Week 38 – Calling time (Premier League column for Goal.com Japan)
It is not a coincidence that my column is arriving a few days later than normal this week. I just had an inkling that something big might be afoot. A story of sufficient shock and awe to keep us all chatting about nought but for the rest of the season. With this in mind, I finished up filming in Tokyo on Tuesday and retired for an early night, excited at what news my smartphone might bring when it woke me in the morning.
Alas, as with most of my predictions on Foot! TUESDAY, I was wrong. My vision of the greatest relegation battle in living memory – perhaps half of the Premier League still in real danger of finishing 18th with two games to play – had faded substantially when Wigan Athletic succumbed to a 3-2 home defeat against Swansea City.
But as you may have noticed, another piece of news happened to break just in time to fill the blank page on my computer. Scooping the story of Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement before the presses rolled into action was a triumph for Mark Ogden and the Daily Telegraph, but the pace of events since has rendered it nigh on impossible not only for the printed newspapers, but even their online versions and websites like Goal.com to stay relevant through traditional, considered prose.
It has been a day of snippets, bulletins, tweets. The other British newspapers, both tabloid and broadsheet, picked up the story immediately and ran it with a collective persuasiveness that contrasted quite clearly with your standard silly season gossip. Compelled by responsibility to the New York Stock Exchange, United confirmed the retirement. First the odds on David Moyes taking over plummeted, then José Mourinho, then Moyes again. Journalists in Manchester, Liverpool, and Madrid queued up to aid the bookmakers’ convergence with their own 140 characters or less. Unanswered questions fuelled the secondary speculation. Why now? Is it a health issue? Could it be a timing thing – calculated to seize the ideal successor? Even the focus of the article I had initially planned, Roberto Martínez, finally became a tertiary headline as the odds-on favourite to succeed Moyes should the latter depart Everton.
But fortunately for me, and this page on my computer, there is one truth about the changing of the guard at Old Trafford that will hold its value no matter how or when further developments may unfold over the coming hours, days, or seasons:
In a genuine sense, nobody will ever succeed Sir Alex Ferguson.
The fiercely proud Scot has come to dominate and define not only Manchester United, but English football as a whole. To refer to his as an ‘era’ seems insufficient by an order of magnitude. I was three years old when Ferguson travelled south from Aberdeen to Old Trafford in 1986; too young to know what a manager even was. There was no such thing as the Premier League, Champions League, or J. League.
A world away from the Glazers, United were just a club, not a listed company, and when Michael Knighton offered to buy the whole thing for £20 million three years later, the price was considered extravagant. Players still wore 1-11 with no names on their backs, and got real jobs when they retired. Fans got in for cheap and stood, not sat, on the yellow and grey terraces behind the goal. Forget Mourinho; no manager born outside the British Isles had ever taken charge of any top-flight English club (until Dr. Jozef Vengloš, later of JEF United Ichihara, joined Aston Villa in 1990).
The successes that spanned such rapidly changing times – 28 major trophies in 27 seasons – have been well documented, but as Ferguson said in his brief statement on Wednesday, the 71-year-old has built “a football club, rather than just a football team”. Better than any of his predecessors since that other great Scot, Sir Matt Busby, retired for good in 1971, he understood the importance of United’s history and traditions; imparting them both onto his players and into his own methods.
He held true to a philosophy of attacking football and rebooting Busby’s old youth system, profiting further from the Red Devils’ achievements on and off the pitch to rise to every challenge – Liverpool, Arsène Wenger’s Arsenal, plus the resource-rich accents of Blackburn Rovers, Chelsea, and those noisy neighbours Manchester City. Common to the four excellent United sides he created was – as well as Ryan Giggs – an incredible determination to win first exemplified by the two Steve Bruce headers late on against Sheffield Wednesday in April 1993, and carried through to the succession of last-gasp victories early this season. This wasn’t by chance; it was an embodiment of Ferguson’s own nature played out on the pitch.
There are simply too many improbable elements for such a reign ever to be repeated. Beyond the trophies and sheer identity, the Glaswegian’s undisputed status at Old Trafford made him something of an anachronism. Few managers command similar respect in any direction and virtually all, in 2013, are expected to accept greater concessions in terms of their relationships with owners and technical directors. The average lifespan in the job is now much shorter. Ferguson’s astonishing longevity was the result of remarkable adaptability on the football side combined with stubborn, old-fashioned values and work ethic.
It is, as such, hard to believe that this bastion of English football across four different decades at Old Trafford won’t still be prowling the touchline next season. But, like all things, even Fergie time cannot go on forever.
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