Will the Real Alex Ferguson Please Stand Up! Please Stand Up!


Niren Tolsi examines some of the paradoxes that have emerged during the retiring Alex Ferguson’s 23 year stewardship of Manchester United

Retiring Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson’s career defined the moneybags English Premier League launched in the 1992-93 season.

His teams’ football became a benchmark for a fast-paced, muscular, flair-driven style of football that, with the advent of satellite television and its attendant cash in-flows, drew global audiences: adding zeros to viewership figures and merchandising revenue that created a financial behemoth out of the stuttering club he had joined in 1986. A club that, until he captured the inaugural Premier League had gone 26 years without being crowned champions.

In the years following an exhilarating Eric Cantona-inspired Manchester United side winning the title in 92-93, the club would add 12 more league titles, two European Champions League trophies, five FA Cups and four League Cups.

A staggering achievement, with Ferguson eventually having personally claimed the same number of league winners medals as Arsenal in its entire 127-year history: 13.

Yet, there appear peculiarities during Ferguson’s tenure at Manchester United that suggest some of the accolades and platitudes that followed last week’s announcement of his retirement at the age of 71 have glossed over questions about a manager who has managed to adapt, not just to the footballing aspects of his job, but also the political and economic challenges of a globalizing sport that he was intrinsically linked to – both as instigator and beneficiary.

The Con looks at some of them:

The Knighthood:

There has been much bleating about Ferguson’s Labour Party affiliation and trade unionist background that had sprung from the banks of the river Clyde and Glasgow’s working-class Govan shipbuilding yards.

But is the retiring ‘Lord Ferg’ any relation to the pre-professional footballer who worked as a shipyard apprentice where he was also a shop steward?

The acceptance of a knighthood in 1999 – that his wife Cathy (whom he met at a strike meeting at Remington type-writer and shaver factory in the mid-1960s) has suggested causes her discomfit when being referred to as “Lady Ferguson” – is a peculiarity for a political Red supposedly steeped in the progressive and egalitarian principles of the Left. As are the earlier Officer of the Order of the British Empire and Commander of the Order of the British Empire titles conferred in 1983 and 1993 respectively.

The Glazers:

Ferguson, with his trophy-laden years at the Red Devils, has been instrumental in extending the club’s brand from the era of the Busby Babes and the tragedy of Munich through the free-flowing football of The Holy Trinity (George Best, Dennis Law and Bobby Charlton) who ensured United became the first English club to win the then-European Cup (now Champions’ League) in 1968.

He has been duly rewarded with some of the biggest managerial salary contracts in the game as winning football on the pitch has raised the market value of the club, seen it divvy up sponsorship agreements into groundbreaking, more lucrative region-specific deals across the globe and increased turn-over to vertiginous levels.

Yet, Manchester United’s owners, the American Glazer family, have also managed to buy out a historic club with borrowings that have since been foisted onto it. Profits go as much towards servicing debt of over 400-million pounds sterling as to the sneaky multi-million pounds sterling annual fees for administration that the family pay themselves.

In an age of staggering wealth within football, and the McDonalds-like nature of the growth of the Manchester United brand, United have not invested as heavily, and as glamorously, as their financial potential suggests they should be. Or as their fans have demanded.

The thrill of flair players like a Gareth Bale or a returning Christiano Ronaldo, the natural successors to Best and Giggs, has not been seen at United in recent years with the likes of Antonio Valencia, Ashley Young and Nani clearly second rate to the requirements at Old Trafford. Good enough to muscle a league title every now and again, but not to ensure European domination.

Yet, as a fan-driven yellow-and-gold protest against this “rape-and-pillage” financial model gathered momentum a few seasons ago, the only words uttered by Ferguson were protective of the Glazer regime. This has lasted as recently as his resignation statement last week. Ferguson has even, at times, been dismissive of the fans’ protest against the Glazers.

The Football:

Ferguson has produced some mesmerizing sides during his tenure. The muscular, exhilarating team of Cantona, Andrei Kanchelskis, Ryan Giggs and Mark Hughes, which claimed United’s first league title in 26 years, was one where warrior-poets reigned supreme. It was a fast, furious team brimming with flair.

His 1999 treble-winners were a joyous mix of drive, intuition among its youth academy graduates like the Neville brothers, Phil and Gary, David Beckham, Giggs and Paul Scholes, and a supernatural strike partnership of Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke. They too eviscerated opponents with style.

Yet, in the later years, Fergusaon has erred on the side of pragmatism and conservatism. His last two league-winning teams were amongst his poorest. And, aside from the clinical sleekness of Robin van Persie’s contribution to this season’s title victory is testimony, most of all, to Ferguson’s managerial skills and powers of motivation.

He has, almost single-handedly, won Manchester United their last couple of titles – in part because the financial constraints of the Glazer regime has made marquee signings impossible. How, for example, have United won the 2012-13 league title at such a canter with a gaping hole in central midfield. Two words: Alex Ferguson.

But, in stretching his managerial abilities to their very limits, Ferguson has reneged on the sort of football that stretches back through the Busby-era to the days of Billy Meredith: fast, furious and full of flair. With dashes of the devil.

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