I was sitting in my friend’s car earlier today. We were discussing what the players were referred to by their teammates. He’s a Liverpool fan. We had gone through all the Liverpool players. I started going through the United players. «…Giggsy…Chris…Anders…Chicha..Well, Sir Alex usually called him Chico..». Usually called him. He won’t anymore. Because it’s not his job. Sir Alex Ferguson is no longer manager of Manchester United.
We have all grown up in different circumstances. Some with a huge family with uncles, aunts, grandparents and the solid unit you call your mother and father. Some of us grew up in homes with just a mother or father. Maybe an older sibling. Maybe not. They were people on whom you could always rely. People who would never really go away. Through good times and bad times you’d stand together. United. Many of us grew up with Sir Alex Ferguson. Many of us have never known anything else. Many of us do not wish to know anything else. It would be to replace the reliable unity you formed. It was never a unity you chose to form. It was just the way it became. Sir Alex Ferguson was Manchester United.
The past couple of days have been a rollercoaster. For us all. I have danced through my entire emotional register. I have been heartbroken, I have been angry, I have been hopeful and I have been fearful. I was born in 1992. I have never known anything different than what stands ahead of me. My unity with Manchester United was chosen through a radical Frenchman and a baby faced Norwegian who never looked a day older than 14. Behind them stood this authoriative, proud Scot who didn’t need to gesticulate or make a mockery of himself to get his point across. He would, from time to time, lose his cool. But that was his passion, his heart, his relentlessness. He was a winner and he demanded that they transpired him whenever they stepped on the pitch.
I don’t know about you, but I really don’t think about all the trophies he won when I think about the legacy Sir Alex Ferguson leaves at Old Trafford. Sure, he took the club from a fallen giant to the juggernaut of modern football. He made it the biggest and most popular club in the world. But what he did was provide a sense on consistency. You could always rely on Sir Alex Ferguson. You always knew his mentality. His work rate. As the son of a plater’s helper in the shipbuilding industry in Govan his working man’s principles were something we all grew to cherrish. Nothing was done without hard work. Look at the players he created. David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Cristiano Ronaldo. Yes, their talent was obvious, but they were a product of hard work. Sir Alex Ferguson’s hard work alongside them. And in the end, we were the ones who benefited. Had I received had a penny for every time I have been told that Manchester United was the only thing that made a person smile, I would now be a millionaire.
And so came the day. The day that was never supposed to come. It happened so quickly. Too quickly. We never got a chance to react. He was just… gone. Sure, the rumours were there. They were there every summer. Every time the league was won, every time the season ended, every time something monumental happened at the club. This was the time for Sir Alex Ferguson to retire. And we laughed. Because we all knew it was untrue. He would never leave us. But, he did. He had won us the league. Number thirteen for him, number twenty for the club. He had knocked Liverpool off their perch. He had regained control of Europe. He had ruled the world. But more importantly, he had conquered all of our hearts. 26 years. 9692 days. And so he’ll ride off into the sunset. Having appointed his favorite deputy to lead the march on. But it will never be the same. We will all support David Moyes. Because he’s one of us now. We who grew with Sir Alex Ferguson, however, will forever have a section of out heart reserved to the greatest of them all. The hairdryer, the red nose, the chewing gum, the glasses, the rants, the smiles, the glory, the triumphs, the sadness, the grief and the anger. But more than ever, the unity. And the years we spent finding sense and normality in comfortably knowing that Sir Alex Ferguson would always be able to make us feel good about ourselves again.
When Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer
Following Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement, there’s a sense of sheer panic about this week’s podcast as we convene an emergency meeting to discuss the surprising, but inevitable, departure of the great man. Needless to say, during this week’s Can They Score podcast, we get emotional about the Scotman’s departure! Read more…
“I don’t think you’ll ever see anybody managing Manchester United for 27 years again”
- Martin Edwards, on Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision to retire at the end of the 2012-2013 season
Riding a tidal wave of acclaim and approbation Sir Alex Ferguson now joins a special class of English football manager. The select few who compose it- among them Herbert Chapman, Matt Busby, Alf Ramsey, and Bill Shankly- would surely welcome the addition of the great Scot to the list. The country which spawned the sport has created an “aura” around the idea of the manager, and surely few have ever been held in such high esteem as the retiring Ferguson. News of his tenure coming to an end at the end to the current season has been met with type of newsroom furor typically designated for (much more pertinent) world news.
