In Ferguson, United have lost football's most relentless winner

Posted by Richard Jolly



He is the Glaswegian socialist and former shop steward who became a staunch defender of the right-wing American capitalists who employed him; the last of the great footballing dictators and yet so adept at the nuances of man management that great talents were afforded some leeway; the most ruthless of men and yet, in his own way, the most sentimental.

Sir Alex Ferguson is a mass of contradictions. He is the workaholic with a host of hobbies. Among them is reading the biographies of great historical figures. Ferguson’s own greatness was cemented years ago; so, too, his place in history. This is a manager who won eight league titles and a Champions League after being knighted.

- Marcotti: What next for United?
- Brewin: Sudden end to legacy
- Payne: Fergie and Busby
- The search for Sir Alex's heir
- Potential successors gallery
- Ferguson's famous quotes

He did so by looking forward. Another paradox of Ferguson is that the oldest manager in the business, a man who seems to dislike much about modern life, is a great advocate of youth. It is one of the reasons the empire builder hopes he has founded a dynasty at Manchester United. His penultimate programme notes, for Sunday’s game against Chelsea, mentioned his belief that United are positioned for "a decade of success."

While the assumption then was that Ferguson would still be in charge for the start of that decade, an unselfishness has long been apparent in his recruitment. Robin van Persie represented a generous, early and much-appreciated retirement present from the Glazers, but apart from that, Ferguson’s focus has remained fixed on potential. When he bought David de Gea at 20, it was evident that the goalkeeper would not reach his peak under a manager almost a half century older than he. Shinji Kagawa, Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and summer arrival Wilfried Zaha should deliver more for his successor than the Scot, as should the homegrown Danny Welbeck and Tom Cleverley and the improving Rafael da Silva.

He has taken to citing the ages of the majority of his squad, offering evidence that the future is bright. And so it may be, but the biggest factor in United’s title-winning campaign is finally shuffling off into retirement, although as a director and an ambassador, a busy and lucrative one.

Parallels have long been drawn with Old Trafford's other managerial knight, Sir Matt Busby, who left a declining team after two decades of success. Ferguson may have had English football’s other great superpower in mind, however. He knocked Liverpool off their perch, but they were unbalanced themselves; as their finest players grew older, money was wasted on mediocrities.

Ferguson has aimed to avoid a repeat at Old Trafford. Having long given the impression of permanence, the aim now is to ensure United's supremacy does not end along with the reign of statistically the greatest manager of them all. Because, in his 26 years at Old Trafford, Ferguson has proved himself to be football's most relentless winner.

There has been some fantastic football, with the classes of 1994, 1999 and 2008 standing above the other title-winning teams for their thrilling attacks and, in the latter two cases, achievement of conquering Europe. There have been some magnificent players and Busby's best, Duncan Edwards, Bobby Charlton, Denis Law and George Best, have to be joined by at least six of Ferguson's finest on the short list for United's outstanding footballer.

Besides dozens of good buys, Ferguson was responsible for at least half a dozen genuinely great signings -- Peter Schmeichel, Eric Cantona, Roy Keane, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Cristiano Ronaldo and Nemanja Vidic -- and while he may not remembered, either, as one of football’s greatest innovators or its supreme on-field strategists, there have been tactical triumphs aplenty.

Peter Schmeichel Sir Alex Ferguson trophy FA Cup 1999
GettyImagesSir Alex Ferguson signed Peter Schmeichel from Brondby in 1991



Yet the defining theme is simply of success. He imbued a team -- indeed, an entire club -- with his own winning mentality. A fierce competitor responded to every challenge, from the dominant Liverpool team he initially encountered to the recent rise of Manchester City. In between, title rivals from Leeds, Norwich, Aston Villa, Newcastle and Blackburn to Arsenal and Chelsea have discovered that Ferguson's teams could normally outscore them and that he would invariably outlast them.

With 22 consecutive top-three finishes and 13 league titles, Ferguson changed the landscape of English football, single-handedly rebranding United from overspending underachievers to serial champions, claiming to have 659 million fans worldwide and almost certainly having as many grudging admirers, who envied their ability to win.

In domestic football, his achievements are incomparable. The sole legitimate criticism of his record is that there could, and perhaps should, have been another Champions League in the trophy cabinet. Like his friend Jose Mourinho, Ferguson still has to look up at the three-time winner Bob Paisley in the pantheon of European managers. A man whose ability to harbour grudges is almost unrivalled will presumably go into retirement still cursing the Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir for sending Nani off against Real Madrid this year, cruelly curtailing his last continental campaign.

The reality, though, is that his final United team are no match for Spain and Germany's trailblazers or for their most illustrious predecessors. None of that should detract from Ferguson’s legacy. The league was plucked from his grasp in heartbreaking fashion 12 months ago, and he responded the only way he knew how: by taking his team to the title, demoralising their rivals with their consistency. And then, long after others expected the final whistle to blow in his career, the instigator of umpteen dramatic comebacks pointed to his watch and decided that, after 26 years, 1500 games and 38 trophies, "Fergie Time" was finally over.

ESPN Conversations