Emotions ran as high as if someone had died. On May 8, minutes after Alex Ferguson, the brilliant, pugnacious, seemingly indefatigable manager of Manchester United confirmed his plans to retire later this month, tributes squeezed out breaking news and flooded Twitter. Paul Ince, a former Manchester United midfielder and current manager of the second-tier team Blackpool, told the broadcaster Sky Sports: “I’m totally shocked. What’s he’s done in unbelievable. You’ll never see anyone of his kind again. Two weeks ago he was talking about staying on for another two years, so it’s a massive, massive shock.” Britain’s Prime Minister, heading to Westminster for the State Opening of Parliament, stopped to tweet. “Sir Alex Ferguson’s achievement at #MUFC has been exceptional. Hopefully his retirement will make life a little easier for my team #AVFC,” wrote David Cameron. The last time #MUFC met #AVFC — Aston Villa — United scored three goals to Villa’s zero, pushing Cameron’s team closer to potential relegation to England’s second-tier league.
If not all Britons will be sorry to see the back of the 71-year-old Scot whose success doomed so many supporters of rival teams to disappointment, Ferguson’s departure leaves United with a problem. During his 26-year tenure at the club, Fergie, as fans and foes know him, steered the Red Devils (ditto) to 38 trophies: 13 domestic league championships – including the 2012/13 season, which his side won with ease – five FA Cups, four League Cups (unlike the FA Cup, amateur sides aren’t allowed to enter the League Cup) and two Champions League crowns, which sees the best teams from across Europe compete. The next manager has huge boots to fill, and a passionate, worldwide fan base braced against a dip in form and bound to measure any successor against Fergie. He’ll remain a director of the club and a looming presence for whomever proves brave — perhaps foolish — enough to follow him. Front-runners for the job are thought to include a fellow Scot, and manager of nearby team Everton, David Moyes, who is the bookmakers’ favorite, and the Real Madrid boss, Jose Mourinho. “The special one,” as Mourinho christened himself in an interview during his time as manager of Chelsea, is tipped to leave Madrid at the end of this season.
But Manchester United isn’t just about sport. It is a global brand, the world’s most valuable sports franchise, with a market capitalization of some $2.7 billion. Share prices in the club were expected to dip when the New York stock exchange opened to news of Ferguson’s departure, and shares fell almost 5% in the first 10 minutes of trading Wednesday.
Fergie’s own stock hasn’t always ridden high. In 1990, barely three years into his Manchester stint, rumors swirled that he would be sacked. He ended the season by winning the FA Cup. By 2005, when the Glazer family, owners of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, concluded their controversial — and highly leveraged — takeover of United, Ferguson also appeared to be on the point of leaving, after a dispute with two of the club’s largest shareholders over ownership of a racehorse. He is famously abrasive. His excoriations of players who disappoint him have contributed a new term to the English language: “to give someone the hairdryer treatment,” to shout so loudly from such proximity that the recipient of the tirade is blasted by hot air. In 2003, while delivering a rebuke, he kicked a boot that struck his then star player, David Beckham, in the face. A habit of haranguing match officials and checking his watch conspicuously to make sure his team isn’t deprived of valuable seconds in which to score goals inspired another phrase, “Fergie time,” to describe soccer matches entering the final few minutes.
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That passion, and a skill for finding and developing talent, saw Beckham and many other players work — and blossom — under Ferguson: Eric Cantona, Paul Ince, Roy Keane, Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Jaap Stam, Peter Schmeichel and many more. Prominent players would also quickly discover that sentiment did not figure in Ferguson’s decision-making process. Once past their best, in his view, he would retire them from his first-choice lineups.
In his May 8 statement, Ferguson, facing a hip operation in the summer, made clear he had applied the same remorseless analysis to himself. “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 is, in fact, Fergie time. Ferguson’s last game as United’s manager takes place on May 19, against West Bromwich Albion.