Sir Alex Ferguson stepped out of the Manchester United head coaching hot seat Wednesday and into soccer history, leaving behind a trial of unprecedented success and a litany of anecdotes.
Ferguson, 71, is not only the most successful coach English soccer has ever seen, but retires as one of its most colorful and enigmatic characters. Ruling over United’s Old Trafford stadium for 26 seasons in a profession with the shortest of shelf lives, tales of both his exploits and eccentricities are already etched in the sport’s folklore.
For the American sports fan seeking comparison, he had the gruffness of a Bill Belichick and the fiery temper of a Bob Knight, yet the Zen-like tactical mastery of a Phil Jackson.
His departure from United, announced to his players and staff in a cafeteria at United’s training ground Wednesday morning and later via statement to the world’s media, comes after 13 English Premier League titles, two Champions League crowns and five FA Cups, all of which established the Manchester club as one of a handful of global heavyweights.
For all that silverware there is so much more to Ferguson, an aura seen best through the eyes of the players he developed. Cristiano Ronaldo, the man Ferguson plucked from Portugal at the age of 17 and molded into a global superstar, was among the first with the tributes.
Ronaldo’s message was quickly followed by one from David Beckham, a player who joined the United academy as a schoolboy. Beckham came to regard Ferguson as a father figure, even after the boss angrily kicked a stray locker room cleat that struck Beckham above the eye and required stitches toward the end of his United stay.
Beckham was part of Ferguson’s finest hour, the extraordinary 1999 Champions League final in which United scored twice in the dying seconds to break the hearts of Bayern Munich and set up the mystical “Treble” – the first time a team had won the EPL, FA Cup and Europe’s top prize in the same campaign.
Following that most dramatic of finishes, coherent words deserted Ferguson and his postmatch quip of “Football … bloody hell” has become part of his lore.
Another European title, this time spearheaded by Ronaldo, came in 2008 in a thrilling penalty shootout against Chelsea deep into a rainy Moscow night.
Ferguson’s replacement is a fellow Scot, David Moyes, who moves over from EPL club Everton and now has the biggest shoes in the business to fill.
Ferguson had a heavy role in handpicking Moyes as his successor, and if he has one piece of advice for the replacement it will surely be to retain his individuality. For Ferguson always marched to his own beat, unreservedly and unapologetically so.
Having endured a difficult start to his United career, Ferguson’s long and glorious reign would never have happened if not for a victory in the 1990 FA Cup that saved him from the sack and made everything that followed possible.
After the 1990s became United’s decade, winning five of the first seven EPL titles after the league was founded on the back of a blockbuster television deal, Ferguson planned to retire in 2002. Even going so far as to publicly announce his decision.
But after a late-season collapse saw Arsenal win the league in 2002 that move was fully recanted. Realizing that his rightful place was within the sport, prowling the sidelines, retirement was barely spoken about again, even as he approached and then entered his 70s.
However, after his team surged to yet another EPL triumph this season, wresting the trophy back from last year’s big-spending champions and local rivals Manchester City, it was a perfect time to go.
Two games remain in the current season – at home against Swansea and at West Bromwich Albion on May 19 – but United’s 10-point cushion over City means the title is all wrapped up.
Even in New York, on Wall Street, the impact of Ferguson’s retirement was felt, with the club’s share price on the New York Stock Exchange dipping 5 percent, a fiscal manifestation of the biggest question in English soccer. How can you replace the irreplaceable?
Ferguson was revered at United and tears were shed by players and staff when he informed them of his choice. As the years went by, he showed a softer touch while retaining that fierce will to win. He once tried to shave a trainee with overlong sideburns with a knife, but was always swift with a quiet word for emerging players, even in the midst of important business – such as competing with Europe’s elite.
He leaves behind a platform, not just the current crop of talented players who operated with such seamless teamwork over the course of this season. No, Ferguson’s mark is on everything at United, from the structure of the club, to its training system and soccer philosophy.
Those elements are why United begins every new season with an automatic advantage, yet the legacy of one man is also why his successors are always likely to live in his shadow.
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