While his departure signifies a seismic shift for the club, Ferguson will remain at Manchester United as both director and ambassador. This bodes well for whoever succeeds Sir Alex; in the worlds of Al Pacino upon becoming Don Corleone, who could ask for a better consigliere?
Nevertheless, there are certain lessons to be drawn from Sir Alex’s time as manager. Whoever steps in to manage the club will benefit greatly from the media, the supporters, and its directors remaining mindful of the following:
For all the success he has enjoyed, Sir Alex’s time at United did not start out in distinguished fashion. Three years on from Ferguson’s first season at the club, United supporter Pete Molyneux infamously held up an old bed sheet at Old Trafford, upon which he had painted the now comical phrase “Three years of excuses and we’re still crap, ta-ra Fergie.” Ferguson eventually won a trophy, the 1990 FA Cup, and it was rumored that it was exactly this triumph which saved his job. The line at United has been that Ferguson was never in danger of losing his job, but it would be naïve to believe it. Ferguson eventually won a league title, in 1993. The current squad is light years ahead of what Ferguson had to work with in the late 80’s- who could imagine an RVP-led United finishing 11th in the league? Still, whoever replaces Sir Alex should be shown the necessary patience and given the appropriate time to instill his brand of management and football at Manchester United.
Time and patience will be crucial. There will never be another Sir Alex Ferguson in football. Ever. The sooner we know that, the smoother a transition the club will have. More than one quarter of a century of tenure in any position breeds the highest kind of affection and, more importantly, respect. With Sir Alex, respect and affection have given way to reverential awe. Sir Alex’s mantra that ‘no player is larger than the club’ became the foundation for the excellent man-management style he practiced while with the club. There will be few to raise the complaint, but in doing so, Sir Alex himself became larger than the club. He was not afraid to take on referees- witness “Fergie-time.” He was not afraid to boycott the media- witness his behavior after his agent-son’s integrity was questioned. Finally, witness his handling of players threatening to break his first rule; Ince, Keane, Van Nistelrooy, and Beckham all left the club amid rumors that their relationship with the gaffer had deteriorated due to overgrown egos and allegations of sub-par allegiance to the club.
Sir Alex brought much more than anyone could have ever imagined to Manchester United. Unfortunately, the problem with his success will rear its head the moment the unlucky fellow to succeed him is announced. At the moment, David Moyes is heir apparent. The parallels between the two are endless- both are Scottish, both will have come to United from much smaller clubs, and both are praised for intelligent transfer market deals. At the moment however, no formal announcement has been made. When one is, let the games begin.
Rooney has been replaced. He looks on grim-faced as the young pretender relishes the opportunity and rapidly graduates from little known understudy to the main event whilst the team’s former talisman looks on. Rooney faces the reality that his best days are past. No longer do his team mates and supporters entrust him with their hopes and dreams. As much as they revere the part he has played in the club’s history; it is clear to all that the future belongs to others.
Fortunately for the man who goes by a teenager’s nickname, the Rooney in question is Jack rather than ’Wazza’. This scene from Oliver Stone’s Any Given Sunday plays like a disconcerting premonition of things to come for United’s number ten.
Like Jack, having got used to being the main man, Wayne has found his billing reduced. Not only has Robin van Persie usurped him as the team’s star attraction, but both Shinji Kagawa and Danny Welbeck have in the eyes of many fans emerged as the men most likely. Like in all his films, Stone’s message lacks subtlety but rings true regardless. Everyone can be replaced. Today’s star can become Yesterday’s man before he even knows it.
