Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Thank you, and Good Knight - Sir Alex Ferguson ruined my life

Saturday May 12th 1990. A hyperactive six year old child with a slightly oversized head is running around a Camden Town council flat. He has no plan, no aim, no real sense of what is going on. All he knows is that it's the weekend and he wants to go and knock for his mates so they could go enjoy the springtime sunshine in the communal play area. Said play area doesn't feature much. A swing, a slide, but also some walls which he and his pals would like to climb and jump from, showing flagrant disregard for their own safety and well being. For all his enthusiasm however, the child was still one to be easily distracted by other things, television being the main one. That big grey box of light in the living room would so often prove to be the draw that prevented him from indulging his desire to leave the house and hone in his playful instincts.

The young lad had more than likely been awake for some hours watching cartoons and children's programmes. While his poor mum was busy shopping/cooking/attending to her two year old daughter, the big headed boy would be planted in front of the box. Today, something strange was happening. BBC One seemed to be talking an awful lot about football. “How strange” the boy figured. “football matches are only ever televised on Sunday”. It didn't take long for him to deduce that it was the FA Cup Final. The boy was slightly confused. Just a few months earlier, he had sat down to watch Nottingham Forest beat Oldham to win 'the Cup' (after which, he decided that Forest were naturally the best team in the country...nay, the world!) so why was there another final so soon? “It must be a different cup. For rubbish teams” was the unwavering conclusion he drew.

The game would feature Crystal Palace. A side from from his very own city of London. A team of plucky heroes and underdogs who had defied the odds to make it to their first ever final. The television kept saying what an amazing achievement it would be if they were to beat their opponents, some fairly average team from the north called Manchester United who never really won much themselves in those days. Naturally, the boy was swayed and, on this day alone, would be cheering on this side affectionately referred to as the Eagles. Seeing as their opponents' nickname was the 'Red Devils', the boy knew his churchgoing mother would certainly not approve of him lending his support to them. They were the bad guys and as Ghostbusters and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles had taught him, the bad guys always lose at the end.

Except, as we would soon discover, these bad guys didn't lose. Ever.

After a thrilling 3-3 draw, the game was set for a replay. The boy still hoped for a Palace win in the return game the following Thursday. However, as it was a school night, he wasn't allowed to stay up and watch it so the following morning when he discovered that a Lee Martin goal had settled the game in favour of 'The Devils', he was understandably, albeit temporarily disappointed (That was, of course, until something else grabbed his attention).

That was Sir Alex Ferguson's first trophy as manager of Manchester United. Even in my youthful naivety it made me somewhat miserable at the time. But it didn't matter. It was just one trophy. For a side without a particularly great recent record of success, I foolishly imagined people would barely even remember this isolated victory a year down the line. If you told me back then that I'd have to get used to it as the next 23 years of my life would be the same, I would have thought you were crazy and told everyone in school not to be your friend any more.

Curiously, such was Manchester United's level of mediocrity at the time, the accepted belief is that the United boss was on the brink of getting sacked and it was that cup win that saved his job. Appointed in 1986, the first four years of his tenure could only be described as bang average. A mid table side who would would only fleetingly flirt with with the top of the table before returning to irrelevance and obscurity. Ferguson's debut match was 2-0 league defeat to Oxford United which tells you all you need to know about the stature of the club at the time. Growing up in London back then you wouldn't have known many United fans. Nowadays, you are never more than six feet away from one. Like rats...

Going into 1990, there was actually a real risk of the Reds being drawn into a relegation battle. The club were on an awful run in the league having gone eight games without a win and an upcoming FA Cup 3rd round tie against the abovementioned Forest – one of the division's stronger sides – didn't look particularly enticing. As I say, it is widely believed that a loss would have seen Ferguson handed his P45. Something that would not have been an unpopular move. Three months before the Forest game, United actually lost 2-1 at home to Palace prompting one disgruntled fan to knock up a banner expressing his frustrations. Thankfully, Mark Robins popped up to score the only goal to give United a narrow win and buy Fergie some precious time. Had it not been for Robins, who knows what the future would have held for the club? Names touted to take over apparently included Terry Venables. Amazing, isn't it?

United finished the season in 13th place – a mere five points above the relegation zone and actually level on points with their cup final opponents. It's difficult to imagine Alex Ferguson would have kept his job but for the cup victory. Needless to say, it was all uphill from there. Sir Alex has since added four more FA Cup wins to his CV making him the most successful manager in the competition's history and United the most successful team with a grand total of 11 wins.

Two years later, Ferguson and United won the League Cup with a 1-0 victory over Nottingham Forest – the first in the club's long history and something he has gone on to repeat three more times. Only Brian Clough, the man he beat in 1992, has won as many as a manager.

However, the holy grail for United was, is and has always been the League. Sir Matt Busby was the last man to lead to club to championship success back in 1967 so their push in the final season of the old First Division had been a long time coming. Unfortunately for Ferguson, they were narrowly edged into second place by Leeds United.

