Sir Alex Ferguson's Dying Glory


ike many across the country I'm not particularly fond of Sir Alex Ferguson. This wasn't always the case. Whilst I've never been particularly fond of his feverish chewing of Wrigley's Extras; his lack of graciousness in defeat; and the sense I have that his views of family and loyalty are not that far removed from Don Corleone, I used to be able to gloss over these traits and focus on the fact that he had an overwhelmingly positive impact on English football in the mid- to late-1990s. I saw him as a footballing visionary who challenged conventional wisdom (well, Alan Hansen's dull-witted assertion: one of many) that 'you could not win anything with kids' and helped bring English football clubs back to the vanguard of European club football. I was also captivated by his Manchester United team of the late 1990s and early 2000s which played with a swashbuckling majesty that was beautiful to watch and made the hair on the back of my neck stand up on those wonderful Wednesday Champions League nights.

Indeed, out of all of the English football clubs between 1995 and 2002, the club that I wanted to watch on television above all others was Manchester United. Although Arsenal had considerable success during this period too, their style of football, as many now forget, was quite robust relying on physical superiority and counter-attacking football; not the attractive, fragile football that we have become accustomed to in recent years. In this period, before the Real Madrid attacking might of Figo, Raul, Zidane and Ronaldo came together, Manchester United was one of the most accomplished and exciting teams in Europe. Winning was simply not enough for Ferguson in these years. He wanted his team to be the best attacking team in Europe which would leave a lasting impression on the world of football. The Champions League was the most prestigious competition for him, not the Premiership. Jürgen Klopp and his Borussia Dortmund today remind me of Ferguson’s approach and Manchester United back then.

However, since Ferguson's aborted retirement plan nearly a decade ago, I can only see him as a sullen, dispiriting individual whose unpleasant character traits have come increasingly to the fore. For a man who has the power and standing to sway opinion and encourage initiatives to improve the often yobbish on-field conduct­ of many footballers, he has done nothing, with his own actions and comments only encouraging such repellent behaviour.

On the footballing front he has converted from visionary to pragmatist. He has gone over to the José Mourinho 'dark side' in becoming obsessed with 'winning trophies' rather than presiding over one of the most attractive teams in Europe. He has seemingly lost interest in building a team over the long-term and has embraced counter-attacking football, which is more effective in the Premiership where ball retention is still not that high and possession can be quickly won back, rather than the possession-based football which is needed to thrive in Europe (of course you can get incredibly lucky and win the Champions League by playing dire football as Chelsea did last season).

The Premiership has become all-important to Ferguson. Indeed, Manchester United's performances in Europe over the last few years have been pretty poor. They rarely dominate the better European teams any more and are often outplayed – most notably last year against Athletic Bilbao – whom a club of Manchester United's size should really be matching in terms of style and technique. Such was the gap between the two teams in ball retention that it almost mirrored a FA Cup tie with Manchester United playing the part of the plucky lower league opposition. It should also be remembered that Manchester United were very fortuitous in reaching the Champions League final in 2011 where their route to the final included Marseille, Chelsea and Schalke (who are much better now than they were then) before being demolished by Barcelona in the final. There are now about half a dozen teams in Europe who are more technically assured than Manchester United. This would have alarmed the visionary Alex Ferguson, but is seemingly less of a concern for the Sir Alex of today.

The Van Persie signing is symptomatic of Ferguson's current mindset: instant gratification ahead of long-term restructuring. Although Van Persie is an exceptional player, a four year £200,000-per-week contract and a £24 million transfer signing fee for a 29-year-old with a bad injury record is excessive and fraught with risks. Clearly, if Van Persie's injury problems resurface it will be a costly mistake. It was not the signing of a man taking a long-term view. It was the signing of a man who was concerned more about his 'dying glory'; obsessed with notching up trophies to his name rather than taking the more challenging steps of putting the building blocks in place (which might result in short-term failures) so that Manchester United ultimately play football of a considerably higher calibre than they are at present, and become pre-eminent once more in European football.

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