In Wayne’s case, you can inevitably trace the beginning of his fall from grace to that distasteful episode where in league with his agent he either a) extorted the club or b) took on the Glazers, depending on your view of the man. Regardless of the motivation, his appeal for the acquisition of world class talent has both enhanced the team and diluted his influence. Proven high quality arrived in the form of Robin van Persie, along with potential greatness in De Gea, Jones and Kagawa. The last title-winning side – so reliant upon its talisman – was remoulded, no longer centred upon Rooney. He is not alone in finding himself a functional sentry where once he was a centurion. Both Nani, and even Valencia , have found themselves at odds with the manager’s tactical vision.
To describe Rooney as having a poor season would be ridiculous. He provided a staggering number of assists, delivered a reasonable return in front of goal and earned plaudits for his willingness to adapt to deeper roles. This last element is where the questions lie. Arguments rage over Rooney’s potential to become a central midfielder but the fact these debates continue as he finishes his eighth season at the club is proof of the state of flux in which he finds himself. In the wake of Ronaldo’s sale, expectations rose that Rooney would fulfil his promise to emerge as a player equal to the greatest in world football. For a time he threatened to do so; memorably eviscerating a Milan side who had no answer to his combination of explosive power and intelligent movement. This was not to be sustained, as inconsistency in performance (if not output) convinced his manager to look elsewhere. The call for more goals to fight back against City brought a new face rather than a renewal of faith in the existing star. To paraphrase OFSTED, Rooney has been ‘good, with outstanding features.’
Should Rooney have become the player we hoped? Perhaps we asked for too much. The teen prodigy has edged close to becoming the record goalscorer for one of the world’s greatest clubs. Precious few precocious sportsmen have ever gone on to fulfil the lofty expectations lavished upon them – I give you Robinho for example. Yet like Robinho, the suspicions remain that lifestyle choices away from the field have undermined his achievements on it. None too subtle regular references to his ‘conditioning’ suggest his manager agrees. Even those Reds who defended his actions in the contract saga could not defend his return from the summer clearly overweight. We hoped the arrival of RvP and Kagawa would fuel his appetite to prove his worth, but sadly it seemed only to have fuelled his appetite. On the field Rooney has cut an unusually isolated figure at times this season; appearances punctuated by unforced errors and the now familiar throwing up of the arms when things don’t go his way. Life on the football field frequently looks a chore rather than the pleasure it once was.
Apologists might point to his manager as the reason for a failure to press on. The tombola has forced Rooney to play markedly different roles from week to week. It is an oft heard lament that Rooney’s selfless flexibility has been exploited at the cost of excelling in one particular role. ‘He can play anywhere’ is meant as a compliment, yet the great players don’t. For them it is an endorsement of capability as oppose to a statement of intention. Robson and Keane were both praised as such yet positional changes for those two only came in the darkest of injury crises. The reality for Rooney is that despite being given opportunities to establish himself as both a striker and a creator, he has not convinced his manager of his ability to excel in either role. In the two biggest matches of the season, he was used either as a grafter or not at all. As much as supporters tried to underplay the significance of both selections, the inescapable fact was that Wayne Rooney is no longer considered essential to success. The era of ‘the big man’ is over.
The perverse reality is that in the month that he has added yet another title to his burgeoning collection, Rooney is perceived to be mulling over his next move. Stay, sign a new deal and fight for his desired place? All power to him if he does, but Ferguson’s fluttering of eyelashes at Dortmund’s lethal Pole don’t suggest a man preparing to restore Rooney to frontline service. Nor does the pointed praise of Kagawa and promises of a big future ahead suggest Rooney’s future role will replicate that of his shirt number. An alternative then is stay, sign a new deal and continue to serve in a variety of roles. Those who claim that Rooney could convert to a champions league quality central midfielder after ten draining years have admirable faith I sadly lack. His expensive use of the ball and frequent heavy touch don’t meet the criteria for the mobile, technical number 8 Ferguson craves.
The real alternative could be out of Rooney’s hands, yet ruefully I feel it best for the player and most probably the club. His contribution to our club derserves respect; at times he has carried us. Yet despite the occasional moments of brilliance; the consistent excellence that characterises the true greats has proved elusive once again this season. If a suitor is prepared to cross the Glazers palms with sufficient silver; a new club, with a new manager, could be precisely the fresh challenge needed to make the next five years of Rooney’s career the peak rather than the epilogue.