The opportunity to win a first league title in 25 years that season was denied partly due to a late season 2-0 defeat against great rivals Liverpool. The Merseysiders themselves were at the end of a two decade run of unrivalled success which saw them rise and sit alone at the summit of the English game with 18 league titles. Well clear of Arsenal's 10 and United's 7. The history of hatred between the two clubs is extensive so it is fair to say, there would have been a fair bit of belly laughing and schadenfreude after derailing United's title bid.

Not to be deterred, the inaugural season of the Premier League in 1993 saw Ferguson, with the signing of Leeds' best player Eric Cantona, finally win that much sought after league crown and set the wheels in motion for a period of dominance that would eclipse that of the North West chums. Speaking in 2002, Ferguson unashamedly declared that his greatest challenge was “knocking Liverpool right off their fucking perch”. A motivation perhaps sparked by the fact that following that initial Premier League success, Liverpool fans, in keeping with the theme of unwisely unfurled banners, proudly suggested that Fergie's solitary title was somewhat insignificant in the grand scheme of things.

Like my 6 year old self, if only they knew what was to come...

We were sold the idea of the Premier League thinking it would open up competition, allowing different teams to grow, challenge and flourish in this new, all inclusive division. New money, new investment and an attractive new environment for players home and and abroad to thrive. “A whole new ball game” we were told. United winning the first title was actually a good thing as it gave hope to other success starved teams. “if they can do it, so can we” was the thinking. Unfortunately, the devious little Scot had other ideas. He was far from finished.

20 years and 12 more League titles later, Ferguson has not simply knocked Liverpool off their perch, he has single handedly burnt said perch to the ground. And it's not just the scousers. Everyone else in the country have been straining their necks to look over the fortress wall as Sir Alex sits in his throne, decorating himself more lavishly each passing year. None of this is by accident, though. Never afraid to let go, Ferguson has ruthlessly dismantled and rebuilt teams who have continuously remained at the forefront of the English game. Whenever it looked as though we may be thankfully seeing the end of their tyrannical reign, they would, in true super villian fashion, only came back stronger.

And it's not just domestically his presence has been felt. Following that initial FA Cup victory, two Mark Hughes goals in Rotterdam secured the European Cup Winners' Cup against Barcelona the following year. Eight years on, the Catalonian capital would be the scene of arguably Ferguson's greatest triumph. With a league title and FA Cup already in the bag, all that stood in the way of a historic treble was Bayern Munich. 1-0 down early on, Ferguson really earned his corn by throwing on substitutes Sheringham and Solskjaer late in the game and, well, you all know the story.

A nauseating outcome for the rest of us. Bitter accusations of good fortune and the whole thing being a “fluke” were levelled. But there was also the reluctant acknowledgement, as if there was any lingering doubt before, that we were seeing one of the greatest managers in the long history of the game. Despite the fact it was only United's second success in Europe's premier competition compared to Liverpool's four at the time, it was safe to assume there would be no goading banners at Anfield this time around.

Ferguson added another European crown in 2008 after beating Chelsea on penalties and has since reached two more finals – coming unstuck against brilliant Barcelona teams on both occasions, but firmly enshrining his place among the European elite.

However, despite the drive and determination that has brought him incomparable levels of success, there is an almost spiteful nature at its heart which fuels his pursuit of glory. For years, we've had to put up with the whining and complaining when things do not go his way. Referees, the media and even his own players have all felt his wrath at one time or another. The infamous 'hairdryer' iconology is a direct result of his unchallengeable approach to management, and this has even led to high profile fallings out within his own club. Many would point to his dispute with JP McManus and John Magnier leading to the deeply unpopular Glazer family running the club.

His general demeanour doesn't exactly endear him to the neutral. The desire to see United fail and concept of ABU (Anyone But United) can be attributed to primarily to Ferguson and the way he has gone about his business down the years. That said, this is what makes the man and if he didn't have this aspect of his character, he wouldn't have achieved everything he has done.

It was not simply the success which made him a great but the way in which he has responded to set backs and fought off challenges to his supremacy from a number of different foes. Like a boxer or character from a computer beat 'em up game, Ferguson has always had to adapt and refine his fighting style based on different opponents. From Kenny Dalglish and Blackburn, Kevin Keegan's Newcastle, Arsene Wenger at Arsenal, Mourinho at Chelsea, Bentiez's Liverpool and most recently, Mancini at City, the Scot has managed to rise to any challenge and leave them all in his wake. When Ferguson gets into a scrap, you can bet your life he is not walking away until he has won. In football terms, 'Sir' Alex is actually very much like a Knight of the more traditional sense; metaphorically galloping around the country on horseback laying waste to any perceived threat to his kingdom.

I refuse to believe that I am alone in having spent my entire football watching life sneering at his success but begrudgingly had to accept and acknowledge his unmatchable brilliance. The fact that many, many fans up and down the country are not able to gloat or even celebrate the retirement of the greatest manager they've ever seen but only express relief, is perhaps one of the biggest compliments that can be paid to the man.

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