Career that can’t be replicated

2013-05-11 00:00

SIR Alex Ferguson has been in charge at Manchester United a few months shy of the time that I have been alive.

That is quite a bit to take in.

Naturally, I cannot remember a time when United were without Ferguson. It simply doesn’t exist. And over the last few days, trying to imagine a Ferguson-less United has been difficult. Picturing David Moyes standing in front of the redbrick wall that props up the technical area at Old Trafford after wobbling down the touchline and giving the Queen’s wave to the Stretford End has an aura of the uncomfortable about it.

But this day was inevitable, and as much as United fans wanted to believe otherwise, Fergie could not carry on forever. And if anybody has deserved retirement, it is surely him. There is nothing that the man didn’t achieve in his 26 years, and his influence over that time in turning United into one of the most successful football clubs in the world, on and off the pitch, has been nothing short of epic.

What was it that separated him from the others? Ferguson, while an accomplished player, was not an outstanding footballer. A rickety striker known for his dangerous flying elbows, he broke the Scottish transfer record at the time with a £65 000 move to Rangers from Dunfermline. But there isn’t much else to remember from his playing career.

His move into management is where things got real. Success at Aberdeen brought about the move to England in 1986. The story goes that Fergie was dead close to signing a deal to take over at Arsenal. Can you imagine?

Things were tough for him in the beginning. By 1990, media speculation was rife that if United were eliminated from the FA Cup, Fergie would be gone for all money. The club was languishing in 15th position on the league table and out of the League Cup, and United fans had just about had enough.

On January 7, 1990, a striker called Mark Robins came off the bench to score the winning goal for United in a third-round tie against Nottingham Forest. Robins had an unspectacular playing career, but Ferguson has credited that goal as the moment that saved his job at United. He would go on to win the FA Cup that year, and his reign had begun.

What followed was a path of destruction that saw him win everything under the sun and see United overhaul Liverpool’s grip on having claim to the most number of Premier League titles. Champions leagues, FA cups, league cups, Club World cups, Super cups … he won them all.

But strangely, Ferguson never had a reputation of being a master tactician. Obviously he knew what he was doing, but his real strengths lay in making the right decisions for the football club at precisely the right times. His man-management skills have been lauded, and there has never been a time when a player at United has been bigger than the club. Ferguson dealt with it the second it happened, usually by showing the player the door, regardless of his ability.

When he arrived at Old Trafford, he ruffled a few feathers by challenging the drinking culture that was so strongly associated with English football. He challenged his players to get fitter, to take things more seriously. It would take a while, but his plan was surely in place from the second he walked through the doors on his first day of business. Ferguson has always maintained that in order for any team to succeed, the most important person at the football club must always be the manager. With the backing of a board that grew in trust ever since that 1990 FA Cup win, Ferguson was soon given complete licence to make the big calls.

It is for precisely this reason that anybody who thinks that Fergie will still have a massive role to play in United’s fortunes next season must think again. He knows more than anybody that Moyes must be in charge and the sole conductor of the United orchestra.

I don’t think anybody saw his retirement coming. A few weeks ago, he had said that there were no plans to retire just yet. The footballing world anticipated at least another couple of years. United had just won the league back from City, and Ferguson had manufactured another young squad full of promise (for about the fifth time).

When United toured South Africa at the beginning of this season, a few of us sports writers were fortunate enough to get to fire a few questions at United’s icon. We asked him about South Africa, the league, his team, City … whatever we could think of. But if we had known that this was to be his final season, I expect the line of questioning would have been somewhat different.

One thing is certain, the man’s career cannot be replicated and expecting it to be would be setting Moyes up for failure before he has even had the chance to exchange his blue tie for a red one. He must be given time, just as Sir Alex was, and this is clearly understood by United given that Moyes has agreed to a six-year contract.

The Premier League as we know it is set for its biggest change yet. And while United lovers will be desperately worried about their team’s future and whether their unrivalled dominance over the last two decades is set to be lost, there are supporters of a few other clubs who have been waiting for this day for a while. The Indians have lost their chief, and it’s game on again. Hold on to your seats, because next season everybody is going to fancy their chances.

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