Sir Alex Ferguson has retired after 26 seasons as Manchester United manager. The news is hard to fathom. It’s not the decision. Ferguson is 71. He’s won everything there is to win. His end has been nigh for a decade. It’s picturing a future without him. Ferguson was a fixture, perhaps the fixture of the Premier League Era. He leaves a void, for both his club and the league, that is cavernous.
Ferguson was both character and caricature. For many he was a smug enemy, someone in your darkest moments you imagined kicking in the shins if you saw him in person. One troubled train goer actually did that to him at London’s Euston station in 2007. But underlying the animosity was well honed gravitas. He was “Sir” Alex to even the most partisan, snarky and republican.
What Ferguson accomplished has no parallel. The Premier League era began in 1992, Sir Alex won 13 of the 21 league titles, never finishing lower than third. Throw in his two Champions League triumphs and his nine domestic cups and you get 22 trophy-winning seasons in 24 years. One could also point out Ferguson was knighted before even arriving at Manchester United, for his achievements at Scottish club Aberdeen.
His feats are impressive, especially given the surrounding change. English soccer is a different place from when he started. Charged disorder become family entertainment. The direct, beer-swilling Football League became the posh, cosmopolitan Premier one. Stolid English ownership sold out to foreign petro-billionaires. The one constant, whatever the tactics, personnel or philosophy deployed, has been Manchester United. He held no ideology sacred. He used both physical intimidation and finesse. He just kept winning.
Ferguson’s tail end, winning five league titles in seven years, may be his most impressive stretch. He did so while being outstripped by Chelsea and Manchester City for resources and being forced to sell Cristiano Ronaldo.
Every sport has icons. Comparing Ferguson for an American audience is inexact. Since England’s “manager” combines “coach” and “general manager” the best American approximation may be Red Auerbach. The iconic Celtic coach had sustained success in varying roles and in an evolving game from the 1950s through the 1980s. He was the Celtics the same way Ferguson was Manchester United. The latter club will hope it won’t take them as long to recover after his departure.
Is Sir Alex the greatest manager of all-time? That’s a matter of preference. Is “greatness” having a prolonged run such as Ferguson did? Is it bringing a club to the highest peak, such as Pep Guardiola at Barcelona? Is it performing at top level in different leagues and environments, such as Mourinho or Fabio Capello? Or, is it making the most out of limited resources? One could look at performance compared with net transfer expenditure and present plausible cases for Arsene Wenger or even presumed Fergusonr eplacement David Moyes at Everton. Such an argument can go different directions. It’s a mirror of the decision United must make replacing Ferguson.
A testament to Sir Alex’s genius was the timing for his departure. Now was the right time to leave. A couple years ago, the squad needed an overhaul. The club was racked with escalating debt. Now, after a public offering and increased league and commercial revenue, the club is on far firmer financial footing. RVP signing aside, Ferguson has been building for three to four years down the road. David de Gea, Rafael, Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, Javier Hernandez, Danny Welbeck, Tom Cleverley, Shinji Kagawa and Wilfried Zaha are all 24 or younger. Key veterans still have top years left. This is a squad that will be stable and, presumably, better in coming years.
Ferguson’s replacement’s first task will be reigniting Rooney’s pilot light. Who better than the coach who reared him at Everton? We’ll hear much about what Moyes hasn’t done. He has never won a trophy. He has never beaten a big four side on the road. What he has done is push a thin squad of mostly Man United cast-offs at Everton to eight top eight EPL finishes in nine seasons. He did so with neither a transfer budget nor a reliable year-to-year goal scorer.
Such a thankless, Herculean task at Everton requires a manager to be stubborn, practical and adaptable. He must have an unusual deftness for squad formation and talent mining. It’s no wonder that Sir Alex Ferguson may look at his fellow Scot and see a great deal of himself.
[Photo via Getty]