‘The game that the whole world wanted to see’ was how Manchester United’s recent clash with Real Madrid was built up. Unlike the endless nauseating Skysports promotions for mundane Premiership fixtures this game was a genuine mouth-watering prospect. It may be a forbidden opinion inside the walls of Barcelona but this was the locking of horns of the world’s two biggest clubs.
They both possess the fanbase, appeal and quality that the rest of the footballing world can only envy. The only shame is that one of them had to exit the competition so early. And then there were the subplots: Wayne Rooney’s absence, Mourinho’s self-made job interview and the return to Old Trafford of the supreme Cristiano Ronaldo. Unfortunately, everything has been somewhat overshadowed by a refereeing decision that was questionable at best. But it shouldn’t be that way. Indeed, the significance of the relationship that the clubs have shared over the years has been lost amongst the drama, controversy, outrage and the relentless pursuit of football trophies on both sides.
On the face of it, the two represent two very different ideologies. United have traditionally drawn their support from the mass working class population of Manchester and its surrounding urban sprawl. They also tend to reject nationalistic ideas – priding themselves on their Manchester roots, not their English ones. In contrast, Spain is more splintered into regions and identities than any other European state, yet Real Madrid embodied the ideas of Franco and Spanish nationalism.
Many lazily assume that the relationship between the clubs has always been tempestuous and frosty. Sir Alex spoke in 2008 that they were a ‘mob’ to whom he ‘would not sell a virus’. In context, this was when Real Madrid where openly declaring their interest in Cristiano Ronaldo who was developing into one of the finest footballers ever to grace the planet. A year later United reluctantly accepted a ground-breaking fee of £80 million to bring Ronaldo to Madrid, becoming the fourth United player in six seasons to make the switch (Beckham, van Nistelrooy and Heinze were the others).
Relations between the clubs have been more amiable since Mourinho arrived a year later as he continued his strong personal friendship with Sir Alex Ferguson. It’s a friendship that shares many parallels with that which existed between Sir Matt Busby and Santiago Bernabéu – the legendary former Madrid striker and President whose name was given to the club’s stadium.
The relationship between Busby and Bernabéu is outlined in John Ludden’s book A Tale of Two Cities: Manchester and Madrid 1957-1968 and Ludden noted his surprise that there is some modern animosity between the clubs. “When you look back on the history and you see what Real Madrid did for United after Munich.” he said, “It’s incredible.”
Busby came to Bernabéu’s attention following the 1957 European Cup semi-final, where the ‘Busby Babes’ put in a spirited performance which wasn’t enough to stop Real Madrid, who won the tie 5-3 on aggregate on their way to retaining the trophy. Bernabéu was so impressed with the Scot’s managerial work that he offered him a job at Real, but Busby wanted to lift the trophy with United, and politely declined.
Manchester United’s tragedy and history changed forever the following season, when the Munich air crash wiped out most of the starting eleven and rocked the club at the core. Unsurprisingly, a makeshift young United outfit where defeated by Milan in the semi-finals, who in turn where defeated by Madrid who won the tournament again. The Madrid President Bernabeu dedicated the trophy to United, and even offered the trophy to the club, who refused.
Bernabeu wanted to go further, and offered Madrid’s most prized asset, the most coveted player in the world – the great Alfredo Di Stefano, to United the following year. All parties had agreed to a short-term loan deal being accepted, but astoundingly the Football Association blocked the move in the belief that it would halt the progress of a British player.
Bernabeu, and Madrid, were not perturbed in their efforts to help. They made a memorial pennant with the names of the Munich dead, called “Champions of Honour”, which was sold in Spain to raise money for United. They offered the use of their lavish facilities to the injured and families of the deceased for free, and then arranged a series of fund-raising friendlies between the clubs
The first two of the friendlies arrived at the tail end of 1959, and Madrid won both – scoring twelve but the six they conceded showed that United were well on the way to rebuilding another fantastic side. In a fund-raising banquet for the families of those rocked by Munich which followed, Bernabeu described Busby as not just the ‘bravest’ but the ‘greatest’ man he had ever met in football. Busby responded that ‘Madrid are now like our family’.
