After 26 years of “failure”, Manchester United’s success in the Premier League era is due to the influence of one man, writes Joyce Woolridge
“Guess what, Mum, Manchester United never won the League once between 1967 and 1993. That’s 26 years!” To my numerate nine-year-old, this statistic is mind-boggling. He just cannot conceive how that could have happened. I could have fobbed him off with the platitudinous “no team has an automatic right to win anything, son” spiel by way of explanation. But it is an unfair world and big clubs, with all their advantages, should win big titles. Over that quarter-century of “failure” (in inverted commas in a vain attempt to mollify those supporters of clubs who never win anything and are doubtless chewing the carpet while reading this), Manchester United had the wealth, the players and the opportunities to be League champions but only rarely even came close. The inescapable conclusion is that the difference between then and the subsequent pot-laden decades is simply, as I informed junior, the arrival of Alex Ferguson.
How would the club have fared without Fergie? Three titles and no Champions League trophies, like Arsenal and Chelsea, or none at all? There is a school of thought that the influence of managers is over-rated, but, although Ferguson’s detractors are legion, could anyone seriously argue that he has not been the architect of United’s staggering recent success? Queen Elizabeth I, to quote the example of another long-surviving, great leader who had her critics, once boasted that if she was turned out into the world “in only my shift”, she would be able to cope. If Sir Alex suddenly found himself at Plymouth Argyle – the footballing equivalent of wandering the streets in Tudor undies – he would probably, if given time, have them in the European qualifying slots within ten years.
United have got round to naming a stand after him. It is no less than he deserves. Ferguson is the most secure manager in world football, although this is not saying much. Half a season of poor results, which in United terms equates to more than four defeats, might loosen his grip on the reins and reawaken the mutterings that surfaced when his premature retirement plans were first aired. As we all know, Ferguson is not universally loved. Even some United fans, gorged on a feast of trophies of every size and shape, want him out whenever United suffer one of the first of their rare defeats each season, or, failing that, if the standard of football isn’t that inspiring, or there are too many draws, or lesser fry aren’t being sufficiently pulverised.
We moan about his lack of tactical nous and penchant for using players out of their natural positions, although inevitably he is usually proved right. Others illogically blame him, rather than international capitalism, for keeping the Glazers in charge at Old Trafford. If Fergie walked away, the whole rotten edifice, they reason, would come crashing down and the carpetbaggers would be finished.
Ferguson is, unforgivably for some, not in the mould of Matt Busby. Personally, I feel one of Sir Alex’s most endearing traits is his refusal to cosy up to sections of the press, male and female. The BBC whinged interminably about his boycott of their interviews. Other journalists have gone much further, suggesting that, with his enormous power in football, Ferguson should be a force for good, cuddling referees and not crucifying them, meeting defeat and perceived injustice for United with a cheery smile and a we-can’t-complain Corinthianism. Instead, the Caledonian curmudgeon has embraced the dark side and encouraged all manner of unacceptable behaviour as others take their lead for someone who should know better.
Ferguson will obviously never be like Busby. He is from a different generation, his character is very different. But Busby could be hard and difficult when he needed to be. Ferguson has immense personal warmth, if you’re on his right side. He once said “hello” and beamed at me when I was in the lobby at Old Trafford. My knees buckled. The player next to me, who had received a slightly critical report in an Irish newspaper after a personal appearance there with Eric Cantona, was similarly unsteady. “He knows,” he said. And he did.
The worst legacy that Ferguson will leave Manchester United is that at some point he will have to leave and, like Busby, he will be an impossible act to follow. Forget Brian Clough, Fergie is also the best manager the English national team never had.
From WSC 299 January 2012