I hate Sir Alex Ferguson. I hate him because I’m a hard-bitten, narrow-minded sports fan and that’s what hard-bitten, narrow-minded sports fans do. We hate our enemies. Those who know soccer will know there’s no greater colossus in the game than him. And those, like me, who loathe Manchester United—the club where Ferguson served as coach for nearly three decades until announcing his retirement today—will know there was no greater bogeyman.
Elsewhere, the tributes are flowing in for a man so good at directing other men in shorts around a field that he earned a knighthood in 1999. Thirteen years before that, the Scotsman was appointed manager of Manchester United, a team mired in mediocrity. The English league then was miles off the pace of sleeker, glitzier equivalents on the European continent. In 2013, as Ferguson steps down, Manchester United is now a global megabrand with an imperious record of success; England’s Barclays Premier League, meanwhile, is soccer’s unparalleled cash cow, watched religiously every weekend from Peoria to Pretoria, Dakar to Dhaka. A whole generation of soccer fans, including myself, has lived and breathed the game entirely in the Age of Fergie.
And yet as a supporter of Arsenal, for half-a-decade Manchester United’s main rival, I would rather not remember the glory of his reign. I will cling closely to my image of the Glaswegian as that gum-chewing, gesticulating bully who as an infant must have fallen into a cauldron of hypocrisy potion to emerge spluttering and purple-nosed. Ferguson always seemed to get his way. Referees disallowed goals that should have been and awarded penalties that never were. When his teams weren’t all that special, like this year’s, everyone else somehow contrived to be worse. There’s even a widely-used term — “Fergie time” — to explain the curious bending of the universe’s laws that grants Manchester United extra minutes at the end of a game to score an equalizing or winning goal. When Ferguson didn’t get his way (that happened less), he was equally irksome, wallowing in mind games, blaming others, boycotting the press.
That his detractors are forced to harp on petty resentments is a mark of Ferguson’s success. I like to imagine the stunned look on Ferguson’s face when Thierry Henry did this to his side — or think gleefully about Ferguson’s ire and wounded pride when we won the league at Old Trafford, Manchester United’s home ground. But for all of Arsenal’s moments of triumph, there are plenty more when Ferguson had the upper hand and a smug, satisfied grin. It’s made more insufferable when you think of the legions of fans around the world grinning with him, tens of millions who adopted a team from the northern English rust belt entirely because of Ferguson’s accomplishments.
What distinguishes Ferguson is his staying power. His star players have come and gone, his rivals have risen and fallen, but he has remained at the top. His 13 Premier League titles and dozens of other trophies will likely never be matched; the stakes and money are so high now that few managers last more than two or three years at big teams. Cash-rich oligarchs and venal mercenaries dominate the global game, but Ferguson is illuminated by the light of an earlier era, one which grows ever dimmer as he steps away from the touchline.
Will I miss him? Of course not—Manchester United without him faces a tantalizing period of uncertainty. And there will always be more villains: Jose Mourinho, the current coach of Real Madrid and a creature of cartoonish arrogance and vanity, is poised for an English return this summer. It’s fun to hate him in a way that it never was to hate Ferguson. With Sir Alex, you knew that he was always bound to win.