As the dust settled on last season’s dramatic Barclays Premier League finale, an unsubstantiated rumour quickly emerged about Sir Alex Ferguson’s future. According to several people who claim to know him —including two top-flight managers — the United patriarch would have retired had his team not lost that title to Manchester City.
We will have to wait until the publication of Ferguson’s second autobiography to discover if the rather far-fetched story was true — to find out if it was the anguish of losing a title to his club’s nearest neighbours that drove him on yet further into his third decade at Old Trafford.
What is factual is that this season, Ferguson’s 26th in English football, will be remembered for one of his most remarkable achievements. Had he, for argument’s sake, walked away from the game last summer, his legacy would have been secure. Now it has another layer.
Masterful: Sir Alex Ferguson was the key ingredient in another Manchester United title success
The problem with Ferguson and challenges is that he finds it hard to turn his back on them. He arrived in Manchester in 1986 ready to stare down Liverpool and he did. Next it was Arsenal’s turn, then Chelsea’s and now, perhaps sweetest of all, City have also felt the sharp stab of Ferguson’s revenge.
Revenge in a mammoth scale it has been, too. Ferguson’s players haven’t just retrieved their title from Roberto Mancini’s team. They have wrenched it from them with all the bare-faced aggression of daylight street muggers.
This is the point with Ferguson. He takes defeat and disappointment personally. He is not always a phlegmatic man. When he stood up on the coach on the way home from final-day disappointment at Sunderland last May and told his players the experience would make men of them, nobody would have been churning inside as wretchedly as him.
United’s return to the pinnacle of the English game over the last eight months has been quite stunning, both in terms of its planning and clinical execution. Nothing in football is ever faultless but this is perhaps as close as it gets.
Key to it, undoubtedly, was the signing of Robin van Persie last summer and that story itself has Ferguson at its core.
City had tried almost obsessively since March 2012 to lure the Holland striker to the Etihad. When the time was right, though, Ferguson used an improved relationship with Arsene Wenger to pick up the phone and seal a transfer from Arsenal that was to become fundamental to the season.
‘Arsene told me he would be even better than I thought and he was right,’ said Ferguson late on Monday night.
Relationships, and his manipulation of them, have always been deeply important to Ferguson. He remains a manager in the truest sense of the word, and the sense of common purpose he has instilled in his squad this season has been one of the most noticeable themes. At City, it has not always been that way and, when two squads are evenly matched, that can make the difference.
There have been some challlenges this season, of course. United are certainly not immune to the problems that affect all clubs. Ferguson, though, has found a path through kinks in his relationship with Wayne Rooney and an early-season issue involving Rio Ferdinand and the ‘Kick It Out’ anti-racism campaign. Ultimately, these issues were not allowed to become disruptive.
One of the most pointless questions asked of modern United players is whether their manager has ‘mellowed’. It’s pointless because which player is going to tell the truth? Nevertheless, anyone who witnessed Ferguson’s dressing-room scoldings of three players on separate occasions this season will know that the fires of hell still burn when they need to.
What is pertinent here is that Ferguson still relies on many of the basic tools he used in dragging United up by their laces more than two decades ago. He is a modern, flexible manager with an old-school twist, a manager happy to consider building a training-ground dormitory to accommodate tired players on the return from European trips but equally determined players under the age of 23 should not be given sports cars by club sponsor Chevrolet.
It is astonishing to look back now and remember Ferguson was set to retire at the end of the 2001-02 season. Even now, the current United board dread the day he turns his back. ‘I don’t ask about that,’ said Sir Bobby Charlton yesterday. ‘Just in case I trigger something.’
At the time of Ferguson’s first retirement date, he had won 14 major trophies at United. In the subsequent 11 seasons he has added a dozen more.
These statistics suggest there has been no waning of Ferguson’s powers while the anecdotal evidence is compelling. At 71, he remains complex. But in the areas that matter, he is as authoritative as ever. His is an influence that reaches every corner of his club. Only longevity and, of course, success brings a manager this luxury and those in his trade who have spent time with him socially say they have rarely seen him as content.
Equally, Ferguson is aware that times have changed. Fully across the intricacies of social media — having asked a member of his support staff to explain it to him — Ferguson is aware of the dangers of Twitter and Facebook but his approach to them is pragmatic.
‘We can’t ban them from Twitter,’ he said. ‘But we can certainly make sure they know what not to tweet about.’
In Ferguson’s many years in Manchester, many other things have changed. The club’s Carrington training ground now has its own medical centre and what appears to be some kind of ornamental reflecting pool. Only one of these things will have been his idea.
The basics of the Scot’s life at Old Trafford remain the same, though. The link between continuity and success is clear.
On Monday, with the title secure, Ferguson’s players headed to the Cafe Rouge restaurant on Deansgate in the city centre. It seemed a peculiarly low-key venue but at the same time quite appropriate.
It’s April 2013 and Manchester is red once again.
only on Msmedia