Great Scot!

A tribute to Sir Alex Ferguson!

Few may remember 9th December 1989. Epitomizing a dreary English weather, there lay a ‘dementor’ like gloom hanging over Old Trafford that day. However the unpopular English weather attributed very little to the sombre mood of the fans who were reeling from their side’s 1–2 defeat at home to Crystal Palace.

Hailed as the ‘Theatre of Dreams’ there wasn’t going to be any pleasant dreams for Mancunians at Old Trafford that night. And speaking of dreams, a bed sheet was unfurled. A man named Pete Molyneux, who now has his place in history, took pride in displaying the banner. Its words were icy cold as the weather and summed up the gloom at Old Trafford. It read “Three years of excuses and we’re still crap, ta-ra Fergie”.

Surreal to fathom that there was such a time of despondency in Sir Alex Ferguson’s 27 year reign at Manchester United.

It wasn’t always the bespectacled individual with a long dark overcoat, straight-laced match face with the incessant chewing of gum (or perhaps that’s one of Fergie’s hallmarks that has remained unchanged) who waved cherubically to the fans as he entered a cavernous atmosphere that he knew he owned (metaphorically).

The gloom had set on the red half of Manchester and frustrations were rife back then. It was Ferguson’s lacklustre start which only accentuated the failures of his predecessors Dave Sexton and Ron Atkinson, both of whom were far from emulating Sir Matt Busby’s success. Adding salt to the inflamed wounds was the fact that Liverpool were running away with all the silverware and United seemed nowhere close. It’s almost no wonder that the ‘then’ more successful north-western club fell on Fergie’s radar that he felt directed to steer the ship to mission ‘knock Liverpool off the perch’.

It was perhaps one of the first of many Fergie’s quotes that would immortalize this genius. At that time it was viewed with contempt and as something brazen perhaps foolish and an unrealistic thing to say (quintessential Fergie). Given that the proverbial perch that Liverpool nestled on seemed rather distant from United’s base camp.

But how that would change with time is actually testimony to the Scot’s reign at the club. Just like the stadium, Sir Alex’s legacy has grown in size & stature and speaks of a dominance few others can come close to, let alone better.

If the word Oxford is synonymous with ‘learning’, then Fergie’s first game for United at Oxford was a steep learning curve. United were 19th in the first division table, near bottom of the totem pole and losing 2–0 on debut wasn’t a sign of progressing to the higher echelons of the league.

As evident from Pete Molyneux’s banner the disenchantment festered three years on, and perhaps some were unlikely to warm up to him even when he did bring home his first silverware; winning the holy grail of English football in the finals of 1990 FA cup against Crystal Palace (the first process of the long continued spell of poetic justices for the earlier lot of disgruntled United fans).

Lot has now changed since United first polished their silverware in the 90’s.

The Manor Ground on Headington Hill above the city of Oxford (Where Fergie lost his first match in charge of United) doesn’t exist anymore, there is a new generation of English footballers who can’t imagine a time at Manchester United without Fergie (Wayne Rooney was a year old when Fergie took charge), the Champions League is no longer called European Cup, the Premier League came into existence and Liverpool is no longer the envy of other teams.

But since that FA cup victory in 1990, it’s almost as if a faucet of silverware was left on. The Premier League ushered in a new era of English football and with that so did Sir Alex & Manchester United. For the 90’s will be synonymous with Manchester United’s dominance over English football, much like the Liverpool teams of the 70s and 80s.

Fergie’s first league title was the first ever edition of the Premier League in the 1992–93 season which ended United’s barren spell of 26 years, as far as league successes go. To be facetious for a moment, it was perhaps after this 26 year long hiatus, did he decide to stay on at the club the exact duration just to ensure there would be continued success.

And how there would be!

A total of thirteen league titles with two European Cups, two Intercontinental World Cups, one European Cup-Winners’ Cup, five FA Cups, four League Cups and throw in the community shield as well, better yet throw 10 of them then followed. Never has such a footballing resume seemed like a statistical data emanating from an economics bureau. For those of you who are keeping score of individual accolades, He was manager of the year a record ten times and manager of the month another twenty-seven times. And if that wasn’t enough, knighthood simply embellished his record for historians to savour.

Add that up to the his record from his days at Aberdeen where he reminded the ‘Old Firm’ teams that it wasn’t going to be a two horse race. That would bring his trophy count to 49 in all.

In retrospect it made sense as to why the defeat to Real Madrid in the Champions League in March must have hit him hard, so much so that there must have been a lump in this throat that made it hard for him to face the paparazzi, knowing that this was his last shot to polish a third European silverware.

It would have been magical number 50 at Wembley (a different theatre of dreams, and one that could chase away the hoodoo of 2011). Alas! That wasn’t to be.

Ironically when quizzed on this retirement before the match, the gaffer had this to say:

“This is what it is all about — a packed Old Trafford, the floodlights on, the pitch glistening and two of the greatest and most romantic clubs in the game about to do battle.

People ask me why I don’t retire after so many years in the game, but how could anyone with an ounce of passion for football in their soul voluntarily walk away from the opportunity to be involved in this kind of occasion?” — Classic Ferguson mind games.

