Day one of Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United odyssey doesn’t just feel like several generations ago, it feels like a different universe. Glancing back at the shaky footage from the very first of his 7 AM arrivals at the training ground, the images resonate of an era that seemed so much simpler somehow.
A handful of shaggy haired local kids hung around with their autograph books and biros (no iPhones capturing video mementos, nobody tweeting any of his words of wisdom). With a pat on one of the lad’s heads, Ferguson went inside to get to work. The November day was chilled and overcast, and the Cliff, as the training ground was known, was little more than an unattractive block with some fairly rudimentary changing rooms, showers, gym and a canteen. There were none of the sophisticated and scientific facilities which make the players of today feel like they are in 5 star luxury suite. Outside in the car park, the motors of choice were ordinary. There was no such thing as a blacked out window or a pimped up ride.
United’s team, which sat 19th in the division, needed a serious overhaul and there was the steeliness in Ferguson’s eyes that we would all come to know so well. "I’m looking to win the games we go into, that’s the only way you can attack it," he said to a smattering of reporters hanging about on the side of the practice pitch. It would be tomorrow that most folk would get wind of what he said, the impression he gave. There was no internet to send instant sound bites to the world, no 24 hour news channels to analyze every syllable, no need for the New York Stock Exchange to react to events at a football club in the north of England.
A manager’s life in 1986 had considerably fewer complications. Agents had not yet changed the dynamic and challenged the absolute control a manager had over his players. International barriers had not come down to enable talent to be prised from any corner of the globe. Footballers were glamorous, but within reason. Their salaries were not so crazily removed from the rest of us to make it understandable that they live in some kind of bubble. Player power makes management a completely different game nowadays.
Ferguson’s longevity astounds. It is not just that he has built team after successful team, it is that he has managed to evolve so that his methods continue to flourish in a completely altered, updated and globalized footballing environment. The very last old school manager thrived in the modern game.
The span of time during which he has been the lord of all he surveys at United is epitomized by the numbers of managerial changes that have taken place at rival European clubs; Real Madrid 24; Inter Milan 19; Bayern Munich 14; and Barcelona 13. And all the while Manchester United stuck with their number one.
And indeed, he stuck with them. It is United’s luck that Ferguson was the type of man driven to create a dynasty rather than enjoy the experience of a peripatetic, traveling coach racking up achievements in different countries. Had he chosen that route, it’s hard to conceive that he wouldn’t have stacked up trophies elsewhere.
With such a weight of history written in his hand, it was no surprise that the last 24 hours, since the first whispers whipped into a hurricane, have felt momentous. It all began on Tuesday night, when the story broke that United’s players had been told on their golf day of news afoot regarding their manager. The rumor mill almost exploded.
The following morning, shortly after 9 AM UK time, confirmation came. There was only one talking point in town. News desks, radio shows, television channels cranked into overdrive. "I’m stunned," said Paddy Crerand, a United legend, as he heard the news on a live BBC radio show.
Before long, the football world began lining up to pay their tributes. "A legend retires," said Franz Beckenbauer. "Sir Alex Ferguson is one of the best coaches ever. We bow to his great performance and personality." Gary Lineker added: "The greatest manager in British football’s history calls it a day. Enjoy your retirement Sir Alex." Michel Platini paid tribute to "a true visionary."
Everyone has their own Fergie memories, and here, for what it’s worth, is mine. It felt like quite the milestone back in 1996 as Ferguson approached a decade as Manchester United manager. Little did we know at the time how that would represent only a slice of his career at the club; a fraction of the titles he would collect, a section of the teams he would construct with such a ruthless eye for capability mixed with character.
I was not exactly experienced, still in my first couple of seasons on the football beat when the call came to head to Old Trafford for an invitation-only lunch to have an informal chat with the main man. The idea was to create an environment away from the stiffness and routine of the press conference, time for some off-the-record, guard-down musings. Most of the others in attendance were writers long known to Ferguson, but it just so happened our chief writer was on holiday and I was dispatched in his place.
Straight away Ferguson clocked a new face. He made a welcoming introduction and got to the point. Who was my team? It felt like a trick question, but any wariness dissolved as he began to talk in fabulous, forensic detail about his encounters with my childhood team. His memory was staggering. He could pull up the minutest detail as easily as snapping his fingers. He was full of questions, anecdotes and intrigue. Having expected to be intimidated by the irascible, stern, kill-you-with-a-glance Ferguson that played such an important part in his public persona, he was whimsical, witty and willing to share his wisdom. The combination was very powerful. It was obvious why he could make his players love him, fear him and believe in him so utterly.
The arch-competitor, the most ruthless and edgy and successful coach of his time, will take some following. Manchester United’s new manager will step into a rather different environment to the day a young, driven and ambitious Scot arrived at the Cliff in 1986.
Back then, United had not won the league for almost two decades. Now, the new man walks into the reigning champions, and Premier League’s dominant force. He will have Ferguson around the place upstairs in the Directors Box, nearby for a helping hand. But also he has the presence of a man who everyone will gasp at when he walks into the room. United will doubtless try to engineer a sensitive handover, but it won’t be easy.
The new manager will walk past Ferguson’s statue at Old Trafford, and see his name written largely on the gigantic stand opposite every time he looks up from the dugout. He is a constant reference point; the chewing gum; the haranguing of referees; the hairdryers; the football bloody hell one liners; the late goals; the trophy cabinet.
Nobody will easily let go of all that he embodies. No question about that.