I was sat in a heaving traffic jam, going nowhere as usual, when a motorcycle crawled past on my left with what looked like half a family on board. Scrunched in between his father and older brother there was a boy, wearing a Manchester United shirt with the name “Chicarito” on the back. I wondered if the boy knew about the day’s tumultuous events at his adopted club. Did he know that the most successful British manager had announced his retirement? Did he even know who Alex Ferguson was at all?
The key reason why a team from Newton Heath, Manchester has been able to connect with a boy in a city on the other side of the world lies in one man – Alex Ferguson. United were successful before Ferguson, but the projection of their success across the globe, which coincided perfectly with Sky TV and the popularity of the Premier League, has known no bounds under Ferguson.
Constant success is what fans in other countries covet and that’s why so many have nailed their colours to United’s mast. Whichever way you look at it, the root driver behind that success has been Ferguson.
Without him, there would have been no such consistency at the club. That’s not to say United would not have won things, but they probably would not have enjoyed success to the extent they have. Without Ferguson, probably no penchant for staging comeback after comeback. Without Ferguson, probably no surpassing of Liverpool as the team to have won the most English league titles. Without Ferguson, probably no 1999 treble, which I think did so much to endear United to potential fans across the world.
In the Matt Busby era United won a few league titles, a couple of FA Cups and a European Cup. But Ferguson has long surpassed that and has taken the club from a very good level to a great level.
All of this has happened to the dismay of United’s rivals, especially Liverpool and, of course, Manchester City.
Perhaps City fans have had it the worst. As City plummeted down the leagues of England, Ferguson’s United kept on winning the top honours. Then, when City finally did win something - albeit the Division 3 playoff final against Gillingham, United went and won the Champions League against Bayern Munich, as if to remind City fans that really, they’d won nothing at all.
Some might question why I have devoted a post to Ferguson on this blog, but in truth, as a City fan, you cannot ignore Ferguson. He has been a pillar of our discontent for many a year, a figure that we have all railed against at some point or another, a force from within Old Trafford that many of us have defined ourselves against. The archenemy, disliked even more than the players who pulled on red shirts. The Red Devil himself.
City fans have lived in Ferguson’s shadow for so long that they even concocted a song for him to cheer themselves up in the darker moments. I can hear it now, echoing off the walls of the pubs around the Etihad Stadium, amid the laughter on the dark afternoons when all other hope seemed lost:
“We’re having a party when Fergie dies, we’re having a party when Fergie dies, jelly and ice cream when Fergie dies, jelly and ice cream when Fergie dies, karaoke when Fergie dies, karaoke when Fergie dies,” and so on.
Some might call that a very dark kind of humour, but the song also reveals a grudging respect – the acknowledgement that City fans would only ever win when Ferguson was no longer at the helm of Old Trafford.
This is only partly true of course, given that last year City won the Premier League crown for the first time, and the way it was won, snatched from under the nose of Ferguson, could not have been sweeter. Of course, the Scot has had the last laugh, opting to leave just after he has delivered another title, but at least City did put a dent in his silverware collection with last year’s title, and at least City fans tasted victory at the direct expense of Ferguson before he went quietly into the night.
Credit where credit is due, the Scot has seen off challenges from Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea and now City for the league, but now more challenges are emerging. Grasping victory today is so much harder then doing it five, 10 years ago. A decade ago no-one could have foreseen City becoming the force they have. Having already tasted the Premier League title, with formidable resources, City are now regrouping. Then you have the Blues of London – add Mourinho to the mix and Chelsea will also be resurgent. Everywhere you look, on every front, challenges, and all the while a man at the centre of it all, the determination still burning in his eyes but also the realisation that there is only so many challenges one can meet.
A Liverpudlian band once sang “Nothing ever lasts forever”. Perhaps those words have been at the front of Ferguson’s mind for a while. The timing of his departure will have mattered much to him. Better to go now, still at the top, than to become mired in the next phase of English football where re-establishing dominance could be harder than ever.
It is not only the ability to win consistently that separates the good from the great, but the ability to recognise the right time to leave. Pep Guardiola did it at Barcelona – arguably with less fronts to fight on and with better players. Now Ferguson has done it at United.
And so the old enemy has gone. But will City fans, in a strange kind of way, harken back to the days when they had a clear target to rail at? Maybe, but I sense most would prefer to face a United team without Ferguson, rather than one with him at the helm. Most would rather forget this era. Most will miss ol’ Baconface like a hole in the head.