Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 27 November 2014

Alex Ferguson's exit leaves yawning vacuum at Manchester United but values of ambition and loyalty are still in place

File photo dated 11/05/2008 of Manchester United players are lead out by manager Alex Ferguson to collect their trophy following the Barclays Premier League match at JJB Stadium, Wigan
File photo dated 11/05/2008 of Manchester United players are lead out by manager Alex Ferguson to collect their trophy following the Barclays Premier League match at JJB Stadium, Wigan
File photo dated 01/09/2004 of Manchester United's new signing Wayne Rooney (r) and manager Sir Alex Ferguson pose with his shirt
(FILE PHOTO) Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson has announced that he will retire at the end of the season after 26 years in charge. ABERDEEN, UNITED KINGDOM - JULY 12: Sir Alex Ferguson looks on during the pre-season friendly, match between Aberdeen and Manchester United at Pittodrie Stadium on July 12, 2008 in Aberdeen, Scotland. (Photo by Phil Cole/Getty Images)
Shivd Hawan from Manchester outside Old Trafford on the day Sir Alex Ferguson announces his retires from management
Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson has announced that he will retire at the end of the season after 26 years in charge. UK/Allsport
File photo dated 06/04/2009 of Manchester United's Cristiano Ronaldo with manager Sir Alex Ferguson during a press conference at Carrington Training Ground, Manchester
General view of Old Trafford on the day Sir Alex Ferguson announces his retires from management
Shivd Hawan from Manchester outside Old Trafford on the day Sir Alex Ferguson announces his retires from management
File photo dated 19/04/2009 of Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson (left) vents his frustration towards fourth official Alan Wiley (right)
(FILE PHOTO) Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson has announced that he will retire at the end of the season after 26 years in charge. MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - MAY 09: Manchester United Manager Sir Alex Ferguson looks on prior to the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Stoke City at Old Trafford on May 9, 2010 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
General view of Old Trafford on the day Sir Alex Ferguson announces his retires from management
Craig Clark from Manchester outside Old Trafford on the day Sir Alex Ferguson announces his retires from management
File photo dated 06/05/2000 of Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson smiles as his side are crowned FA Carling Premiership Champions
File photo dated 07/11/1986 of Manchester United's new manager Alex Ferguson at a press conference at Old Trafford, decked out in his new team's colours
(FILE PHOTO) Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson has announced that he will retire at the end of the season after 26 years in charge. 15 May 1991: Portrait of Manchester United Manager Alex Ferguson with the trophy after the European Cup Winners Cup final against Barcelona at the Feyenoord Stadium in Rotterdam, Holland. Manchester United won the match 2-1. \ Mandatory Credit: David Cannon/Allsport
File photo dated 07/11/1986 of New Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson (hands in pockets) chats to team players during a break in their training session
File photo dated 17/05/1990 of Manchester United captain Bryan Robson holds up the FA Cup after the presentation by the Duke of Kent following United's 1-0 victory over Crystal Palace in the FA Cup replay at Wembley
File photo dated 27/05/99 of Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson gives the European Champions League Cup a big kiss in Barcelona, after his team's victory over Bayern Munich at the Nou Camp stadium
File photo dated 15/05/2000 of Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson with the Carling Premiership Trophy and the Carling Manager of the Year Award (left), which he won at the League Managers Association Dinner
File photo dated 22/05/2008 of Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson arrives with the UEFA Champions League Trophy at Manchester Airport
File photo dated 13/08/1996 of Man Utd Manager Alex Ferguson shows off the Premiership Trophy to the Old Trafford fans before their friendly against Inter Milan
File photo dated 08/11/1999 of Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, holds up the plaque as he receives the freedom of the City of Glasgow
File photo dated 01/03/2009 of Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson lifts the trophy as he celebrates winning the Carling Cup Final at Wembley Stadium, London
File photo dated 21/05/2008 of Manchester United's Cristiano Ronaldo is emotional as he celebrates with manager Alex Ferguson and Ryan Giggs, after they won the UEFA Champions League Final
File photo dated 14/05/1986 of Scotland manager Alex Ferguson wished bon voyage by Glasgow Airport staff when they presented him with a mascot as he left with the squad for the World Cup in Mexico
File photo dated 08/9/1998 of Alex Ferguson relaxing in his office
