Sir Alex Ferguson walked into a cavernous meeting room at the Four Seasons Hotel in Boston and stretched his right hand out toward mine. As he shook it — with just about the firmest grip I’ve ever felt — he tilted his head, scrunched his face into a stern look and said, in his incorrigibly thick Scottish accent: “No questions on football, eh?”
Then, as my stomach hurtled toward the floor, he smiled.
That, in a nutshell, was Ferguson. The man, now 71, was equal parts friendly and frightening; both the nurturing father and the domineering one.
On Wednesday, he shocked the world when he announced his retirement after an improbably successful 27-year run in charge of Manchester United. The announcement took many aback in the timing, if not the style. Ferguson once floated the idea that the 2001-02 season would be his last, only to see the team flounder. He vowed never to do that again.
“The decision to retire is one that I have thought a great deal about and one that I have not taken lightly,” Ferguson said in a statement. “It is the right time. It was important to me to leave an organization in the strongest possible shape and I believe I have done so.”
This, more than anything, was Ferguson’s legacy at United, where he will stay on as a director and ambassador: the club comes before all else. No player’s interests were to be put before the club’s. Ferguson had no qualms about ostracizing even his very best players if they stepped out of line. That’s how central contributors such as David Beckham, Jaap Stam and Roy Keane found themselves summarily sold after falling out with the iron-fisted manager.
The other bedrock of his tenure was continuity. “In my early years, the backing of the board … gave me the confidence and time to build a football club, rather than just a football team,” Ferguson said Wednesday. Once he’d survived the rocky early years and had started winning, he achieved a critical mass that ensured both his own continued employment and the club’s prosperity.
“The continuity is a very difficult thing in modern-day football,” Ferguson told me that day in Boston. “It’s a results industry. We have a tradition and we have a philosophy and we’ve stuck mainly to that in all my time.”
“Most of my staff have been with me more than 20 years, as long as I’ve been here myself,” Ferguson said. “With having a good staff, we’ve got the experience to handle most things. As they come along, we have difficulties — we lose a game, maybe sometimes we lose two games — but we have the experience and the patience to see things through, which I don’t know everyone will get that opportunity. As I say, it’s a results industry. And some unfortunate managers can lose three games and be out of a job. That wouldn’t happen at United. Therefore it’s very easy to keep the continuity.”
Star United forward Wayne Rooney told me in 2011: “The manager we’ve got has been here 25 years now. You look at the other clubs, they change their managers every two, three years and they have to start again. New managers like to rebuild their team, where our manager has been here for such a long time that he knows what’s better for the club and what’s better for the players."
Ferguson imbued his squad with a sense of purpose. No matter how much already had been won, there was always more left to win. “It’s something which this club (breeds) into you — you need to look forward rather than look back,” Rooney said. “It’s a demand on all of the players. We’re expected to win trophies. We need to try and create more history for the club.”
That’s how Ferguson has won 893 times in 1,497 games in charge of United to date — for an astonishing 59.65 winning percentage. Ferguson won 13 Premier League titles in his final 21 years, as well as two UEFA Champions League titles, five FA Cups and an unwieldy mound of other shiny trinkets (Not to mention the pile of silverware he won with Aberdeen before taking the United job).
Ferguson had clear ideas on the game and was tactically astute, but he never got bogged down in a playing philosophy, unlike most modern managers. He tinkered with his tactics, would descend to the field from Old Trafford’s elevated benches to point and bellow a few terse instructions, mashing hypnotically on his gum all the while. Then he’d climb the steps back to his perch and reclaim his seat. When United scored, he’d push himself up on his assistants beside him and throw his balled fists into the air, celebrating like it was his first goal.
That is the enduring image of one of the titans of the game. As he rides off into the horizon, trophies and awards in tow, Ferguson will cast a large shadow. It remains to be seen if his successors can escape it.