A restless tyrant, addicted to victory
Sixty five on New Year's Eve, Alex Ferguson has done it all at Manchester United with a reign so epic it demands comparison outside football. And he dismisses any suggestion that he retire as ‘scandalous'. By Ken Early
Football managers in England keep their jobs for between two and three years on average. Sir Alex Ferguson has been in charge of the biggest club in England for 20 years. That doesn't make him the longest-serving coach in England: Dario Gradi has been manager of Crewe Alexandra since 1983. Further afield, Guy Roux ‘s 44 years in charge at Auxerre looks like an unbreakable record. But these are small clubs with little pressure – in no way comparable to Manchester United. At the top level nobody has come close, neither in England, nor Italy, nor Spain, nor Germany.Ferguson's reign is so epic it demands comparisons outside football. Only five of the 150-odd Roman emperors held power for longer than he has. If he is still at United at the start of next season his regime will have lasted longer than Hadrian's; two more seasons and he will have outlasted Tiberius. How long can he go on? Sixty five on new year's eve, Ferguson is older than any other coach in England, Spain, France, Germany or Italy except Nedo Sonetti of the little Italian club Ascoli.
Yet last month, Ferguson angrily described suggestions that it might be time to retire as “scandalous”. “Some people in this life don't want to work, so I don't think you should decry people who want to work. It disgusts me that people think that way, but laws have been changed about retirement dates... in America there is no retirement age. I feel fit and I am going to continue working.” The logic might appeal to his 78-year-old American employer Malcolm Glazer, who has only recently scaled back his work commitments after suffering two strokes. But football management is physically and mentally exhausting. The profession is dominated by men in their 40s and early-50s. Since Ferguson won the Champions League in 1999 at the age of 57, the winning coaches have been aged 50, 52, 52, 44, 41, 45 and 43 respectively. Ferguson has already outstripped the other great post-war managers in England – Busby, Shankly, Paisley and Clough. All had retired by the time they were Ferguson's age, none won as many trophies as Ferguson has. Ferguson's mentor, Jock Stein, died of a heart attack at Ferguson's side in the dugout at Ninian Park, aged just 62. Since Ferguson's achievements already tower over his rivals past and present, why does he keep going?
In November, Bobby Robson revealed that Ferguson consulted him during the messy aftermath of Roy Keane's departure from Old Trafford. The United manager admitted he was weary of the pressure and had thought about walking away. Maybe Ferguson chose to confide in Robson because he knew he would get the answer he wanted to hear. Robson, who is so terrified of life after work that he has not resigned his FAI consultancy role despite two recent cancer operations, was incredulous. “I first demanded to know what the heck he was going to do instead,” he said.Apparently Ferguson couldn't think of an answer. This is curious because people are always remarking on his diverse interests outside football: wine, music, racing, politics, history, money-making. (Usually a contrast is drawn with the monomaniacal Arsene Wenger, who spends all his spare time cloistered at home obsessively watching football videos.)Many retirees have nothing to do but play golf, attend funerals and brood bitterly on the children who have abandoned them.
But Ferguson will leave football with the world at his feet. If he gets bored sitting in his mansion with his wife or eating truffles in the Dordogne, there will always be people to meet, dinners to go to, planes to catch, corporate boards to sit on, good works to be done. If he feels like something more challenging, he could play the markets with his stg£20m fortune or write another bestseller. And if he absolutely cannot get by without an occasional sporting fix, he could always become manager of Scotland or Ireland. But those things would only appeal to normal people. None of them gives Ferguson the chance to do what he really wants: to surge weekly into battle at the head of his tribe and eat the flesh of his enemies before the stupefied gaze of a global TV audience. Managing a top football club is the closest you can get in Europe these days to being an ancient warlord. Ferguson has done it longer than anyone else, at a higher and more intense level than anyone else. Sure, he is normal in some ways, even charming: he tells jokes, he plays the piano, he is kind to children, he sings to himself as he goes about his business.
But in his heart he is Alexander, a restless tyrant who is helplessly addicted to victory. Alexander the Great had a cold relationship with his father, Philip, who refused to be impressed by anything his son did until he tamed a particularly difficult horse; even then respect was grudging. Ferguson and his father got on rather better, but he also recalls his father rarely praised anything he did as a child. In many people, that would have produced only resentment, but in Ferguson it seems to have awoken a burning desire to prove himself, and never get bored doing it. Ferguson snr never lived to see his son knighted, but his son cites the pride his father would have felt as his main reason for accepting a feudal honour which some might say clashed with his oft-proclaimed socialist principles. Ferguson's upbringing in Govan, Glasgow, was not especially impoverished (his autobiography: “we were lucky to have an inside toilet”) but he was shaped by the macho values of his community. Loyalty to family and friends is paramount, intimidation and violence is okay if it is in a good cause. As a player, he was renowned for use of the elbow. He may be unique in having taken that trait forward into management. In 1976 he took St Mirren on a tour of Guyana, and watched enraged from the sideline as one of his players was repeatedly fouled by the opposing centre-half.
The referee did nothing, but having only recently quit his job managing a pub in Govan “because I was tired of coming home with a cut head or a swollen jaw”, Ferguson knew a thing or two about instant justice. He sent himself on a substitute, cracked an elbow into the centre-half's face and was red-carded to wild cheers from his bench. Like all great warlords, Ferguson enjoys glory and praise, and tries to crush those who criticise him. Last month he complained that the city of Manchester has not organised a civic reception when his team wins a trophy. “It's different in America. Time and time again you'll see ticker-tape parades down Fifth Avenue. We don't praise our heroes the proper way here.” His despotic side is revealed in his dealings with the press, many of whom fear him to an extent which seems ridiculous – until you speak to some of them and discover that feuds with Ferguson have resulted in spells of unemployment. When Michael Crick was researching The Boss, his critical biography of Ferguson, the Manchester Evening News told him they would only allow access to their back issues if Crick could provide a fax from Manchester United saying the book was being written with their approval. The Boss is also a power player in the managerial employment market.
The England manager Steve McClaren is only the most successful of those who owe their career to his recommendation. Others less favoured have found doors slamming in their face. Ferguson himself will soon be walking towards the door marked Exit, but how long will he try to postpone the inevitable? One theory is that he will only walk when he has won another Champions League (because one isn't enough). Another is that he would like to win one last league title (presumably because 11 isn't enough). Chelsea's enormous wealth means Ferguson is more likely to win the Champions League than the Premiership. Recently, with Chelsea struggling at home to Newcastle, Jose Mourinho sent on stg£70m worth of substitutes, one of whom scored a late winner. A few days later, as United struggled away to West Ham, Ferguson could only send on John O'Shea. United's first XI is probably as good as Chelsea's, but over 38 games Chelsea's superior bench will make the difference. The Champions League knockout phase is only seven games long and with luck, United are good enough to win it. Yet if they did, one suspects Ferguson would want to go for a third. He will never be content because for him contentment exists only in the moment of victory and then immediately fades. That is what has made him the greatest manager in United's history, and it is also the reason why his career will probably end at a time not of his choosing.π