it's difficult for a manager to last through a season. Wolverhampton Wanderers are looking for their fifth in not much more than a year.

But Ferguson has endured and succeeded with simple, effective principles.

First and foremost he is the boss. In reality, not just in name. The decision maker. The heartbeat of the club.

Even the Glazers, (the American businessmen with a big emphasis on the businessmen) have left him to do what Ferguson does. Backed him and kept meddling at a minimum.

His authority has kept young players in line and produced some amazing careers - remember the stories of him heading to parties to find Manchester United youth players and order them home. What a role he has played in ensuring Ryan Giggs is a legend befitting his talent.

Secondly, Ferguson has kept things fresh. Great teams have been broken up before they become mediocre. When great players are no longer required he has been ruthless.

David Beckham departed soon after a boot was thrown at his head amid suspicion Fergie felt he was too big for his boots, a worldwide superstar whose fame disrupted the equilibrium.

Trophy after trophy

And crucially Ferguson has trusted in young talent. When pundit Alan Hansen infamously said 'you win nothing with kids', Fergie's fledglings went out, played their football and won trophy after trophy.

He has also proved an ability to handle difficult characters and get the best out of them. Roy Keane and Eric Cantona would leave weaker men in cold sweats but were both pivotal to what was arguably his best team in the mid-90s.

And look at the devotion and gratitude most former players show him. Sometimes it feels Cristiano Ronaldo would walk barefoot back to Manchester to play under him, and there are scores more whose careers have been given lift off - and longevity - through his careful handling.

Nobody's perfect though, and three decades of success have brought plenty of criticism.

The temper. THAT temper. While he has shown a caring, classy side to his treatment of young managers his treatment of officials is not always defensible.

'Fergie Time', the extra time in extra time, has been exaggerated, but the pressure he has put on referees before, during and after matches has come close to bullying.

The Football Association tried to stand up to it, which has led to a testy relationship, worsened by arguments over his release of players for international duty.

His temper was captured in the phrase 'the hairdryer' treatment. Players getting a blast of hot air from him in the dressing room. It didn't seem to do them any harm.

Cruel exit

Ferguson hasn't always made the right decision on players. Who possibly could over 30 years? Japp Stam stands out as a man he shouldn't have fallen out with.

It took a while for United's defence to recover from the hole the big Dutchman left. And his failure to sign Alan Shearer and Paul Gascoigne - both players he admired hugely - were a source of great frustration.

The big frustration came with Europe. Two Champions League titles to show for so many challenges is not enough. One of them, against Bayern in 1999, led to a treble and probably the greatest season in the club's history, but they had the players to win at least one more.

This is one of the reasons the cruel exit against Real Madrid in March appeared to hurt him so much.

The irony of so much success from one man is that Alex Ferguson is all about the collective. The team. The union.

His upbringing in the tough Scottish district of Govan still permeates. It's what makes him so abrasive, so canny, so reluctant to suffer fools.

As a player in Scotland he scored more goals than given credit for, but never hit the heights. A manager by 32, Ferguson made an inauspicious start with East Stirling in 1974, then with St Mirren, where he was sacked for the only time in his career.

Respects and gratitude

But in the 80s he took Aberdeen to heights they could scarcely dream of - the pinnacle defeating Real Madrid in the 1983 Cup Winners' Cup. His only international management came with the unexpected attempt to lead Scotland in the 1986 World Cup. It was a rare failure.

And it came in tragic circumstances. The great Jock Stein had suffered a heart attack during a match in the build-up to the finals.

The stresses on any football manager are well know, mental and physical. Is it really the place for a 71-year-old? He won't thank anyone for saying it but better safe than sorry.

And just try keeping him away from the training ground - you get the feeling that after the hip operation he won't be giving away the tracksuits with the AF initials quite yet.

What a motivation for United's class of 2014 to see him marching towards them to 'lend the manager' support.

Football moves quickly enough that the question of who is next - with Ferguson's input crucial - has not been kept on ice. Moyes and Mourinho - the two names dominating.

When Ferguson walked into the club in 1986 it was a club full of history with the job about turning things around on the pitch. The man coming in now in 2013 has to consider the effect on the New York Stock Exchange. How the game has changed.

But Ferguson's last league match at Old Trafford on Sunday will be HIS time. The United faithful will pay their respects and show their gratitude.

The champions match against Swansea is otherwise meaningless, and yet he'll demand a win. An attractive, emphatic win. The players will be desperate to deliver.

And maybe this tough old Glaswegian legend will allow himself to shed a tear.