File photo dated 27/05/99 of Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson gives the European Champions League Cup a big kiss in Barcelona, after his team's victory over Bayern Munich at the Nou Camp stadium
File photo dated 5/05/2001: Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson is applauded by his captain Roy Keane, as he lifts the FA Carling Premiership trophy
File photo dated 16/05/1991: A wonderful moment for British soccer as Sir Matt Busby, the last manager to lead Manchester Utd to Ruropean glory before Alex Ferguson, watched his side beat Barcelona for the European cup winners cup in Rotterdam
File photo dated 16/05/1999: Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson holds aloft the Premiership Trophy as he celebrates Manchester United becoming Champions of the Premiership at Old Trafford
File photo dated 07/11/1986: Manchester United's new manager Alex Ferguson (left) at a press conference at Old Trafford, with chairman Martin Edwards
File photo dated 20/07/1999: Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson, who received a knighthood from the Queen, during an Investiture ceremony at Buckingham Palace
File photo dated 27/05/99: Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson gives the European Champions League Cup a big kiss in Barcelona, after his team's victory over Bayern Munich at the Nou Camp stadium
File photo dated 5/05/2001: Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson is applauded by his captain Roy Keane, as he lifts the FA Carling Premiership trophy
File photo dated 08/11/1986: Manchester United's new manager Alex Ferguson watches from the dugout during United's Division One match away to Oxford United. Manchester United lost 2-0
File photo dated 15/05/2000: England manager Kevin Keegan presents Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson with the Carling Manager of the Year Award at the League Managers Association Dinner
File photo dated 22/4/2013: Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson celebrates winning the league title after the final whistle
File photo dated 05/05/1998: Jaap Stam signs for Manchester United with Alex Ferguson
File photo dated 23/11/12: A statue of Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson is unveiled at Old Trafford, Manchester
File photo dated 23/04/2011: Everton manager David Moyes (right) shouts instructions to his team as Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson gestures to the officials regarding the amount of added time, on the touchline
Sir Alex Ferguson has retired as manager of Manchester United
File photo dated 10/1/1995 of Manchester United's £6 million new signing from Newcastle United Andy Cole (left), pictured at their Old Trafford ground, in Manchester, with the team's manager Alex Ferguson
(FILE PHOTO) Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson has announced that he will retire at the end of the season after 26 years in charge. BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 10: Sir Alex Ferguson of Manchester United walks out during the Barclays Premier League match between Aston Villa and Manchester United at Villa Park on February 10, 2010 in Birmingham, England. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
(FILE PHOTO) Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson has announced that he will retire at the end of the season after 26 years in charge. MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 10: Sir Alex Ferguson the Manchester United manager applauds the fans following his team's 4-1 victory during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Wolverhampton Wanderers at Old Trafford on December 10, 2011 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
File photo dated 27/11/1992 of Eric Cantona, Manchester United's new signing, with manager Alex Ferguson
File photo dated 11/05/2002 of Manchester United's David Beckham (right) with manger Sir Alex Ferguson, after the player signed a new contract to keep him at the club
File photo dated 17/08/2012 of Manchester United's new signing Robin Van Persie (left) with manager Sir Alex Ferguson following a press conference at Old Trafford, Manchester
File photo dated 9/12/2001 of England's David Beckham (L) with his BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award 2001 and Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson with his Lifetime Achievement Award at BBC Television Centre, London
File photo dated 21/05/2008 of Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson with the trophy after the UEFA Champions League Final at the Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow
File photo dated 22/4/2013 of Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson celebrates winning the league title after the final whistle
File photo dated 03/11/1978 of Alex Ferguson in Glasgow making history as the first football club manager to take his sacking to an industrial tribunal claiming unfair dismissal. Alex Ferguson lost his job as manager at Scottish Premier League club St Mirren in May, but is currently at Aberdeen. St Mirren chairman William Scott told the tribunal Mr Ferguson had been sacked for the 'improper carrying out of his duties'. St Mirren won the case
File photo dated 22/05/1999 of Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson lifts the FA Cup following his sides 2-0 victory over Newcastle United in the FA Cup final at Wembley