However his last title for Manchester United too has a special significance, especially after Manchester City’s dramatic last season winner in 2012. Equalling Arsenal’s collective league titles, Fergie’s 13th league title, prizing it away from United’s ‘noisy neighbours’ was almost indicative of the fact that one swallow doesn’t make a summer.

Shortly after his premature retirement announcement in 2002, did the football fraternity start putting down guesses as to when Fergie would eventually hang up his boots along with that overcoat once and for all. But that day was still far away as there was a lot more to come.

Numbers do tell a good story, but not the whole story, for Fergie’s reign at the helm doesn’t just speak about longevity but more of a timely legacy with a footballing kingdom and Old Trafford as its impregnable fortress.

His 27 years at Old Trafford speaks of his footballing evolution, the ability to not just keep up with Joneses and the shifting sands of the sport, but to constantly stay one step ahead of the rest.

In an ephemeral world where managers barely last 27 weeks on job (some have even last 27 days), shows that it was something more than his tenacity, determination, and hunger for success. It was almost as if Manchester United and he were intertwined in a symbiotic relationship. Some of his previous contemporaries walked away much earlier. Matt Busby ended his time at Old Trafford at 62. Shankly walked away from Liverpool at 60. Paisley lasted at Afield until he was 64. Clough bid adieu at 58. It’s no wonder a newspaper once ran the headline ‘The man who can’t retire’.

During his time he’s seen outlasted a whopping 24 managers at Real Madrid, 19 at Inter Milan 18 at Chelsea and 14 at his ‘noisy neighbours’ (Manchester City).

Manchester United is a public listed company now and the news of his retirement even appeared to damage the club’s value on the stock market with shares falling by 4.5 per cent on May 8th.

But to call a spade a spade, he certainly hasn’t been the congenial individual who would be everyone’s cup of tea. To put it brutally, he was an awfully hard man to like if you weren’t a United fan.

Be it the famous or infamous (whichever way you look at it) “hairdryer” treatment that all those in the Old Trafford dressing room got the full blast of (ask David Beckham’s forehead). His vituperative comments and blatant disregard for match officials, strutting around the touchline while bellowing at the fourth official and of course there was no love loss for the scribes as well. His press conferences were more often than not explosive, and the journalists faced their own ‘hairdryer’ treatment when asked something that he felt was out of line. He even went so far as to ostracize the BBC from any interviews after it reported about his son’s wheeling dealings.

Some United fans even slated him for siding with the Glazers so much so that they former their own breakaway club FC United. Fans were left disenchanted as they felt he had betrayed soccer’s working-class roots, and his own vaguely socialist views.

But those who know him speak about how affable he was. He was mentor, father figure and counsellor to United’s best products in Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes, David Beckham, the Neville Brothers and even a young Ryan Giggs who came from neighbouring turfs. He assured a young striker that he would sign him, without a formal agreement. A few days later, the striker broke his leg and is sidelined for a year, thinking his career was probably over. A couple of days later, SAF visits him at the hospital, and assures him that United would still take him, as soon as he was fit. And twelve months later Ruud Van Nistelrooy was a Manchester United player. His ghost writer, David Meek recounted how Fergie visited him at his home and assured him he would be fine after Meek was diagnosed with Cancer.

But one thing never changed. The fact he was ‘Boss’ (thank you Jose). Cross him, toe the line and get too big for your boots, and you walk. Legends like Roy Keane, David Beckham, Jaap Stam and Ruud van Nistelrooy are testimony to the fact.

27 years later the adjectives to describe the man who took the job and managed to change the job and the landscape of football itself are plenty. For the sake of not exhausting the English lexicon I will stay away from it. The son of a shipbuilding worker in Glasgow, he built his own Titanic, one that continues to sail today conquering seas in distant lands and one that can’t be sunk by an iceberg.

Sorry Jose! But years before you arrived, there was already a special one. Just no one attached that sobriquet to him.

His aura & influence has transcended beyond the football pitch, perhaps its ‘Fergieism’ that will be part of popular culture someday.

As Sir Alex Ferguson takes up his new role as director and ambassador at the club, spare a thought for David Moyes. As he will look up at terraces at Old Trafford on match day, he will see Sir Alex and a legacy few can match let alone surpass.

Fergie did knock Liverpool off the perch and you would have to wonder who could dare knock United off the ‘perch’ he built, maybe not in this lifetime.

As United fans struggle to hold their tears back for Fergie’s 1500th match in charge at club against Swansea at Old Trafford this weekend, Pete Molyneux has promised to return to the stadium to unfurl another bed sheet banner.

Only this time it will read “Twenty-three years of silver and we’re still top, ta-ra Fergie.”




A journalist by profession. He writes about business & finance, geopolitics, sports & tech news. He is a TEDx & Toastmasters speaker. Follow him @Akshobh

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Akshobh Giridharadas

Akshobh Giridharadas

A journalist by profession. He writes about business & finance, geopolitics, sports & tech news. He is a TEDx & Toastmasters speaker. Follow him @Akshobh

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