By Jonathan Birchall
We all have them. Those family quirks that come to shape, define and make us what we are. The habitual eccentricities that you don't really notice until they're questioned or simply no longer there. You might not even know it but there will be something. A constant.
My family had Wednesday nights. Manchester United and the Champions League. Me, my mum and my brother. All on one sofa, all wearing red. All cheers, tears and chewed fingernails.
We relied on Teletext and 'Match of the Day' for our Premier League fix but the Champions League we watched together. We watched players and places that a seven-year-old from the north of England would only conceivably know through football. We watched LKS Lodz, Sturm Graz and Zalaegerszegi. We watched convincing wins and away-goal losses. We watched as Lars Ricken broke our hearts and when Solskjaer went and "won it".
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We watched as players came and left, kits changed, and Old Trafford stretched upwards and outwards. But Sir Alex Ferguson remained.
You see, everything stopped for Sir Alex and his United. Parents Evenings were made to wait, Trick-or-Treaters left ignored and the phone, without exception, left off the hook. No Twitter or texting then. For 90-odd minutes, our social network extended to the three of us.
And just as he was our constant for over two decades, for Sir Alex it was winning. From mind-games to matches, from the little victories to the great successes of Barcelona and Moscow, it was all he knew. You sense that the only person with more faith in Fergie than the United fans who hung on his every word was the man himself.
Even when that faith was tested, and on occasion it was with great merit, the same old answer remained valid: "But it's Fergie!". Be it selling his best defender in Jaap Stam or his continued support of a Glazer regime that put the club's future in greater jeopardy than many dare think about, United stuck with him and he stuck with United. Unconditional love - that most familial of concepts - has defined his 26-year reign as much as the 38 trophies that merely add to the scientific argument as to why he is football's greatest ever manager.
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That love will forever remain at Old Trafford but, as of a week on Sunday, Sir Alex, in body if not quite spirit, will not. His retirement, after over a quarter of a century and still like a bolt from the blue, is one last leap of faith.
David Moyes, announced as his successor on Thursday, is Sir Alex's man. Cut from the same cloth but with a 26-year millstone around his neck, the former Everton boss has to look and maintain United's habit of a lifetime: simply winning. New dog, same tricks.
Yet even for a club at which looking to the future is sacrosanct, United's match with Swansea City on Sunday, and the trophy ceremony celebrating Ferguson's 13th Premier League victory will no doubt feel quaintly parallel to his and the club's past. It will be a celebration of Sir Alex, not of the title that he has so ruthlessly purged from the hands of Manchester City over the last eight months.
It was only minutes after his 373-word retiring statement was published on Wednesday that I had a phone call from my mum and a text from my brother. Hundreds of miles apart these days but there we were again, in name and in nature, United.
And so were the rest. The millions of others. Friends called friends, emails crossed continents and families, just like mine, were back on the sofa. Why now? Who next? Arguing, reminiscing, bound together by the man who for 26 years has been our constant.
Because after all, we were never really unique. Fergie was and Fergie is.
And for that and for all of those Wednesday nights, only thank you remains.
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