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After you, sir!


After 26 years at the top with Manchester United, Alex Ferguson remembered that some time everyone must stop to smell the flowers.

You may have hated the harsh, even brutal swagger of his nature. You might always argue that no one ever pursued his advantages more cynically, more relentlessly. But then if you also love football, its power to capture the attention of the world, what do you inhabit today?

It is the vacuum, the great yawning space at the heart of the game, once occupied by Sir Alex Ferguson.

Football without Ferguson, we had reason to believe, is going to be like tonic without gin, soda without Scotch.

It is a cocktail separated from one of its biggest kicks. But the kick, we have to ask, of what? It is the kick and the thrust of a desire to win which so often appeared to be as important as life itself. Only Ferguson would say that losing to Manchester City made him feel like a criminal when he walked into the street. Only he could have remained so restlessly unappeased for so long by the biggest accumulation of trophies in the history of British football.

Not only did he outstay as a pure winner all of his contemporaries, his longevity exceeded that of the heroes who helped shape his ambitions, men like Jock Stein, Bill Shankly and his great Old Trafford predecessor Sir Matt Busby.

Their achievements were legendary but Shankly and Busby left office when they turned into their sixties, 10 years younger than Ferguson today, and Stein died in Cardiff during a World Cup qualifying game between Scotland and Wales when he was 62.
Until today, Ferguson's life seemed expressly designed to deny such vulnerability.

His retirement had to happen at some point because not even a man of such extraordinary will and energy can fight indefinitely the erosion of commitment and energy that is borne by the years.
Yet the announcement of his retirement after the merest flicker of speculation was still shocking if not disorienting. It not only removed from the front line of English football the man who bestrode it with ever increasing self-belief and quite stunning stamina for 27 years.

Also taken away was the most glorious certainty, an ineffable ability to rise to every new challenge not as a trial but a celebration of the fact that you were still fighting, still punching, and, more than anything, still alive in the place you most wanted to be.
Some friends of Ferguson offer an explanation for his leaving that runs deeper than his need for hip surgery in the summer and Manchester United's requirement to satisfy the New York Stock Exchange on the coherence of plans for the future that inevitably centre on the question of the managerial succession.

They point to the alacrity and enthusiasm with which Ferguson and his wife, Cath, fly off to New York to stay in their apartment on the East Side beside Central Park.
They report murmurings from the previously obsessed football man that he may have finally encountered, and absorbed, the declaration of the great golfer Walter Hagen that sooner or later everyone must stop to smell the flowers. They also hint that in recent years his summer retreat to the bougainvillea of the French Riviera may not have been quite enough.

More sceptically, others say that the departure of his fierce, long-time ally David Gill as United chief executive persuaded Ferguson that it was a little too late in the day to rebuild such an alliance with the new financial decision-maker at Old Trafford, Ed Woodward.

Maybe it is a converging of such factors but, if we are unlikely ever to get a definitive version of the promptings which finally persuaded Ferguson it was time to go, we will never have to speculate on the meaning of his career.
We will never have to delve into the deepest crevices of his character, or the influences to which he was exposed, to explain the sheer force of it.

He did a pretty good job, after all, when he concluded his autobiography, Managing My Life, which was written in the full flush of his ultimate achievement, the 1999 treble of Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League. When he ran along the Nou Camp touchline after the extraordinary defeat of Bayern Munich, one which could have only been produced by a team of quite extraordinary motivation, it was the rejoicing not so much of a battle-hardened warrior but someone who would never lose a part of his youth.

And then he said, "I relate to ambitious individuals but I appreciate that in millions of lives talk of ambition is an insulting irrelevance.

"Sometimes I joke about recognising people's nature in their choice of ideal holidays. Some people want to go to Blackpool, others to Spain and some want to go to the moon.

"I tell myself I identify with the last group. Then I remember the people I was raised among in Govan and how some people could never afford a holiday and would go to the local Elder Park or a Bellahouston Park in order to be surrounded by a little greenery. For the men it was a respite enough to be spared the noise and the grime of the shipyards, to escape the hammer of the Clyde for a little while.

"Ambition had nothing to do with their lives. Survival was the essence. Yet there was incredible warmth of fellow feeling among them, a loyalty that was deep in the marrow. It could be a rough world but there were wonderful values at the heart of it. Loyalty has been the anchor of my life and it is something that I learned in Govan. "

Of course, in football he learned many other things. Not too many of them were so selfless. Indeed, many were quite ruthless - and a trawl through some of the greatest of Old Trafford celebrity players provides plenty of witnesses, including Roy Keane, Jaap Stam, Ruud van Nistelrooy and David Beckham.

It is also maybe significant that as he walks away, Ferguson leaves an unresolved debate over the future of Wayne Rooney. Potentially the greatest English player of his generation, and certainly the most talented, Rooney is now obliged to fight for his career with Manchester United. Ferguson may be gone now, but Rooney cannot escape the need to meet the implacable demands of his former manager.

He may, or may not, draw some comfort from the fact that they are no less than the ones Ferguson always set himself, first as a raw-boned striker of inextinguishable ambition and then as arguably the most ferociously committed manager football has ever seen. It is certainly not his fault that they no longer do flights to the moon.


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