In the history of sports, the last quarter century has been marked by staggering commercialism that has threatened to devour the very spirit of sports. Yet, Manchester United’s former manager Sir Alex Ferguson, who retired this year, was able to keep his eyes and his players unfailingly focused on the quality of football, even as he took the Red Devils to dizzying heights of success. Abhimanyu Maheshwari pays tribute.
When Alex Ferguson took over at Manchester United, USSR still had long queues to distribute communal ration, Michael Jackson hadn’t turned into a creepy white guy, Berlin Wall stood, and Thatcherism and Reaganomics were acceptable political ideologies.
The only common thread between Manchester United’s remarkable journey from a football club with a rich history, but prone to frequent spells of underachievement and trophy lulls, and its transformation into the most successful football club in British history, a global behemoth, boasting off an estimated 700 million fans worldwide, and becoming arguably the greatest sporting brand in the history of sports, was Sir Alex Ferguson, it’s manager for the past 26 years.
To draw parallels in other sports, Sir Alex’s achievements can be likened, among others, to Phil Jackson and his achievements with the Chicago Bulls and LA. Lakers, or the legendary Vince Lombardi’s with the Green Bay Packers. Or Sachin Tendulkar.
Last week Sachin Tendulkar played his last competitive cricket match, and after a heartfelt tearjerker of a speech, walked into the sunset. Sachin’s appeal transcended cricket. He was an opiate that the Indians latched onto in the absence of much else to rejoice about. Alex Ferguson, on the other hand was a man of football, and his appeal would probably never transcend his sport in the way Sachin’s did. One reason could be because Sachin’s “1.2 Billion” fans shared a common culture, heritage and aspirations, unlike the largely disjointed 700 million Manchester United fans, united only by their love for the football club. In that sense, Sir Alex’s appeal is more eclectic and universal to Sachin’s concentrated and uni-dimensional. Alex Ferguson’s career has had its fair share of controversies, against Sachin’s almost unblemished record.
To an uninitiated observer, Ferguson would come across as a petulant kid gesticulating frantically on the sidelines of the football pitch, which stands in stark contrast to Sachin’s calm and graceful demeanor on the cricket pitch. But despite such variance in their styles, it is their sheer longevity and adaptability in the light of tectonic changes that their respective sports have gone through, which is the unifying strand of greatness between these two individuals. And in that sense, Alex Ferguson’s achievements and contributions to the game of football is as immense, and his retirement as much an irreplaceable void as Sachin’s is for the game of cricket.
The game of football has seen monumental changes over the course of his managerial tenure – From the days of local sourcing of players, limited broadcasting, paltry sponsorships, subsistent player wages, limited media coverage, to the present day football of global brands, mega TV deals, of millionaire footballers, teenage superstars, of bloated egos, of ubiquitous sponsors, of FIFA 14s, and Nike Mercurials, and everything in between. It has been the journey of football clubs from local hometown identities representing a very narrow male-dominated demographic to billion dollar global businesses, bulldozing through geographies and demographics never explored before. Alex Ferguson’s tenure has to be put into this context, by juxtaposing his achievements against this massive churning that the sport has undergone, and his ability to adapt, improvise and calibrate his managerial style to adjust in the backdrop of these changes.
Ferguson, like all great leaders, was an institution builder, and that, when the balance sheets are drawn, would separate him from his forbears and contemporaries. He didn’t have the charisma and immediacy of a Jose Mourinho, or the revolutionary tactical genius of a Pep Gaurdiola. But they never left behind legacies, that indelible DNA, which would sustain long after they had left for pastures greener. Ferguson’s emphasis on youth development and the foundations he laid at Manchester United for the players to come through from the academy, can, among the Europe’s elite clubs, only be bettered by Barcelona’s La Masla Academy. Contrast this to the disturbing reality of neo-rich clubs across Europe funded by Middle Eastern oil money to buy success by paying bloated fees for players considered “finished products” and extracting a few prime years out of them, and repeat the same over every transfer window without ever developing any bedrock, any transferable ethos for the youth to grow into.
Alex Ferguson managed an astonishing two hundred and ten senior players during his twenty-six year reign. And he had a fair share of rabble-rousers, egotists, players who developed identities way beyond the sport. There was Roy Keane and his ‘savage tongue’, the genius of Eric Cantona and Cristiano Ronaldo, and there was David Beckham.
The case of David Beckham encapsulates the no-nonsense, football-first, no-one-is-bigger-than-the-club philosophy that typified Alex Ferguson’s career. David Beckham was sold by Ferguson to Real Madrid when he was at the prime of his career, when he was easily the most marketable commodity in the world of sports, whose jersey sales and branding rights would alone have warranted his continuity as a Manchester United player. But Ferguson saw it all very differently – as a player whose footballing talents had been waning, who had misplaced priorities, one who was getting bigger than the club for his own good, and thus deserved off-loading. Contrast it to this summer’s mega transfer of Gareth Bale, which, in a sense is the microcosm of the modern day capitalist malaise that is cannibalizing football. Gareth Bale was transferred from Totthenham for a ridiculous world-record fee to Real Madrid, which saw Mesut Ozil, a player with the best assist stats in Europe, and probably a better but a less marketable player, leave Madrid at half the fee, a decision strictly based on commercial over footballing considerations.
Sir Alex Ferguson announced his retirement at age 71, after only a few days of decisively reclaiming the Premier League trophy back from the ‘noisy neighbors’ Manchester City, and ending as the most decorated, most successful British Manager in history. But his 26 year due, four minute long farewell speech still found enough words for the future, for the new manager, urging and rallying fans ‘To stand by your new Manager’. The jury would be out for many years for new manager David Moyes simply for the shoes he is filling in.
‘Fergie time’ might be over but the legend and legacy of Sir Alex Ferguson are going to live on far beyond the trophy rooms and corridors of Manchester United Football Club.