File photo dated 05/11/2011 of Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson with Chief Executive David Gill
File photo dated 21/05/2008 of Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson runs onto the pitch to congratulate Cristiano Ronaldo with Gary Neville (left)
File photo dated 22/04/2012 of Manchester United's manager Sir Alex Ferguson and Everton's manager David Moyes laugh with the fourth official
File photo dated 04/04/1996 of Manchester United's Alex Ferguson and Eric Cantona celebrating in Manchester after winning the Carling's Manager of the Month and Player of the Month respectively
File photo dated 16/05/2009 of Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson lifts the Barclays Premier League trophy
File photo dated 16/05/1999 of Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson (right) congratulates David Beckham (centre) and Roy Keane after his side clinched the Premiership Title at Old Trafford
File photo dated 23/04/2011 of Everton manager David Moyes (right) shouts instructions to his team as Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson gestures to the officials regarding the amount of added time, on the touchline
File photo dated 01/09/2004 of Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson (left) and new signing Wayne Rooney (right) with Joe Ruane (centre) who held a sign pleading for the club to sign Rooney at the match against Dinamo Buchrest
File photo dated 01/11/1997 of Carling Premiership Manager of the Month Alex Ferguson
File photo dated 08/06/1996 of Newcastle boss Kevin Keegan (left) gets to grips with Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson as they meet at Wembley for the start of the European Championships
File photo dated 05/03/2013 of Manchester United's manager Sir Alex Ferguson
File photo dated 05/02/2002 of Manchester United fan Gary Breslin smiles as he reads the Manchester Evening News proclaiming that United manager Sir Alex Ferguson is set to continue in charge, outside Old Trafford. The club have confirmed they are in negotiations with Sir Alex for him to carry on as manager
File photo dated 06/05/2003 of Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson (right) with player Ryan Giggs, holding eight bottles of champagne representing their eight Premiership title wins
File photo dated 22/02/2002 of Manchester United's new 30million signing Rio Ferdinand stands with club manager Alex Ferguson as they pose for photographers at the club's Old Trafford ground
File photo dated 17/05/1990 of The Manchester United team after winning the FA Cup at Wembley. United beat Crystal Palace 1-0
File photo dated 06/05/2000 of Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson smiles as his side are crowned FA Carling Premiership Champions
File photo dated 26/05/99 of Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson with the UEFA Champions League Trophy following victory over Bayern Munich
File photo dated 27/04/2001 of Manchester United's record signing Ruud Van Nistelrooy with United manager Sir Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford, Manchester. The player joins United from Dutch team Eindhoven
File photo dated 28/04/2007 of Manchester United's manager Alex Ferguson with Ryan Giggs
File photo dated 07/11/1986 of Manchester United's new manager Alex Ferguson (left) at a press conference at Old Trafford, with chairman Martin Edwards
File photo dated 5/05/2001 of Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson is applauded by his captain Roy Keane, as he lifts the FA Carling Premiership trophy
File photo dated 17/05/1990 of Manchester United's goalscorer Lee Martin holds aloft the FA Cup after his team's 1-0 victory over Crystal Palace in the replay at Wembley
File photo dated 05/05/1996 of Manchester united manager Alex Ferguson (right) and assistant manager Brian Kidd hold the premiership trophy after their side beat middlesbrough to win the title at Riverside Stadium
File photo dated 11/05/2003 of Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson holds the Premiership trophy after his side 2-1 win over Everton
File photo dated 20/08/1998 of Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson, with Dwight Yorke today (Thursday) after he became Manchester United's record signing for a staggering £12.6million, at Old Trafford
File photo dated 11/05/2008 of Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson celebrates with the trophy following the Barclays Premier League match at JJB Stadium, Wigan
File photo dated 07/11/1986 of New Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson, who will be in charge of the team for the first time at Oxford tomorrow
File photo dated 22/05/2011 of Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson celebrates with the Premier League trophy
File photo dated 21/05/2008 of Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson celebrates with the trophy after winning the UEFA Champions League Final at the Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, Russia
File photo dated 26/05/99 of Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson with the UEFA Champions League Trophy following victory over Bayern Munich

