When Sir Alex Ferguson announced his retirement as manager of Manchester United FC it displaced the Queen’s Speech as the number one news story. That the decision to retire of a football manager is seen as more newsworthy than the announcement of the government’s legislative programme for the coming year is not just a comment on the insipid nature of the programme, but also a comment on the enormous respect for Sir Alex among people everywhere. His achievements first at Aberdeen, where he challenged the duopoly of the Old Firm of Glasgow Celtic and Rangers, and then over more than 26 years at Manchester United, where he succeeded in his ambition of knocking Liverpool off its perch and then faced down successive challenges from Leeds United, Blackburn Rovers, Newcastle United, Arsenal, Chelsea and most recently his noisy neighbours Manchester City, rank among the greatest in the game.
On Thursday every newspaper it seemed carried a ‘Fergie’ supplement and the general news coverage was almost equivalent to that of the passing of Margaret Thatcher last month. In that case I also felt moved to blog even though I had never met the Iron Lady. In this case I have had the great pleasure of meeting Sir Alex a number of times and can say he is one of the most impressive individuals I have ever met.
On one occasion we arranged to have dinner together the night before a match at Tottenham Hotspur. It was rare for him to leave his players the night before a game. He was accompanied by Bobby Campbell, another football manager whose main claim to fame was that he had managed Fulham when they had persuaded George Best, Bobby Moore and Rodney Marsh to play for them. Bobby and Alex swapped stories all night. I had brought with me two programmes from United- Spurs games from the sixties and Alex loved to look through them. He demonstrated his phenomenal memory by recalling the playing styles of every player in the team sheets. This was the time when Kevin Keegan had resigned suddenly as manager of Newcastle United and apparently disappeared, at least from the sporting press. I was able to tell Alex that Kevin was golfing in Florida because we had tried to book him for a Sony dealers’ conference in Thailand along with Peter Bonetti, Terry Butcher, Emlyn Hughes, Denis Law, Rodney Marsh, Alan Mullery, Terry Neil, Martin Peters and manager, Ron Atkinson. He put this in a diary of the season he published, but I must have made a mixed impression on him as he referred to me as David Gibson, head of Sony, Europe. I could forgive him getting my name wrong as he had promoted me!
On another occasion he invited me to one of the games at Old Trafford. I took my wife and children and afterwards we went to his inner sanctum for a drink with his more intimate friends. I have photographs of the occasion at my side as I write this. My wife still talks about his wonderful smile.
There is no need in this blog to recite all his amazing achievements but let me try to describe why he has been so successful and is being described as possibly the greatest of all football managers.
Firstly he has a will to win that is exceptional. His winning record as a percentage of matches is very high. Of the 1,498 matches Manchester United have played under his management they have won 894, almost 60%, 337 or 22% have been drawn and only 267, less than 18%, lost. The concept of Fergie time has come into the folk lore. ‘Fergie time’ is 79 seconds. ‘Fergie time’ is the widely held belief by supporters of other teams, that if Manchester United are losing after 90 minutes, the referee will extend injury time long enough for them to equalise or win. Last year, the BBC analysed Fergie time. It found that Manchester United were not unique in being given extra injury time when they were losing, although it appeared they got more than other teams. Games went on 79 seconds longer when Manchester United were losing than winning. Manchester United's towering achievement - securing the treble with victory in the 1999 European Champions League - was achieved in Fergie time, when they reversed a Bayern Munich lead, by scoring two goals after the 90th minute.
Secondly he has an unquenchable commitment to work hard. He thrives on five hours sleep, is usually the first at the training ground at 7.15am and often the last to leave.
Thirdly he has a very high level of intelligence. He may not have had much of a formal education but he is naturally bright and today very well read with a wide interest in biography and history. He will draw stories from this reading which he will use in motivating his players.
Fourth, despite his justified reputation for losing his temper and the famous ‘hairdryer’ treatment of poorly performing players, he has great empathy. He is as likely to be found drinking tea with the laundry ladies as drinking red wine with club directors. When he judges a player he is looking for this quality as well. Thus it is obvious to all that Robin Van Persie is an exceptionally gifted striker. What Sir Alex also spotted is that it was only Van Persie who put a consoling arm round a young fullback who had given a goal away in an Arsenal game against United that they went on to win 8-2.
Fifth, he looks for all these qualities in his players. He finds young and established players with an indomitable will to win, a willingness to work hard, a high level of intelligence and the empathy to play for the team. He would visit the homes of teenage prospects his talent scouts had discovered. While this made a positive impression on the parents it also gave Alex an insight into their background.
He has never forgotten his own background, the docksides in Govan where he worked as an apprentice tool maker and shop steward while playing to a good standard for several leading Scottish teams. Now a multi-millionaire with the wherewithal to own race horses he lives in a mansion in Wilmslow, the poshest town in Cheshire, but he calls the mansion ‘Fairfields’ after the shipyard where his father worked. He once ran a pub that he renamed Fergie’s with a downstairs bar named the Elbow Room in memory of his physical style as a player.
And so we come to his succession. He is clearly irreplaceable but has to be replaced. The club has gone for David Moyes, another Glaswegian Scot who has done well at Everton with limited resources. I suspect that Ferguson himself has been strongly influential in this decision seeing in Moyes some or hopefully all of the qualities I have described. It remains to be seen how successful he will be but even the most rabid of United fans would do well to be patient. After all Ferguson himself won nothing in his first four years at the club. I hope too they learn the lesson from the retirement of the great Sir Matt Busby. Another legendary Scottish manager, when the time came for him to step down a former club player Wilf McGuiness was installed as team manager while Sir Matt stayed on as General Manager. Busby continued to make all the final decisions on transfers etc and despite reaching 3 semi-finals McGuiness was gone in 2 years. The club then worked their way through a succession of high profile managers, won the occasional cup competition but failed to win the League until Ferguson’s seventh season in charge.
I think Ferguson’s greatest achievement has been to continue to dominate the League while the rapacious Glazer family have loaded the club with £550m of debt. Only his success on the field has helped the club avoid a dreadful fate. The Manchester United Supporters Trust, (MUST) of which I am a founder member, was set up to try to find a different ownership structure, and hates what the Glazers have done to the club. In response to the news that Sir Alex Ferguson has announced his intention to retire a spokesperson for MUST said:
"Like United fans all over the world we will be sad to see Sir Alex go. Simply he is a one-off and irreplaceable. Our first reaction is an overwhelming feeling of immense gratitude towards Sir Alex for the truly outstanding contribution he has made to our football club.
Though his decision will no doubt be greeted with universal dismay amongst United supporters it was inevitable at some point and though we'd selfishly love to see him to carry on there is a point where he has to think about himself and his family.
We are sure his influence will continue to be felt directly at Old Trafford, in the dressing room and in the stands, for some time to come and his legacy will last forever.
There will be so many tributes made to him over the coming weeks and we'll be giving our own consideration about how MUST and our members will want to mark this historic occasion in a fitting way but at this stage our message to Sir Alex - is heartfelt but short and sweet - 'Thank you' "
And to sign off on a lighter note:
Sir Alex Ferguson:
13 Premier League Titles
10 Community Shields
5 FA Cups
4 League Cups
2 European Cups
1 Piece of Chewing Gum