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The Alex Ferguson Era Won't End With His Retirement

His legacy is Manchester United itself

Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

The front pages have spoken: Sir Alex Ferguson, the manager of Manchester United FC has retired. David Moyes, presently in charge of Everton (the other Liverpool club) will take over this summer. Ferguson, lovingly referred to by Man U fans as SAF, as if he were a unit the British Special Forces, has won for the club thirteen English Premierships, two Champions League and world club champion titles, and a number of cups.  At the helm for twenty-seven years, he’ll have managed 1,500 games with the end of the season, winning an astounding 894, or 60 percent. Much of his current team weren’t even born when he took over, which is why he occasionally calls them “boys.” When he was unveiled in 1986, his hair as neatly parted as today, Man U were sitting unhappily in the nineteenth position of the (pre-Premiership) First Division, not having won it for twenty years.  Margaret Thatcher (or “that woman” per SAF, a lifelong socialist) was reigning; Duran Duran released “Notorious,” while, on this side of the pond, Iran-Contra was raging and movie houses showed Soul Man, a blackface romp in which C. Thomas Howell takes a pill and switches race to get a black-only scholarship at Harvard.  

Since those heady days, Real Madrid and Manchester City (the other Mancunian club) have gone through twenty-four and fourteen managers respectively. Meanwhile, SAF oversaw a wholesale transformation of Manchester United. It took him a while to get going: By 1992, when the Premiership was instituted, he’d won little but everything was in place. Man U subsequently dominated the Premiership, winning thirteen of the possible twenty titles, becoming a global soccer superpower in the process.

SAF is both a fatherly figure in the dressing-room and a dictator who unflinchingly disposed of the disloyal players (Beckham, Stam, Keane.) Never burdened with modest ambition, he’s splurged on the big names, some abject failures (Juan Carlos Veron), some brilliantly successful (Robin van Persie). But the team core were the loyalists he picked from the Academy or plucked from the provinces to develop them studiously: Behold the forty-year-old Ryan Giggs, who after twenty-three years under SAF still chases the ball in whatever position he orders him to.

His visionary authority has allowed Man U to remain successful in many transitional crises, not the least of which was the 2005 takeover by the Glazer family, which loaded the club with enormous debt. Man U’s intention to follow the SAF path is evident in hiring Moyes, a fellow Scot handpicked by Sir Alex. It is far too easy and too early to say that an era is over, because Sir Alex’s legacy is Manchester United itself.  “He’s like a seat in the stadium, the grass on the pitch. He is part of United,” said Roberto Mancini, currently mismanaging Manchester City.

It is hard not to admire the way Sir Alex rejoices in his team’s goals and victories: He leaps from his seat, where he never looks relaxed, chewing gum incessantly, to race, risking an injury, toward the pitch, where he shakes his hands above his head, unable to raise them high, because of arthritis or because his nondescript coat is too tight. After twenty-seven years and garage-full of trophies, he still enjoys his “boys” scoring goals. It is as though a fan ended up running the biggest club in the world, reminding us that the game itself is always bigger than any player or manager. May his hair remain parted for many decades to come.

Aleksandar Hemon is the author of The Lazarus Project, which was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award, and three collections of short stories: The Question of BrunoNowhere Man, which was also a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; and Love and Obstacles.