Triumphant Sir Alex still defies the final whistle

Triumphant Sir Alex still defies the final whistle

by Paul Hayward, The Observer, Sunday 17 May 2009

As Manchester United conquer again, their manager dreams of more trophies and glory

Sir Alex Ferguson, 67 and with his grandchildren around him, could have been forgiven for thinking of retirement. But as his players celebrated behind him after winning Manchester United‘s 11th league title under his managership, Ferguson was adamant: “I will carry on as long as my health allows me.”

His words will reverberate through football, not least in Liverpool. Ferguson has made it his life’s mission to blast the Liver bird off its perch. As United drew level with Liverpool yesterday by notching up an 18th league title, Ferguson reaffirmed his status as the most successful club manager in the history of the British game when the Premier League title stayed at Old Trafford for the third successive season. Ominously, he talked about the special moment when they get one more league title than Liverpool.

Parity was achieved with a nil-nil draw against Arsenal, another rival broken in recent years by United’s power. Ferguson, a working-class son of Glasgow, now has a chance to equal the former Liverpool manager Bob Paisley’s haul of three European Cup wins when United confront Barcelona in the Champions League final in Rome next week.

Paisley’s trio of European conquests from 1977 to 1981 is one of the few targets left for Ferguson, who won the illustrious prize in 1999 and 2008. Liverpool, meanwhile, will cling to the knowledge that they have captured five European Cups to United’s three. However, the total of 18 English championship wins has been a psychological barrier between the clubs since Liverpool virtually annexed the league in the 1970s and 1980s.

Within minutes of the latest championship win, Ferguson was shaking the hands of every player in the squad as they waited before collecting the trophy in front of more than 70,000 fans. And he was on the pitch with them as captain Gary Neville lifted the trophy and the fans sang “Glory, Glory Man United”.

Ferguson has won 21 major trophies since taking over at an under-achieving club with an infamous drinking culture in 1986. His dictatorial nature is in the tradition of great Scottish managers, but his eye for talent and insatiable appetite have lifted him above other legends: Sir Matt Busby, Bill Shankly, Paisley and Brian Clough, who won two European Cups with Nottingham Forest.

Eleven Premier League titles have fallen to Ferguson in an era of intense concentration of wealth at the elite end. United are no longer assailed by the likes of Forest, Ipswich Town or even Aston Villa, as Liverpool were before they won the most recent of their 18 championships in 1990. They have had to grapple with Arsène Wenger’s Arsenal, who have challenged their status as the repository of beautiful football; with Roman Abramovich’s wealth at Chelsea; and with a resurgent Liverpool. With Steven Gerrard and the Spaniard Fernando Torres inspiring a renaissance, Liverpool will be frantic to prevent United forging ahead next season with a 19th league crown.

Clough remains the romantic’s choice as number one managerial genius for turning a provincial English club into double European champions. Shankly is credited with laying the foundations for Liverpool’s self-perpetuating dominance before the Hillsborough disaster and the TV revolution prepared the ground for the rise of the Premier League, with its Hummer-driving one-man corporations and global celebrities.

Ferguson spans these eras. His is comfortably the most impressive of managerial resumés, eclipsing even Busby, whose faith in youth and an attacking ethos was revived by his fellow Scot. Ferguson’s earliest Premier League winning sides were modelled broadly on the Busby Babes, with David Beckham, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes assuming the roles of Bobby Charlton and Duncan Edwards. Ferguson’s European Cup win in 1999 matched Busby’s in 1968; his second, against Chelsea in Moscow last May, defused the charge that he was a better manager in England than in Europe.

The best reason for the neutral to applaud Ferguson is that United have remained true to their artistic manifesto. He has never wavered in his belief that United’s task is to find and cultivate creative talent, whether on the streets of Manchester (Giggs, Scholes), London (Beckham), in France (Eric Cantona) or in Portugal (Cristiano Ronaldo). Talent spotting is Ferguson’s primary skill. His second is a fierce and autocratic style.

“Don’t even think about letting this club down,” he once told his players before sending them out at Old Trafford. Intimidation is an obvious weapon. More subtle is his ability to persuade his players they are an outpost of nobility and excellence besieged by enemies.

These qualities are admired around the world. Victory in Rome might yet tempt him to walk away, but the United-Liverpool score is 18-18, which may be too tantalising for him to resist. Just one more?

A life in football

Sir Alex Ferguson, born 31 December 1941, Glasgow.

1957: Starts amateur playing career at 16 with Queen’s Park.

1964: Turns professional with Dunfermline Athletic.

1967: Joins Rangers for a record Scottish transfer fee of £65,000.

1969: Moves to Falkirk before finishing playing career with Ayr United.

1974: Appointed manager of St Mirren, winning the first division title in 1977.

1978: Moves to Aberdeen FC and European Cup Winners’ Cup glory in 1983.

1986: Moves to Manchester United. Goes on to make football history.

What his rivals say

Arsène Wenger (Arsenal manager):
“Nobody has done better. It is remarkable to have such a consistent motivation at that level – and deal with the stress and all the other ingredients.”

José Mourinho (Former Chelsea manager, now at Inter Milan):
“I call him boss because he is the manager’s boss. He’s the top manager in the country. Maybe when I become 60, the kids will call me the same.”

Rafael Benítez (Liverpool manager):
“Ferguson is killing referees.”

“When you talk about United you’re talking about a side spending big, big money on every player, every season. For me that is the main difference between the teams.”

such great achievment.. the greatest manager on earth.. Guardian.


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