You may have hated the harsh, even brutal swagger of his nature. You might always argue that no one ever pursued his advantages more cynically, more relentlessly. But then if you also love football, its power to capture the attention of the world, what do you inhabit today?

 

It is the vacuum, the great yawning space at the heart of the game, once occupied by Sir Alex Ferguson.

Football without Ferguson, we had reason to believe, is going to be like tonic without gin, soda without Scotch.

It is a cocktail separated from one of its biggest kicks. But the kick, we have to ask, of what? It is the kick and the thrust of a desire to win which so often appeared to be as important as life itself. Only Ferguson would say that losing to Manchester City made him feel like a criminal when he walked into the street. Only he could have remained so restlessly unappeased for so long by the biggest accumulation of trophies in the history of British football.

Not only did he outstay as a pure winner all of his contemporaries, his longevity exceeded that of the heroes who helped shape his ambitions, men like Jock Stein, Bill Shankly and his great Old Trafford predecessor Sir Matt Busby.

Their achievements were legendary but Shankly and Busby left office when they turned into their sixties, 10 years younger than Ferguson today, and Stein died in Cardiff during a World Cup qualifying game between Scotland and Wales when he was 62.

Until today, Ferguson's life seemed expressly designed to deny such vulnerability.

His retirement had to happen at some point because not even a man of such extraordinary will and energy can fight indefinitely the erosion of commitment and energy that is borne by the years.

Yet the announcement of his retirement after the merest flicker of speculation was still shocking if not disorienting. It not only removed from the front line of English football the man who bestrode it with ever increasing self-belief and quite stunning stamina for 27 years.

Also taken away was the most glorious certainty, an ineffable ability to rise to every new challenge not as a trial but a celebration of the fact that you were still fighting, still punching, and, more than anything, still alive in the place you most wanted to be.

Some friends of Ferguson offer an explanation for his leaving that runs deeper than his need for hip surgery in the summer and Manchester United's requirement to satisfy the New York Stock Exchange on the coherence of plans for the future that inevitably centre on the question of the managerial succession.

They point to the alacrity and enthusiasm with which Ferguson and his wife, Cath, fly off to New York to stay in their apartment on the East Side beside Central Park.

They report murmurings from the previously obsessed football man that he may have finally encountered, and absorbed, the declaration of the great golfer Walter Hagen that sooner or later everyone must stop to smell the flowers. They also hint that in recent years his summer retreat to the bougainvillea of the French Riviera may not have been quite enough.

More sceptically, others say that the departure of his fierce, long-time ally David Gill as United chief executive persuaded Ferguson that it was a little too late in the day to rebuild such an alliance with the new financial decision-maker at Old Trafford, Ed Woodward.

Maybe it is a converging of such factors but, if we are unlikely ever to get a definitive version of the promptings which finally persuaded Ferguson it was time to go, we will never have to speculate on the meaning of his career.

We will never have to delve into the deepest crevices of his character, or the influences to which he was exposed, to explain the sheer force of it.

He did a pretty good job, after all, when he concluded his autobiography, Managing My Life, which was written in the full flush of his ultimate achievement, the 1999 treble of Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League. When he ran along the Nou Camp touchline after the extraordinary defeat of Bayern Munich, one which could have only been produced by a team of quite extraordinary motivation, it was the rejoicing not so much of a battle-hardened warrior but someone who would never lose a part of his youth.

And then he said, "I relate to ambitious individuals but I appreciate that in millions of lives talk of ambition is an insulting irrelevance.

"Sometimes I joke about recognising people's nature in their choice of ideal holidays. Some people want to go to Blackpool, others to Spain and some want to go to the moon.

"I tell myself I identify with the last group. Then I remember the people I was raised among in Govan and how some people could never afford a holiday and would go to the local Elder Park or a Bellahouston Park in order to be surrounded by a little greenery. For the men it was a respite enough to be spared the noise and the grime of the shipyards, to escape the hammer of the Clyde for a little while.

"Ambition had nothing to do with their lives. Survival was the essence. Yet there was incredible warmth of fellow feeling among them, a loyalty that was deep in the marrow. It could be a rough world but there were wonderful values at the heart of it. Loyalty has been the anchor of my life and it is something that I learned in Govan."

Of course, in football he learned many other things. Not too many of them were so selfless. Indeed, many were quite ruthless – and a trawl through some of the greatest of Old Trafford celebrity players provides plenty of witnesses, including Roy Keane, Jaap Stam, Ruud van Nistelrooy and David Beckham.

It is also maybe significant that as he walks away, Ferguson leaves an unresolved debate over the future of Wayne Rooney. Potentially the greatest English player of his generation, and certainly the most talented, Rooney is now obliged to fight for his career with Manchester United. Ferguson may be gone now, but Rooney cannot escape the need to meet the implacable demands of his former manager.

He may, or may not, draw some comfort from the fact that they are no less than the ones Ferguson always set himself, first as a raw-boned striker of inextinguishable ambition and then as arguably the most ferociously committed manager football has ever seen. It is certainly not his fault that they no longer do flights to the moon.

The Ferguson Years: 1986-1995

May 1994: United at the Double

Chelsea, having defeated United twice in the Premier League, are vanquished 4-0 in the FA Cup final. Ferguson's young team thus become only the fourth in the 20th century to win the "Double", Ferguson stalwart Brian McClair completing the scoring.

