You can never be one of the world’s greatest football managers with a lousy team. What I meant was, Fergie’s “cross” was often met perfectly by the Manchester United teams he managed – the players he bought, the initial no-hopers that he groomed or the substitutes he used.
You can pamper your players, pay them obscene salaries or bark at them until their hair is dried all you like, but out there on the pitch, it’s absolutely up to the 11 men. Hoping they will meet your “cross” and score is all you can do.
“Don’t give up”, “Run your socks off till the final whistle”, “It takes just a second to score a goal” are routine speeches in other dressing rooms as well. But what may be lip service in most other places has been regularly executed by Manchester United. It’s not just what you teach, but also who you teach.
So, at least half the credit must go to the players. Or 40 per cent if I’m to live up to the traditional cynicism of a non-Man U fan. The other 10 per cent of the credit may belong to a combination of luck, some influence over refereeing decisions and what I’d like to call “international romanticism” associated with his football club.
“Luck” and “mafia” are the two words that Man U fans hate the most, but they will have to continue to agree to disagree with the rest of the world. But since “luck” is debatable and “mafia” can always be countered by, “Is it Fergie’s fault that practically no team ever got a penalty at Old Trafford?” I shall leave the controversy as it is.
Let’s focus on the “international romanticism”. As the world shrank over the weekend to the size of a 68,000-seat football stadium in Manchester, a German team called Bayern Munich lifted their 22nd Bundesliga trophy. Outside their own league, in the top flight of European club football, this same German team recently swept aside those who “experts” had dubbed the planet’s best footballers. Barcelona have been so good, the team’s players were called “aliens” for playing football out of this world.
Who is Bayern Munich’s manager? There, I rest my case. The “aliens” walked over Fergie’s men two seasons ago, and still most of us don’t know who manages the German side that just thrashed the aliens. Don’t be too hard on yourself, though. When was the last time you watched German league football anyway?
Just as “Argo” had to win the Oscar in spite of, say, “Life of Pi”, Fergie’s status as football’s greatest manager is almost a lock. Don’t get me wrong. While I’m not sure whether it was his fault or not that extra time at Old Trafford when Manchester United were trailing their opponents was characteristically longer than extra time elsewhere, it’s absolutely not his fault that you know him better than Jupp Heynckes. (Surely it doesn’t have anything to do with the spelling or pronunciation difficulty of the latter’s name, does it?)
We can’t belittle what Fergie has done in England, however. To be able to go toe-to-toe with bigger spenders like Chelsea and Manchester City is extraordinary. It’s an understatement to say that Manchester United without Alex Ferguson is like Apple without Steve Jobs with Samsung breathing down its neck. (Look whose prototype phone is the first to be able to download a full movie in just one second. If Steve Jobs is now an angel, as a Thai religious sect is saying, he must be hoping for reincarnation right now to deal with this issue.)
David Moyes, Fergie’s successor, will not have Chelsea and Manchester City as his biggest worries, though. Two league defeats or three draws in a row, and fans as well as the media will start screaming for his head. Moyes will have to live a long time under the shadow of his predecessor. At Everton, Moyes got away with not winning any trophies. A year without silverware is a cardinal sin at Manchester United, and only Sir Alex was allowed a drought season once in a while.
Moyes will try to deliver the same crosses as Fergie and hope the players turn them into winning goals. It’s an extremely tall order. But, as they say, life has to move on.
Time will tell if Fergie has been too good, too involved and too influential for anyone else to build a football club whose supremacy can outlast him. He believes in the power of teamwork. The 71-year-old loves to tell the story of migrating geese, about how the birds fly thousands of kilometres in a “V” formation that allows them to take turns in flying the lead and saving energy. Everyone is important, not least the substitutes, he says.
Fergie’s geese have flown high throughout his tenure. To measure his success, that may be just half the story, and how it ends is yet to be told. To use a football analogy, Manchester United are sitting on a comfortable lead at half time and the second half is just about to begin. And, as they say, it’s a game of two halves.