Manchester: English football will never again see the extraordinary like of Sir Alex Ferguson. Some people will sigh with relief. Most will reflect admiringly on a remarkable character. All that drive, all that competitiveness, all those early starts to get on with plotting campaigns and all those late nights to keep on plotting triumphant campaigns. All the teams built and rebuilt, all those rivals seen off and trophies claimed.
Ferguson slept little and won loads. Year after year, season after season. Now it is over. English football will seem so different in the post-Ferguson era. It will feel like Trafalgar Square without Nelson. As a manager, Ferguson was inimitable. David Moyes, a sound appointment as his successor, must be himself when assuming control of Manchester United, not seeking to replicate his more illustrious compatriot.
Ferguson controlled the club, his aura dominating every corner of Carrington and Old Trafford. It still will. Moyes should not call Ghostbusters; he should just focus on the team, on the future, on stamping his own undoubted class on the place. Ferguson was unique, often charming, occasionally charmless but always mesmerising. Short of stature, and with a way of leaning forward as he walked quickly like a pigeon spotting a breadcrumb, Ferguson had this phenomenal presence.
It was a combination of glittering CV, authority, banter and lurking belligerence. He could turn a dugout into a trench. A colleague and I were poking around backstage at the Mestalla in 2001, whiling away the time before United’s game with Valencia started, when we encountered Ferguson near the away dressing room.
As usual, Ferguson was chomping on a Jaffa cake, and challenged us jocularly to name the 11 on the team-sheet he was about to hand in to the referee. We got nine out of 11, not bad given Ferguson’s unpredictability in Europe. Smiling, Ferguson ticked us off for daring to think we could read his mind.
“Never try to guess the mind of a mad man,” he laughed, before walking away.
Some mad man. Many of those rushing to pay handsome tribute to Ferguson have proclaimed him as a genius. The 71-year-old undoubtedly had a natural knack for man-management, inspiring individuals as during his shop-steward youth, coaxing the best out of mavericks such as Eric Cantona, and somehow keeping a whole squad happy, but Ferguson was so much more than a master motivator. His career is a reminder to those seeking to ascend the foothills of management that there are few shortcuts.
He did his apprenticeship, learning at East Stirlingshire and St Mirren before invigorating Aberdeen and United. He shaped great sides, the well-balanced Double-winners of ‘94, the Treble-winners of ‘99 who never gave up and the 2008 Champions League conquerors of Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo. Players like Ronaldo adored him because he loved their company, their quirks, their acts of brilliance. After Ryan Giggs weaved through Arsenal’s defence at Villa Park in 1999, I asked Ferguson how the goal ranked with the greatest of all time. United’s bus was gently revving its engine, the Treble juggernaut was accelerating but Ferguson talked and talked about Marco van Basten’s volley and Diego Maradona’s dribble (any goal against England he lingered lovingly on).
He loved discussing football and loved praising his players, particularly those such as Giggs whose head would not be turned by fawning headlines. It was interesting listening to the words of his former players yesterday, the likes of Peter Schmeichel who could not hide the hurt and disbelief at news of his leaving. Ferguson always fought for his players, blaming everyone from referees, to the authorities, to the opposition, to kit colour. He was always most quotable in defeat, acting the lightning rod to draw criticism away from his dressing room.
United have lost a manager and a minder. He bought well, often spectacularly well with Roy Keane, Cantona, Dennis Irwin, Edwin van der Sar and especially the £500,000 Schmeichel. United fans laud King Eric as the catalyst but it was Schmeichel who delivered more in Europe, whose purchase should be feted above all others. Ferguson also invested substantial sums in a skip-load of flops from Juan Sebastian Veron to Bebe, Eric Djemba-Djemba to Massimo Taibi. In hindsight, signals of his impending retirement could be detected, a little distress signal after Nani was dismissed and Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid won at Old Trafford this season.
Ferguson was “too distraught” to speak after the match, according to his assistant Mike Phelan. It was as if he knew that his last chance of a third European Cup, equalling Bob Paisley’s record, had gone and he was already grieving. When he did speak, a couple of days later at Carrington, the emotion was still raw.
“It’s hard to keep your faith when you see these things happen,” Ferguson said, leaning forward across a desk, still disbelieving the calumny that had befallen Nani, the team, the supporters and his own assault on the record books. Ferguson then listed the trophies he felt had “got away” because of what he perceived as refereeing injustices, a questionable offside against Paul Scholes when Porto visited in 2003-04 and Rafael’s two yellows against Bayern Munich in 2010. It was as if he had been filling in the final audit of his profits and losses in Europe. “That’s three European Cups we’ve been knocked out of due to refereeing decisions,” he sighed.
Mad man? A bit. His European record will rankle him. He could have done better. Also needing inking into the debit column was his hounding of referees. Some looked intimidated when emerging from the tunnel at Old Trafford. It was little surprise to spot his substitutes mixing warming up along the line with niggling away at assistant referees. Ferguson could put the rant into tyrant but ultimately he should be remembered for loving the game, for playing attacking football, often with width and youth.
Fiercely ambitious, Ferguson could be so calculating, a professor of mind games when Jose Mourinho was still at school. He could be friendly, helpful and prickly. As the years passed, as a new generation of reporters came in, Ferguson grew distant from the English media. He was grateful to their support when hoping for an improved contract from Martin Edwards in the Nineties. But, increasingly, his eyes lit up at press conferences only if a friendly face from Gazzetta, L’Equipe or another distinguished foreign publication was in town. He banned and blasted. One gleaned the impression that Ferguson always needed a few rucks ongoing, stoking the fires within. Yet he could spend 10 minutes in his office suggesting to this correspondent a few museums in Glasgow to take the kids; inevitably a man with such huge curiosity for life was patron of three of the establishments.
The private Ferguson was so different from his despotic image. He was first on the phone to Kenny Dalglish after Hillsborough. He was swift to contact Graham Poll after his three-card embarrassment in the 2006 World Cup. Even ailing journalists received supportive missives. He broke off from preparing United for an important game to travel to Ipswich to lead the tributes at John Lyall’s memorial. He had promised. As well the “football, bloody hell” moments from Old Trafford to the Nou Camp, the memory I will always have of Ferguson is him marching from his car at short-stay at Manchester airport before a European flight in the early Noughties.
“Here they come, here they come,” he muttered. I looked around and suddenly four middle-aged men approached, holding out photographs of iconic Ferguson moments for him to sign. He declined, knowing the pictures would be sold on. United were big business. So was Ferguson. English football will be poorer without him.