There’s a great video of clip of Sir Alex Ferguson being interviewed after having won a Scottish cup trophy for Aberdeen early in his coaching career. As his victorious players cavort in the background, Ferguson is telling the interviewer that his team was rubbish but for one or two players. Congratulations lads.
Not much would change in the ensuing decades. Ferguson became more successful and more demanding—of players, referees, reporters, and groundskeepers no doubt—on the way to an astonishing record. The only goal the Manchester United manager seemingly ever failed to achieve was retirement. He tried once in 2002 but made a mess of it. This time, he wants to get the leaving right. Sir Alex, 71, startled the soccer world by announcing he was done as Man U’s manager, as the English season is coming to a close and with his 13th league championship well in hand. His trophy haul can fill a museum including two Champions League titles, the 13 English titles, five FA Cups, and a magical season, 1998-1999, when his Reds won all three.
In soccer as in most sports, coaches are usually classified as man managers or tacticians—either good at evaluating, understanding and motivating players, or devising the right game plans and tactics for a given situation. Ferguson was the former, able to squeeze every ounce of talent and performance out of his men. One of Fergie’s former players, Paul Parker, called him the best man-manager he’s ever worked for, even if others will see him as more or a manhandler for his famous in-your-face rants. But some players need a slap on the butt; others need a swift kick. Fergie could provide either, yet he would always take their side against offending officials or members of the media.
That did not mean he played favorites within the team. Although United has had many long serving players such as Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs, Ferguson was all business. This season he bought Robin van Persie from Arsenal and RVP delivered the league championship as Wayne Rooney took a back seat and Dimitar Berbatov, who led Man U in scoring and laziness two years ago, took a hike. Love you and leave you is the way with Sir Alex, who also cast out Cristiano Ronaldo, Ruud van Nistelrooy, David Beckham, and Dwight Yorke to name a few.
Ferguson also managed United’s fractious fans, too, draining some of the anger over Man U’s American ownership, the Glazer family. The Glazers took over the team in 2005 in that classic American fashion—they found an underleveraged asset (the team) and borrowed heavily against it. The Manchester United Supporters Trust, flying the team’s original green and gold colors, organized a furious protest campaign that claimed the Glazers were saddling the team with ruinous amounts of debt, enriching themselves at the risk of being unable to buy players because of it. But letting Fergie stump up $37 million for van Persie combined with the Dutchman’s huge payback on the field muffled that noise. The Glazers also found another set of suckers to dump their debts on, raising $233 million in an IPO last year. The team is profitable, the franchise is one of the most valuable in the world at about $3 billion, and Fergie is Man U.’s newest global ambassador.
Sir Alex, smartly enough, is going out on a high note. “It was important to me to leave an organization in the strongest possible shape and I believe I have done so,” he said in a statement. “The quality of this league winning squad, and the balance of ages within it, bodes well for continued success at the highest level.” Having won back the title they lost to the hated and richer Man City on the latter’s final kick of the season last year, Reds fans can hardly be complacent. Chelsea knocked Man U out of the FA Cup and served notice it is a team on the rise, with or without its current manager. Real Madrid ended Man U’s European campaign, and Borussia Dortmund’s advance to the final against Bayern Munich could signal another era of German strength.
No one can actually succeed Sir Alex, only follow him. Everton’s David Moyes, another Scotsman, is reportedly set to take over Man U. Moyes has done a terrific job in keeping the Toffees competitive given that he has a Scotsman’s budget in an English league loaded with rich foreign owners.
Manchester United, however, will still be Fergie’s team next season. And that’s not a bad thing either. What he has instilled in his players, made a part of the team’s fabric, is as much a belief system as it is a playing formation, one that you can sense, see and if you are an opposing team, fear in any game where the Red Devils are a goal short and there are 10 or 15 minutes of time remaining. A substitution is made, the work rate goes up, belief takes hold and the ball somehow finds net. Man U will come through, damn you Fergie.