PROLOGUE: As Manchester United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson can boast a shedload of Premier League titles, a bucketload of FA Cups, and far too many League Cups, Champions Leagues, Charity Shields and individual awards to just store away somewhere sensible. How do you, then, write about a man who has accomplished so much? The task sounds daunting, but some were about to do it justice (recommended, though it’s been a while: this one, this one and this one).
In one of the many great tribute pieces, the Guardian‘s Daniel Harris had written the following:
We’re obsessed by stories, and we’re obsessed by happiness, and Alex Ferguson has provided indecent amounts of both, such that listing the bare facts of his achievements, however impressive they are, would be completely to miss his measure. The numbers are simply an aspect of the attributes that make him such a compelling and extraordinary character.
Harris says that Ferguson’s departure would be such a significant loss to the sport that even United’s “greatest rivals will feel differently in his absence.” It is by being an imperfect and complex character that Ferguson has been able to either earn the full respect of many, primarily fans of United and Aberdeen, or the begrudging respect of the rest. Success accounts for a lot of that, but there is more to say about the Scot than just how many trophies he has won. This is important, and if we were to take Harris’ idea further, that to simply list his achievements would be to “miss his measure”, Ferguson’s success — which translates to ‘titles’ — has also created shortcuts when discussing on-the-pitch matters. It’s acknowledged that he has won titles, but the whys and hows should also be considered because it helps to distinguish this individual from football’s other winners.
The shock of a benched Wayne Rooney in what would later turn out to be Ferguson’s last chance to win another European Cup — only his third — was understandable: who wasn’t just a little surprised? After all, here was a man so desperate to win the most coveted trophy in club football that he cared little about who knew; the frequency and depth to his expressions of regret was almost uncharacteristic of someone who would, at the same time, speak proudly of all his players and all he has achieved with them. Had Ferguson not been so close in 2009 and 2011, the dramatic shootout victory of 2008 might have seemed recent enough for him to be content. Alas, no; he acknowledged the popular retort to any Ferguson praise — “he’s only won it twice in 26 years” — and, regardless of whether it was fair or not, regardless of whether it took into account just how difficult a thing winning in Europe is, he seemed to agree with it. By dropping Rooney, some got the impression he wanted to extend it to 27 years. And yet, despite all this, it was a classic Ferguson move. He wanted his third.
A Champions League final at Wembley — that being the scene of his very first triumph — would have been a perfect way for Ferguson to bow out, with the manager’s first and last pieces of silverware creating a sort of bookend. The significance of that FA Cup win in 1990 should not be downplayed. Ferguson wrote in his very first programme notes four years previous that “success has a snowball effect.” Little did he know it would lead to a start of a dynasty.
Even though Ferguson maintains that he would have kept his job even had his side lost to Crystal Palace in the final, it felt as if time had been running out. If not now, then soon. However, as if unaware, Ferguson made the biggest decision of his career yet. He dropped goalkeeper Jim Leighton after United drew 3-3 with Palace and opted instead to select Les Sealey for the replay. It was the first real example of Ferguson’s notorious ruthlessness, a decision made more amazing when you consider that Sealey was only at the club on loan and making his third appearance of the season. Leighton was punished for a poor performance and Sealey, of course, would go on to be the star, making a series of outstanding saves fitting for any ‘keeper of Manchester United. (Leighton, meanwhile, the Rooney in goal, was later offered the medal by the fans’ new, sympathetic favourite.) Sealey would help Alex Ferguson win his first trophy … and an equally-heroic display against Barcelona in the Cup Winners’ Cup a year later allowed him to win a second.
But goalkeepers, ambiguous as they are, are better suited to the background. Eric Cantona is often credited with United’s upward movement but perhaps not even Ferguson could have envisaged the impact he would have had. He underestimated him and later told Philippe Auclair that he was one of those players “who do what can’t be taught, who, in fact, teach you something you didn’t know about football, and can’t be learnt, because you had no idea it existed before they did it.” With Cantona, United went from tenth to eighth in November and then higher than they’d ever been with Ferguson: to first place. There were other signings designed to do exactly the same thing: namely Andy Cole, who with Dwight Yorke created the most satisfying strike partnership on these and any shores, and, most recently, Robin van Persie.