The gap on the field was closing: the following year the then 5-times European champions overcame United in a classic 3-2 encounter, before Busby’s side finally overcame them 3-1 in 1961 and then 2-0 the following year.
These friendlies were an incredible gesture by Madrid, helping their great rivals back on their feet following one of the greatest sporting tragedies ever. Busby’s rebuilding process oversaw triumphs in the FA Cup and then the league. Fittingly, the 1968 European Cup victory was exactly a decade on from Munich, and saw them defeat Madrid in the semi-finals before lifting the trophy. Bernabeu remarked: “If it had to be anyone, then I am glad it was them”.
This puts into perspective the animosity shown by United fans towards Madrid, and perhaps today commercially-driven football leaders should take a few lessons from Bernabeu’s graciousness and generosity. Acts which should never be forgotten.
The summer of 2006. The balance of power in English seemingly shifting to London as Chelsea had secured their first back-to-back league titles in their history, while Arsenal had come within twenty minutes of their first Champions League trophy. Shevchenko and Ballack – both in their pomp – agreed moves to Stamford Bridge.
Manchester United appeared to be on the verge of turmoil as a solitary League Cup success was mere sticking plaster to cover the gaping wounds of no league title in three years – United’s longest barren spell since the Premiership was created. They had been eliminated in the group stages of the Champions League too. Ruud van Nistelrooy had become the latest high profile name to depart the club. Rumours were rife that Cristiano Ronaldo wanted out following the English media’s brutal and relentless witch-hunt of the teenage prodigy. Football pundits across the land were relishing in United’s apparent downfall and many predicted them to finish outside the top four, with Ferguson bowing out of the game. Read more…
During a recent private conversation with Sir Alex Ferguson, cycling czar Sir David Brailsford inquired of the 26-year coach of the biggest sports team in the world, “what is your secret to constant success and longevity?”
“Get rid of the c****,” was Ferguson’s reply.
In his typically effervescent way, the response is clarion clear. In Ferguson’s view, group stability is the key to unlocking the door to a long path of success. Whether it’s brusque casting aside of important players, who had become disruptive to the regime, or the allegiant focus on youth and future potential, to his adamant refusal to publicly disrespect his contestable employers in the Glazer tribe, everything Ferguson does at the club is dogmatically focused on maintaining a stability. It’s a stability plan that’s always required him as the fulcrum of course, but he’s been doing it so well that no fan would have it any other way. The problem is, soon we will have to.
Combining alcohol and football heartache isn’t always the best idea as many of us can testify, but it was the often potent mixture which fuelled Sir Alex Ferguson’s speech at the Manchester United Player of the Year awards last May. Speaking the night after two last-gasp goals saw United surrender their grip on the title, Ferguson spoke of those questioning his place in the modern game: “I’m a dinosaur, I’m an absolute dinosaur but what I am, I’m a winner”. Read more…
Half a century into the archives, this week’s Can They Score podcast is one to remember. As well as looking back at the last week of games, we have a feast of footballing memories to reminisce on as we look back romantically at King Eric’s time at Old Trafford, Sir Alex Ferguson, Ryan Giggs, David Beckham and much more. Joining me in the studio today is Mancunian favourite, Steven, and poet and journalist of fortune, Musa Okwonga.
Manchester United as a club is currently going through the motions. And we all know what is produced when a body ‘goes through motions’…
As we all knew they would, the well-documented finance issues at the club are now having a very tangible effect on the performances on the pitch. People might point at the current league table and suggest there is little cause for concern. But if consideration is given to the actual level of performance it indicates something else. We’re teetering on the edge of decline and something needs to be done now to halt the slide. The gravitational pull of mid-table obscurity is strong and hard to resist once the trend has been set. Ask a Liverpool fan. Read more…