Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Farewell to an adversary: A Liverpool fan on Ferguson

Football can bring out the strangest of emotions.

When Sir Alex Ferguson's Manchester United won the club's 19th title my over-riding emotion was an odd sort of relief. For years, I had watched an irrepressible genius creep up on my team's record and my team was all but powerless to stop him. With the record gone, painful as it was, it didn't feel to me as if we were falling off a perch but rather that a black dog lifted from our shoulders. 

Many Liverpool fans today will be celebrating. Their nemesis, the hated red devil at the other end of the East Lancs Road, has gone. For many this is some sort of sign that the good times will roll once again. That the last 20 years have been some terrible spell and - with Ferguson leaving - the spell will be lifted and we will go gathering cups in May once again.  It is written. It is destiny. They believe it is inevitable the next manager will fail because the expectation is too great or because Ferguson was the difference all along. It is inevitable that Liverpool will return to their rightful place. There is little inevitability in football no matter how much we wish it to be the case.

I understand the jubilation. But I do not feel it. I hated Ferguson in my hot youth but that is what youth is for and, for me, is a diminishing memory. I used to hate his teams but this is not a hateful United vintage. These days, I respect and admire Ferguson. Those who do not respect him are the sort of people who do not really appreciate the game they profess to love. 

Rather than celebration a better word to describe my feelings would be a kind of solace. There is some kind of comfort to be taken in an adversary losing a massive strength but there is a sadness and a regret. I once wrote, paraphrasing Lennon, that life is what happens to you when you are watching Ryan Giggs. It is just as true with Ferguson. Life is what happens to you when you are watching Alex Ferguson win.

For a generation of football fans, there just isn't a time before Alex Ferguson. He has been a constant in our footballing lives. This is another nail in the cofffin of our childhood. For me, only Giggs and Tendulkar remain from my childhood. For United fans, a genius, a God. For the rest, a hate figure, an infuriating genius, at times a spiteful man, a hypocrite, a dour man but always - dagnammit - a winning one. He has been a colossus in English footballing life and one that we will all miss in time.

Don't believe me? Ferguson is the last of an old school of managers. Despite his ability to manipulate the media, despite his capacity to deal with the stresses of numerous tournaments and do so whilst keeping in check the egos of modern footballers, Ferguson has more in common with the likes of Busby, Stein, Shankly and Paisley than he does with most of today's managers. 

As he shuffles into retirement, he walks into a great bar-room debate. Is he the greatest ever manager? Some will argue yes. They will point to his breaking of the Old Firm with Aberdeen, that glorious win over Real Madrid with the Dons and his breathtaking achievements with Manchester United. They have a point.

Others will say Stein winning the European Cup with 11 men from Glasgow and his 9 league titles in a row or to the back-to-back European Cups that Clough managed with unfashionable Nottingham Forest win. Others still will point to Paisley's third European Cup as irrefutable evidence that Ferguson isn't quite there. This is before we consider the likes of Michels, Herrera and Happel or the multi-league genius of Mourinho. It is before we consider the greats of the past like Chapman. It is an impossible task.

It is my view that Sir Alex Ferguson is the greatest league manager that the world has seen and is likely ever to see. To those Liverpool fans spluttering into their champagne, it is impossible to think that we will ever see a manager win 13 league titles in the same league with the same team. It is impossible to think that another manager will be given the time, even if successful, to build numerous great teams. It is difficult to put those achievements into context. He is outsmarted, outfought and out-thought, some truly outstanding managers. In the league, at least, he is incomparable.

That isn't to gloss over his European record. All footballing careers end in some level of regret and Ferguson's will be that he doesn't have that third European Cup. No other manager has been given the amount of time Ferguson has to win in Europe. Much has been made today of Real Madrid having 24 managers in the time, Bayern and Juventus having 14, AC Milan having 13 and so forth. Given that advantage one would expect Ferguson - even with the difficulties of the 1990s - to have done better.

It is to Ferguson's enormous credit that his team has played more games - and won more games - than any other side since the reconfiguration of the European Cup. More than Barcelona, more than Real Madrid, more than AC Milan. If one lauds that achievement, and we should, it is only correct to ask why that has not been turned into a greater number of tournament wins especially given the continuity Ferguson has enjoyed.