A masterful Roy Keane display in 1994’s cup final might have been another occasion when Ferguson felt most vindicated, a record-signing who looked a bargain within his first season. But Keane’s talent was obvious; there have been others that Ferguson has been able to turn into winners where it has been less clear. The Scot’s faith in Danny Welbeck this season was not misplaced, but not widely understood, either. Welbeck was United’s best player over two legs against Real Madrid and had largely done his job — to “choke” Xabi Alonso — and was hailed by the Spanish press in the first at Bernabeu as “the star, involved in all Manchester’s best plays.” Ferguson would come out the loser, but it didn’t feel that way. Phil Jones looked like a natural midfielder and David de Gea’s display was a testament to all the good work United have done with the player in little time.
With Darren Fletcher — not unlike the appointment of David Moyes — a cynic would often say that Ferguson’s admiration came first from the fact that they were both Scottish. But ‘Fergie’s son’ — as his critics, Roy Keane and practically everyone else, would later find out — was a good player anyway, and if there was any favouritism shown to him by the manager, it did not do the club much harm. The midfielder was a true product of Ferguson’s latter-day Manchester United (this is a good thing): an important player without any special or distinctive features, but capable of many things. John O’Shea was another.
There was also the transformation of Park ji-Sung into a player that would play in the biggest of games and the brief revival of Wes Brown in 2007/08 where he looked like the defender Ferguson always wanted him to be. In 2001, he believed that Brown was the best natural defender in the country, “better than Sol Campbell … [and] Rio Ferdinand,” and, in 2009, maintained that he indeed still was, if injury-free. That double-winning season saw Ferguson get the very best out of his players; he successfully managed to serve the interests of all of Carlos Tevez, Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney and, in the Champions League final, Owen Hargreaves had one of his finer performances on the right in a move designed to give United a third midfield option and allow Ronaldo the freedom he desired. (Another small victory: Michael Owen and Antonio Valencia were not replacements for Ronaldo and Tevez when they’d left, and yet a change of style — or lack of it — to something more pragmatic, still saw United to their 18th.)
When United put four past Schalke at Old Trafford in the same competition in 2010/11, a watching Pep Guardiola, envious of perhaps the one thing his all-conquering Barcelona team did not have — depth — said afterwards that they “played a Champions League semi-final with a team full of reserves and won 4-1 – that says everything you need to know about the quality they have.” A lot of things have happened since then, but Fergie’s emphasis on a big squad remains the same, as obvious a thing as that sounds. He believes his 1999 squad was “not nearly as strong as the squad I have got today,” and that has shown; other teams could provide an eleven that look better on paper, but United, who have had 20 different goalscorers, have been able to churn out points at a rate where their challengers couldn’t, even throwing a few away for fun for the sake of a 5-5.
What else? Federico Macheda recalls Ferguson’s promise of a place on the first-team bench if he could get a goal against Newcastle for the reserves. “Can you imagine the excitement?” Macheda said. “Then I went and scored a hat-trick.” Then he went and scored the title-winning goals against Aston Villa and Sunderland in the following weeks. While it’d be reaching too far to give Ferguson credit for goals he could never have expected, it fits with his great management of youth. The Class of ’92 and their subsequent rise must be Ferguson’s biggest source of pride, and, according to Phil Neville in 1997, “the boss paved the way” for his generation to become everything they wanted to be: league and FA Cup winners, England internationals and whatever they were after the treble success. This great believer in youth, however, in his last game, shunned the chance to officially promote another youngster, Adnan Januzaj, preferring Rio Ferdinand to put a lid on United’s own defensive implosion. He wanted to win above all.