Listen, I’m not going to match the eloquence of others on the Ferguson retirement. There’s no way. I’m not Brian Phillips, for one. I also haven’t been working the first division beat since 1980, I have never visited Old Trafford (but let me tell you about Charlton and the Valley!), I was five years old when he first moved from Aberdeen to United, and my first memories of actually spending time to consciously think about him as a football manager involved Ryan Giggs whipping his shirt off in an FA Cup semifinal in 1999.
Most of the readers of this site will find themselves in the same camp. For a certain generation of North Americans who wormed their way uncomfortably into football via satellite TV and the Internet, there is no United without Ferguson. Rumours of Matt Busby, Denis Law, Bobby Charlton and George Best aside, United involved an old, scary looking Scottish man in a blazer over-seeing a bunch of very talented school kids doing incredible things. It was all reminiscent for me of my old choir director when I was a kid of 11, a man who was brilliant, capable of furious anger, and expected nothing less than the best from us because he saw it in us. When I was feeling charitable, that’s the person I saw in Sir Alex.
Neither do I have a particularly hipster Fergie moment that’s somehow radically different than all the rest. Mine is still the “Bloody hell,” quote, when goals from Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer won United their second European Cup and the treble in 1999. Too often football resembled something Ferguson had to win simply because he hated losing, a dirty war with other managers, referees and the media. But that sometimes masked his intense love of the sport reflected in his dumb-founded, plaintive response: “I can’t believe it.” You saw it in the way he almost danced out on the pitch before catching himself when Steve Bruce scored against Sheffield Wednesday in the dying days of the 1992-93 season.
That’s not to say he didn’t infuriate me. His abuse of officials bordered on the odious, and his patronizing attitude toward small clubs flat out enraged me at times. But if it had been my club, I don’t know. I’d shrug and say thanks I guess. And as David Conn pointed out today, his stance on the Glazer takeover was more than a little contradictory considering his ostensibly left-wing politics. But all that crap…meh.
As for David Moyes taking over, I think it’s the right decision on the whole. Jose Mourinho would just as soon arrive and leave in a few years, which would leave United in the same place as it is right now. Moyes’ approach, which is among the most forward-thinking in football at the moment (he’s a major proponent of statistical analysis and intelligent use and application of match data), offers United something in the way of stability. There is also good reason to think that the resources available to him via United’s ample revenue will allow him to do considerably more than he can currently at Everton.
The question is now what United will become without him, and I don’t mean in terms of their fortunes in the table. Their identity is so wrapped in the man, United’s accomplishments so intractably linked with Ferguson’s, that United risk becoming like any other club; that as Ferguson fades from memory, the Ferguson way will fade along with it.
And what is that, exactly? Well, the refusal to speak to the press on players. The sense of fierce loyalty. The diplomacy in selecting the first team, carefully massaging egos, doing everything he could in a an incredibly individualist professional field to create the idea that a team is something much bigger than the sum of its parts. The bulk of that work was likely accomplished in the little things we never saw. I’m a person who is often accused of dismissing vital intangibles, but I really do believe that Ferguson’s approach, in which he was always the face of the club, was the right one. I also think that future clubs and managers fail to take it at their peril.
Ferguson is old. So are we. We’re no longer 18 year olds in bars wearing replica shirts. That we were here to see it is enough, though. The titles, the wins, the transformation of United into the behemoth. He did it. It may never happen again.