Despite the fact that he is 71 years of age, and despite the fact that his departure had been increasingly mooted since he first withdrew his resignation a decade earlier, the announcement from Manchester United- subsequent to Telegraph journalist Mark Ogden breaking the story- that Sir Alex Ferguson was to retire as the manager of Manchester United football club after 27 seasons at the helm, shook the world of football, and of sport in general.
While Liverpool now ponder whether they may realistically challenge for the top 4 in the coming seasons, Ferguson can look back upon a career in which he saw off what many regarded as unassailable challenges from the likes of Aston Villa, Leeds United, Arsenal, Newcastle United, and the nouveau riche of both Chelsea and, their own neighbours, Manchester City. The Scot had swept aside every pretender to his throne and seemed possessed of the sort of energy, hunger and fitness that would see him continue at the helm of the world's largest football club for years.
But, in truth, while in football Ferguson may be little short of a God, he is still a human being. It is widely known that he had a pacemaker fitted at the age of 62, and that an upcoming hip operation may have contributed to his decision to bring his managerial career to a close. However, those close to the man himself have identified his hospitalisation at an awards dinner last year as the point he became painfully aware of his human frailties. At a celebration at the Thistle Hotel to commemorate Rangers' European Cup Winners' cup win 40 years earlier, Ferguson suffered a nosebleed. That bleed would not stop until he received medical treatment, and although the incident was not especially serious in itself, it is said to have shaken him, making him painfully aware of his own mortality.
But though he will now haunt Old Trafford as its greatest ever caretaker, and though much will be written about the 49 pieces of silver-wear which he acquired in his time there, it may be his achievements prior to his Manchester United career which are the most singularly remarkable. In 1979, Alex Ferguson took charge of a club, in Aberdeen, who had won one single title in their entire history. In a league in which the domination of the "Old Firm" of Glasgow Celtic and Rangers was so firmly entrenched, not one side had taken the championship from them in the previous 15 seasons. Without a generous benefactor to bankroll a title challenge, Ferguson- as he did once more decades later at Old Trafford- assembled one of the great home-made line ups in domestic league football.
But for all these trophies, traits and foibles, his crowning glory- and one must rank alongside anything he subsequently recorded south of the border- was his European Cup Winners Cup victory over Real Madrid. Ferguson took his men from Pittodrie to Gothenberg to face the most successful continental club side in history. With a squad, most of whom were either developed at Aberdeen, or acquired for a pittance, Ferguson defeated their multi-million pound cosmopolitan opponents- managed by the legendary Alfredo Di Stefano- by 2 goals to 1 in extra-time.It was the pinnacle of the great man's time in his own country and deserves to compete with his 1999 Champions League victory as one of the most exceptional managerial successes in the post-war period.
The truth is, many have grown up in the sport with Sir Alex, and when partisanship is cast aside, he is a link to a past when football was not the avaricious celebrity quagmire of modernity. He retained many of the old values and, fundamentally, understood football's function as the true theatre of the working man. For all his truculence, ruthlessness, and the shameless exercising of his influence to his club's advantage, at the heart of his actions was a will to win that transcended money. The respect he had for the sport and his club would, if they weren't so familiar to us, seem the most startling of anachronisms.