The Man Who Was United

The greatest possible tribute to what Sir Alex Ferguson did at Manchester United is how hard it is to imagine the team, or the game, without him.
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Despite growing up in a city that hosted matches during World Cup ‘94 and put a giant soccer ball on its city hall, the beautiful game was something I never thought about outside elementary school recess, when we’d haphazardly kick about a garish yellow ball with red panels and hope not to hit any of the trailer classrooms that increasingly encroached on our green space.

Soccer wasn’t on TV, and even if it had been, the younger version of me didn’t know enough or care enough to look for it. I had bigger priorities at the time, like watching cartoons, or World News Tonight with Peter Jennings. I was a weird kid, but my lack of interest in soccer put me, at least in this one instance, squarely in the mainstream. The idea that I could ever care about Sir Alexander Chapman Ferguson stepping down as manager of Manchester United was, at the time, the purest science fiction. I didn’t know what Manchester United was; I never could have guessed that I would come to care about them, or about their legendary boss. I was not alone, again, in my ignorance that Sir Alex Ferguson would become what he became over his 26 years with Manchester United.

***

In 2002, when the World Cup was in South Korea and Japan, the matches aired at the most godawful times in the morning in the United States. My father was taking a job in Fort Lauderdale at the time, and would live there for most of the summer; my mom and I woke up early one morning to see him off. The only thing on TV at 4am was the World Cup, and it was then that I first made the bleary-eyed acquaintance of Landon Donovan. I was transfixed by him, the game, all of it.

Serendipitously, my parents sprung for a better cable package not soon thereafter. With that came the old Fox Sports World and its bizarre mélange of the Bundesliga, La Liga, the Eredivisie, and the Premier League. The first match I remember watching was a Bundesliga clash featuring 1860 Munich and some other team I didn’t care about: I was twelve years old, 1860 had the better uniforms, and I became a fan. Right now, the team is bumping along in the 2. Bundesliga, but an 1860 Munich scarf still hangs in my closet.

But I moved on: I started playing the FIFA video games, and I met my friend Sam, a United fan. It came together clearly and cleanly: United was one of the better teams in FIFA 2003—the one that had Landon Donovan on the cover stateside, thinking that Americans would maybe sort of know who he was—and United was always on TV, and United had David Beckham (you know, that guy from that movie), whom I knew from that first, fateful World Cup, and so it just made sense.

The rest happened quickly: I memorized the usual starting lineup for United in the 02/03 season and made it one of those scrolling text screensavers on our family’s computer. I screamed at the TV when Sol Campbell decked Ole Gunnar Solskjær at Highbury, and laughed when John O’Shea played in goal and managed to save a shot from his compatriot Robbie Keane. I got excited about signings like Eric Djemba-Djemba, who United fans still want to forget ever wore red, and some kid called Ronaldo, who worked out somewhat better. I rushed home from high school to watch Champions League games on ESPN, and watched matches when I was supposed to be taking notes in college classes, or serving as a TA.

I was hooked, and without quite noticing it at first, Sir Alex Ferguson became a constant in my life, a distant and revered authority figure scowling in a puffy jacket on the touchline. In a society with a host of other defective royal families, Ferguson became the dour prince I adopted along with a great many others, for the simple reason that he kept winning, and that he was there. Not making obeisance to Sir Alex just seemed unthinkable.

And so on it went. Seasons have a way of blurring together, but it’s not difficult to pull up a mental montage of Sir Alex’s greatest hits. There he is blustering whenever a player wouldn’t follow his exact orders. Or Sir Alex talking about how the referees were fat and couldn’t keep up. Sir Alex kicking a boot into David Beckham’s face, or elated over knocking Liverpool off their fucking perch, as he so eloquently described it. The strange glee in his voice after every win, the same clenched fist goal celebration, always followed by applause, whether for a simple header or a Paul Scholes bolt from the blue. He became as constant a presence as United’s success, and though he was much more than incidental to it, he was also ornamental, part of the texture: there’s United winning a match, and there’s Sir Alex on the touchline celebrating it. One can’t be imagined without the other.

***

Admittedly, there’d be no need for encomia and wistfulness if Sir Alex hadn’t won; I probably wouldn’t be writing one. But win Fergie did, and he created one inevitable team after another. Everybody knew that when the bastards across town won the title last season on goal difference — goal difference — he’d make damn sure United would saunter to the top of the table and take that trophy back. They did, with four matches to spare.

There’s a difference between being admirable and being likable, and Fergie was proof that the former did not always involve the latter. Though he reportedly could be charming and kind in person he was also, in the manner of most big-time coaches, a bit of an autocrat: he always took an authoritarian attitude with his team, ensuring that no player thought he was bigger than the club. He made sure his men knew United’s history, that they knew what they were getting themselves into when they pulled on that red shirt. This was no small thing: he sought out those who were worthy of playing for the team—from the already established best and most expensive players in the world to the ones who later became the best and most expensive—and Sir Alex humbled them enough to craft those superstars into one winning team after another. It’s easier when the players are great, but it’s still not easy. Just ask Arsène Wenger.

But now, with his statue outside Old Trafford, and with a quarter of that stadium named after him, we have to wonder if Ferguson himself became what he didn’t want his players to be: if not quite bigger than the team, then at least too big. And Sir Alex was, perhaps, exactly as big as the team. He has been United, and United has been Sir Alex. There’s a reason United’s stock fell after the news that Fergie was retiring.

It goes without saying that the man who has the audacity to take on the job—step forward, David Moyes—will have a hard act to follow, especially since Fergie is pulling a Pat Riley and moving into the boardroom. Even though he’s been given a six-year contract, it remains to be seen whether Moyes will receive a honeymoon phase in which to get things right. Ferguson needed three years before he won a trophy, but it’s hard to see the commercial goliath that is United settling for fifth place and a spot in the Europa League for, really, any length of time. In an age when managers get the sack five or six or fifteen games into their debut campaigns, that Sir Alex has made it to what will be exactly 1,500 professional matches with United is—and will forever be—an insane accomplishment. Moyes is no more likely to match it than anyone else.

I remember talking to United fans on a boat on the River Thames (of all places) just after the Glazers bought the club back in 2005; to them, it didn’t matter that I was an American, much less a fourteen-year-old American, but that I was a Red.

“Think Fergie will stay on since the Glazers bought it?” one of fans asked me. In retrospect, the question may have been a test of sorts, a way of seeing if I was cut from the same cloth.

“I don’t think he’ll ever leave,” I said. “He’ll be there forever.” It was impossible, of course, and today I’m wrong, but it still feels like the right answer.

Image by Andrea Sartorati via Wikimedia Commons.


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