Ferguson never created a team that truly dominated Europe or defined an era. None of his teams, wonderful as they were and dominant as they were in England, compared to Real Madrid of the late 50s/early 60s; the Internazionale of the mid-1960s, the Ajax team of the early 1970s, the Liverpool team of the late 1970s/early 1980s, the AC Milan team of the late 1980s, the Galacticos or the Messi inspired Barcelona team.
Now we know why Sir Alex Ferguson refused to give an interview after the Real Madrid match. He knew that his Everest - that third European Cup - had evaded him. If he knew then that he was to retire in the summer that would have hurt. He would have known that even regaining the title from those noisy neighbours and making it to 20 league titles for his club would be tainted in his own mind by that game against Real Madrid.

It must have been galling to see Barcelona - the team which embarrassed him twice - on the wane as he sat in Cheshire and only to see Bayern Munich soar to new heights. His Everest hadn't just evaded him; it seemed to be shifting ever further away.
That these are the criticisms - that he merely did very well in Europe rather than define an era or win three European Cups - should stand as testament to him.

He didn't define English football in his time at Manchester United. He redefined it. Manchester United were a huge club before he arrived in post. A rich club which had seen manager after manager fail after Sir Matt Busby left. Ferguson took this team, this club that had broken so many managers, from sleeping giant to dominant power. Ferguson repositioned the centre of English footballing gravity. He is, in many ways, Manchester United's Shankly and their Paisley - the man who took them from the doldrums to greatness and the man who won a potload of gold. He did so by building a series of great teams (In my view, this side is a fine one but the finest vintages of Ferguson's time were: 1992-94, 1999-2001, 2002-2004, 2007-2009).

Any of those teams could reasonably be considered as one of the finest English league sides in history. If we flay him for not quite hitting the heights in Europe, we must praise him for his sheer consistency in domestic football.. We should praise him also for always looking to play football in an attractive way. Say what you like about him and his team but they usually put on a show that, once our partisan glasses were put to one side, we could enjoy. Too many managers these days think winning is everything. Ferguson was a winner, an obsessive about winning, but he realised that winning in style and to entertain the paying punters was important too.

Some say that van Persie was the difference this season. This is nonsense. Ferguson is the difference. He has been for some time. He would have won the league this past season with Arsenal, Chelsea or Manchester City. It is difficult to say that any of the managers in charge at those clubs could have inspired this United team to a league title or, as it still may occur, to 90 points. Rarely, if ever before, has a manager's sheer force of personality and cunning won a team a league title. Will they win the league next year with Moyes in charge? My guess is no. If you disagree you can try your luck over at

Ferguson is a genius, a colossus of the game, a modern legend. He is, in the truest sense, a football man. A man who loves the game, who studies the game, who still - when talking about that Real Madrid game against Eintracht Frankfurt - has the awe-filled look of a boy falling in love with the game. A man steeped in the game.

He leaves his club with the biggest managerial decision of all-time. They have to replace a man who has redefined and dominated English football and who has developed a cult of personality over two decades. I don't envy the club nor do I envy the next man in the dugout. Few in football have the ability to challenge for four trophies at once whilst the world looks on. Fewer still can do so in the shadow of a giant. Almost all choices look bad this afternoon. Replacing an all-time great is never easy but never has it been so hard.

A good day for fans of my club but one that has made many of us ponder. Not many managers make us do that. Another testament, methinks, to that wily old man from Govan.



elvido said...

Thank you for taking the higher road today! Everyone can get to the bile that he and united invariably generate but for one day, the sheer application of the man deserves recognition.

Anonymous said...

Good job! Nice to see that there is still some respect in football.

The Cruyff Turn said...

Great article

dearieme said...

I'd settle for "An unusually successful football manager but a bit of a shit".

Or "Remarkably successful in England, less so in Europe".

Or even "Best manager Aberdeen ever had".

Bye, bye Sir Odious. It wasn't a pleasure to know you, but it was often a pleasure to watch your teams.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this write up! Respect for you. Being a Liverpool fan myself, I am too shacked and a little sad that Sir Alex is leaving. I ahve a fellow Liverpool supporter who is very happy that Fergie has left. I am happy that there are some Liverpool fans out here who despite the rivalry, support talent and give worthy recognition!

Anonymous said...

Unquestioned achievments-but as he aged he was less able to produce a plan B when needed [in Europe] and seemed unable to make subs early and effective enough to influence matches.Not to mention over-loyal over sense with midfield.We would never be European Champs again as long as he stayed.
As a United fan this piece has made me rethink how I feel about Ferguson- made me feel a little sad too.

Anonymous said...

Nice, like the footie match on New Year's Day in the trenches. WE should all pay tribute to each other's teams and managers from time to time, reminds me of how important Liverpool are to supporting United.