Friday, 10 May 2013

Alex Ferguson: The Greatest Triumph

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.
As well it should. Ferguson's shadow looms large over the Premier League. He won it's very first title. He won it more times than all other Premier League managers combined. It is HIS Premier League title. And the indefatigable Glaswegian, who was appointed with the express purpose of knocking the then dominant Liverpool "off their f***ing perch", has made good on his promise many times over. In the decades since his appointment, Ferguson has not so much knocked their historic rivals from their perch as torn them from it and stamped them into the ground, and much more besides.

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.
It is understandable. After 40 years of charging up and down touch-lines, berating officials, and plumbing the depths of despair prior to the most soaring of last-minute elations, the toll had finally been taken. And, though relatively fit of body and keen of mind, Sir Alex is still a 71 year old man, and the 12 hour days which are the requirement for the last great patriarch of English football to retain his iron grasp must surely have the potential to devastate the physical self.

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.
The side that he built- featuring names such as Jim Leighton, Gordon Strachan and Alex McLeish- went on to win the Scottish League three times, the Scottish Cup four times (including three in consecutive seasons) and the League Cup once. For a club of such modest history and resources, the return was a spectacular one. And, along the way, Ferguson forged his reputation for unimpeachable standards on and off the pitch, as well as crafting the persona which was defined by occasionally pointed humour, mordant responses to what he deemed media impertinence, artful provocation of rivals and, obviously, the infamous "hair dryer treatment".

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.
Sir Alexander Chapman Ferguson has been fundamental to the identity of the Premier League from its very beginning and, as such, even those journalists, commentators and colleagues who have sometimes- even frequently- not seen eye to eye with this giant of then game have been shocked to find themselves in a state of near mourning at his imminent departure.

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.
Ferguson was the game's grandfather- encouraging, cajoling, chastising, sometimes cruelly harsh- but every second of it was borne of love. The game will miss him deeply. And so shall I.

-Ben Szwediuk

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