There is a story, now glorified in myth, that on Bobby Robson’s 70th birthday some years ago, Sir Alex Ferguson claimed there would be “no bloody chance” he would still be working at the same age. It was an assertion the Manchester United manager repeated in 2008. Now, nearly a decade after Ferguson announced his retirement in 2002, the Scot has broken that promise. Indeed, the manager’s avowal may well be breached by years, with Ferguson seeking three more campaigns in charge at Old Trafford, according to the Scot’s programme notes on Saturday.
Ferguson remains one of football’s most enduringly complex characters, and with no pressure to bring forward retirement, the manager can effectively stay at Old Trafford as long as he wants. That Ferguson will remain in charge until his health fails him is now the accepted party line.
“As long as my health stays up, and as long as I’m still enjoying it and still getting the satisfaction of the team doing its best,” admitted Ferguson on Saturday. Smokescreen or otherwise, it is undoubtedly Ferguson who will choose the timing and manner of his departure.
Ferguson’s bank of credit is more extensive than any other manager in the game, and the Scot’s achievements were rightly celebrated both on these pages and elsewhere when he reached 25 years at Old Trafford earlier this season. But with Ferguson reaching 70 on Saturday there is little need to repeat November’s exercise in lionisation, when the plaudits flowed, and supporters, media and players were drawn to heartfelt praise of the Scot’s achievements. Old Trafford’s North Stand now proudly lauds Ferguson’s achievements forever more.
Yet, Ferguson’s 70th birthday also marks an opportunity to reflect on the man, and the fascinating drive that ensures a pensioner continues working in the most pressurised atmosphere. Despite previous promises of retirement, Ferguson’s impact on the club is enduring.
The answer to this is, of course, far more nuanced than the simplified legend. Ferguson is stubborn, driven, ruthless, arrogant, selfish, and a megalomaniac; all traits that lie at the heart of both the Scot’s longevity and huge success. Underpinning the septuagenarian’s endurance well beyond pensionable age is the fearsome control exerted over almost every aspect of the club. From the players, whose every movement may no longer be tracked but is dictated by the United manager-cum-polymath, to the club’s staff, who are unquestioning in every aspect of United’s management.
Yet, these are also traits that have brought Ferguson into repeated conflict with his players, staff, and at times fans, investors and executive management. It has not always been to the club’s benefit, says former player Roy Keane, who dramatically fell out with Ferguson in 2005. “I don’t think Ferguson does what is right for Manchester United. I think he does what is right for him,” said Keane. “The two words he always used were “power” and “control”.”
Indeed, the manager’s belief that he can never – must never – lose an argument with a player, sometimes no matter who is actually right, has brought conflict not only with Keane, but David Beckham, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Jaap Stam and others. The conflict du jour, if Sunday’s media reports have any credibility, is with star striker Wayne Rooney, apparently dropped for United’s fixture with Blackburn because of a late night out. Whether the latest reports are correct or not, Ferguson’s word is still law at Old Trafford, and more often than not even the most serious arguments with players have neither permanently damaged team nor club.
Yet, the Scot has also picked one fight too many at times, being drawn into an ultimately unsuccessful legal battle with former shareholders John Magnier and J. P. McManus in 2004. The conflict, catalysed by Ferguson’s desire for financial gain when the horse Rock of Gibraltar was put out to stud, drew in every aspect of the club. While Magnier and McManus’ now infamous ’99 questions’ placed Ferguson under an uncomfortable spotlight, the conflict enabled the Glazer family’s leveraged takeover the following year according to many observers.
Ferguson’s failure to acknowledge his role in driving McManus and Magnier away, and subsequent vocal support for the Glazer regime, has divided fans. For many, the manager’s legacy is now tainted. Others, bank of credit firmly in the forefront, brook no question with the Ferguson’s strategy, even if it is seemingly born out of self-interest.
“People say Ferguson always does what’s right for Man United. I don’t think he does. I think he does what’s right for him,” adds Keane.
“The Irish thing, I was speaking to the manager about it. This didn’t help the club, the manager going to law against its leading shareholder. How could it be of benefit to Man United? ‘They’ve used me, they’ve treated me badly’, Ferguson told me in his office. I said, ‘You’re not going to win’, and he said, ‘I don’t care, no-one does that to me’.”
This is just one aspect of Ferguson’s enduring stubbornness: the total belief that not only he is right, but fans, media, pundits, players and fellow managers are almost always in error. It is this belief that drew the United manager into battle once again last week, with the Scot claiming that he “will not be swayed by the endless tweets and blogs urging the club to get busy in the transfer market next month.” As far as Ferguson is concerned, he is “marching perfectly in step, true to [his] beliefs and principles.”
Another principle unchanged is Ferguson’s bizarre tendency to over-rotate, deploy players out of position and tinker with his team. The United manager effectively invented the squad game, and has now taken the policy to it’s zenith. Ferguson’s team selection against Blackburn, for example, included a right-back, in his first game for six months, and a left-winger, each deployed in central midfield. Whether it is principled in total football, or a complete mess, depends on one’s assessment of ‘Tinkerbell’s’ priorities.
Whatever Ferguson’s personality failings, they are also the same qualities that has brought United 36 major trophies during the past quarter century. No matter the hugely frustrating and aggressive support for United’s carpetbagging owners – “f*ck off and support Chelsea if you dont like it – Ferguson has built modern United and is largely responsible for the club’s recent glories. It is a juxtaposition not easily reconciled.
And the Scot is in no mood to draw his glorious run to an end, seemingly not downbeat by the owners’ financial restrictions, but reenergised by younger players that have joined the Reds’ squad this season.
“There are new players that have come in, like [Phil] Jones, [Chris] Smalling, Ashley Young, [Danny] Welbeck – and they haven’t won any league medals yet. We have to continue the dominance of winning leagues and, without question, winning a European Cup is important at this club. We should have been in at least another three finals.
“But you can’t be greedy, I suppose, and having won two in my time is an achievement. They were special, it was terrific to win them. I think I’d be very keen to do that [again]. You don’t win every time. People maybe say we’re great winners and all that type of thing, but I think we’re great losers. You know why? Because we don’t let it happen too many times and we’ve a certain attitude about that.”
Yet at 70, with at most three and a half more seasons in charge at Old Trafford if the manager’s word holds true, Ferguson’s greatest challenge may lie ahead. Despite the repeated insistence that money is available if required, logic dictates that the 70-year-old is being liberal with the truth. After al,l the assertions that there ‘is no value in the market’ and now that ‘there is nobody good enough for United’, simply do not ring true. That rivals at home and abroad have no such restrictions only exacerbate the challenge.
But if the manager’s greatest challenges lie ahead, then so too could be Ferguson’s finest glory, well past his 71st year. There is nobody else with the force of nature to take a limited squad to domestic and European glory. In the context of the current season, a 19th domestic title and European final last time out was among Ferguson’s very finest achievements.