January 1995: The wrong sort of kick-about

Cantona, sent off at Crystal Palace, launches a kung fu kick on an abusive home fan. He is suspended until September and ordered to undertake community service. Ferguson decides to stand by him but Blackburn take United's Premier League crown.

August 1995: You can't win anything with kids

After a youthful Ferguson side crash 3-1 at Aston Villa, Match of the Day's Alan Hansen questions their lack of depth and declares, "You can't win anything with kids." Cantona returns and scores the Double-clinching goal against Liverpool at Wembley.

The Ferguson Years: 1996-2008

May 2008: Another European Cup

Fifty years after the Busby Babes were destroyed at Munich, Ferguson delivers his second European Cup when Edwin van der Sar saves a penalty by Chelsea's Nicolas Anelka in a Moscow shoot-out. United had already beaten Chelsea to the championship.

May 2007: Ronaldo to the rescue

Ferguson's controversial signing Cristiano Ronaldo monopolised the individual awards, including Footballer of the Year, as United's first title in four years makes it nine in 15 seasons. In the FA Cup, Chelsea, under the departing Jose Mourinho, deny them the Double.

May 2005: Hard times, despite £790m

US sports tycoon Malcolm Glazer takes over United for £790m, creating a period of uncertainty for Ferguson. In arguably the most difficult year of his reign, Arsenal beat his side in the FA Cup final and linchpin Roy Keane moves on.

October 2004: A slice of the action

Arsenal's 49-match unbeaten run ends at United. In a post-match scuffle, dubbed "Pizzagate" and "the Battle of the Buffet", a slice of pizza allegedly strikes Ferguson's face and, according to then Arsenal player Ashley Cole, "rolled down his nice black suit".

February 2003: Beckham gets the boot

Ferguson, giving the "hairdryer" full blast after United's 2-0 home defeat by Arsène Wenger's Arsenal in the FA Cup, reputedly throws a boot which hits David Beckham on the forehead, causing a cut. Within months, Beckham is sold to Real Madrid.

December 2000: Fergie decides he's not retiring type

Ferguson announces his intention to retire as United manager at the end of the 2001-02 campaign, saying, "There are other things I want to do", and promising no Frank Sinatra-style comebacks. He eventually signs a new contract in February 2002.

May 1999: United come up on the treble chance

A league, FA Cup and European Cup treble looked remote when Middlesbrough won 3-2 at Old Trafford in December 1998. Yet United mount a 33-match unbeaten run, culminating in the 2-1 defeat of Bayern Munich in Barcelona with two stoppage-time goals.

The Ferguson Years: 2009-2013

May 2009: Home comforts, but a Euro lesson

United become the first English club to win three consecutive league titles twice, and also claim the League Cup. But Barcelona give them a football lesson in the Champions League final, Ferguson admitting, "We were beaten by a better team".

September 2009: Best-ever derby

Irked by Manchester City's "Welcome to Manchester" poster after United's newly wealthy "noisy neighbours" had captured Carlos Tevez from Old Trafford, Ferguson revels in a 4-3 win after Michael Owen's last-gasp goal settles what the Scot calls "the best-ever derby".

May 2010: Fergie's modest long-service award

A historic fourth successive championship eludes United on the final day, Chelsea and Carlo Ancelotti prevailing. Ferguson is left with the relatively modest return of the League Cup to mark the year in which he becomes the club's longest-serving manager.

March 2011: Ryan Giggs and United set more records

Ryan Giggs, given his first-team debut by Alex Ferguson as a 17-year-old, overtakes Bobby Charlton's club record of 606 league appearances during the run-in to United's record 19th league title. Ferguson's ambition was once to "knock Liverpool off their f****** perch". Now they had done it.

April 2012: Cross-City blues

"Squeaky bum time" – in Ferguson's immortal phrase to describe a tight title race – sees City, trailing QPR in injury time, triumph 3-2 to pinch the title from United's grasp. It is the first time in 23 years goal difference has decided the champions.

August 2012: Van the main man

Arsenal striker Robin van Persie opts to sign for Ferguson in a £24m deal rather than City's Roberto Mancini. The manager likens his impact to Eric Cantona's, with the Dutchman's stunning hat-trick against Aston Villa the following April confirming United's 20th title.

May 2013: The end is near...

After 39 years and 49 trophies, Ferguson announces his retirement as a manager. He will step down after United's final Premier League fixture, at West Bromwich Albion on 19 May, his 1,500th competitive match since leaving Aberdeen for Old Trafford.

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