Alex Ferguson’s Legacy: Success at What Cost?

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After The Telegraph‘s Mark Ogden reported late last night that Alex Ferguson was considering his imminent retirement from his position as manager of Manchester United; amidst betting patterns that were taken to suggest just such a possibility, and a flurry of speculation on Twitter; Manchester United and Ferguson announced this morning, at around 9:20 am BST, that this season will indeed be his last. He has managed Manchester United for almost twenty-seven years, since 6 November, 1986; and has achieved unparalleled success with the club.

After leading them to their first Premier League triumph – and their first league title in twenty-six years – at the end of the 1992-93 season, Ferguson’s Manchester United have gone on to claim thirteen Premier League titles in total across twenty Premier League seasons. Their most recent title success was secured a couple of weeks ago, after a 3-0 home victory against Aston Villa rendered United’s closest challengers, Manchester City – last season’s title winners – a long way behind, incapable of catching their rivals, and distinctly second best. To these league titles Ferguson added two Champions League victories – in 1999 and 2008; five FA Cup wins; four League Cups; a UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup; a UEFA Super Cup; an Intercontinental Cup; a FIFA Club World Club; and ten Community Shields.

It is difficult to find a way to put such achievements into perspective: their extent is so great, they have been so varied in their fruition, and Ferguson’s longevity not only unmatched but barely approached in the modern game. One suggestive statistic is that, before he became their manager, Manchester United had seven English football league titles to their name: one more than Sunderland; the same number as Aston Villa; fewer than Everton and Arsenal; and a seemingly impossible distance behind Liverpool, who then ruled English football, and had eighteen. Ferguson felt, upon taking the United job, that his mission was to ‘knock Liverpool off their fucking perch’ – something which had long since occurred by the time he led United to their nineteenth title a couple of seasons ago. The club’s twentieth overall title in the twentieth season of the Premier League is more than an icing – it represents a satisfactory way for Ferguson to depart, having avenged last season’s last-day disappointment at the hands of their local rivals. Manchester United were still a big club when Ferguson arrived back in 1986 – but they were by no means the preeminent club in English football, nor the global force which they have become under his bold and forceful management.

Yet for all these triumphs, Ferguson’s legacy ought to be contested. Perhaps it will be among many football supporters, for whom Ferguson’s Manchester United have been a force to define oneself against. The English football media, predominated as it is by former British players, will surely be effusive in their praise. Though Ferguson has always seen the press as a tool to be used to his benefit, dismissive of the notion that he bears any responsibility regarding whom he talks to and when; nevertheless the English media has remained in his thrall, and he has had a powerful impact on football reporting. His apparently endless string of trophy successes have made trophy success the demarcator of all success in the eyes of many pundits and commentators; and increasingly in the eyes of many of the football-following public. Much of his win-at-all-cost mentality has entrenched itself within the English game. Ferguson, by various accounts a decent person with a strong moral code away from the game, has viewed the realm of football as one without ethics, a game to be played to win regardless of feelings, regardless of propriety, often dismissive of a set of rules which he sees fit only for lesser figures and lesser clubs. It is this conception and its manifestations which mean Ferguson’s legacy should be lamented as much as it is acclaimed.

There are some qualities of Ferguson’s tenure which cannot be disputed. It is truly remarkable and genuinely admirable that he has produced such strong sides over such a prolonged period of time. Many of the top managers of the last twenty years – take, for instance, Fabio Capello, Louis van Gaal, José Mourinho, Pep Guardiola –  have determined to move clubs on a regular basis, once a cycle of players comes towards a natural end, citing burnout and the difficulties of motivating themselves and others season upon season. Through the same span of time, Ferguson has maintained Manchester United’s elite position largely without falter, progressing cycle after cycle, improving and enhancing a constant stream of new recruits to his squad, and adapting astutely to changing tactical modes. He has challenged and usually bettered managerial adversaries through Kenny Dalglish, Kevin Keegan, Arsène Wenger, José Mourinho, Rafa Benítez, and Roberto Mancini.

The 1999 treble-winning side may be viewed, in the broad perspective of the future, as the embodiment of Ferguson’s managerial career. This will be for its three trophies – unique in the English game; for it marking Ferguson’s first Champions League win – and the first in English football for fifteen years; but also for the team’s style of play. Ferguson’s 1998-99 side was a truly adventurous, proactive and accomplished attacking unit, with diversity on the wings in Ryan Giggs and David Beckham; an ideal central midfield combination featuring Roy Keane’s ball-winning and energy box-to-box, alongside Paul Scholes’ nuanced, creative passing and goalscoring; and with Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke a perfect forward partnership, both players sharing an acute understanding, dynamic pace, exceptional movement, and clever ball control and finishing. These were abetted by the consistent Gary Neville alongside the experienced Jaap Staam, Ronny Johnson and Dennis Irwin; Peter Schmeichel in goal; and a squad comprising Teddy Sheringham, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Nicky Butt, Jesper Blomqvist, Henning Berg, Phil Neville, Wes Brown, and David May.

The image of Ferguson’s Manchester United as an attacking side has not always been accurate. His teams of the 1990s were routinely attacking, utilising traditional wingers in first Giggs and Kanchelskis, then Giggs and Beckham; with forwards who might harry, but whose main roles were in creating and scoring goals. In the 2000s, up against Wenger’s Arsenal then Mourinho’s Chelsea, Ferguson became more defensive and reactive, at least in the big domestic and European ties. The team that won him a second Champions League in 2008 was built upon a solid, defensive foundation and the attacking threat of Cristiano Ronaldo: Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tévez, provisionally the team’s forwards, were obliged to support the midfield with a great deal of back-tracking defensive work, allowing Ronaldo the space to cut in and take chances.

Another aspect of the 1999 side – and another facet which has been broadly viewed as epitomising Ferguson’s management – was its significant reliance on homegrown talent, with a number of its players brought through the club’s youth academy. Giggs, then a generation including Scholes, Beckham, Butt, and the Nevilles, were all Manchester United products. Gary Neville completed his playing career with the club, and the playing careers of Giggs and Scholes continue on, though they now inevitably feature in diminished roles. Even Beckham, Butt and Phil Neville – all of whom eventually moved elsewhere – completed well in excess of 200 first-team appearances. This group of players, who emerged and progressed from the mid-90s, have not been repeated. United’s squad has been bolstered since more sporadically by the academy graduates Wes Brown, John O’Shea, Darren Fletcher, Tom Cleverley, and Danny Welbeck.

Ferguson has certainly excelled throughout his career in establishing and improving young players, and in orchestrating a high level from his players over a sustained period. On the other hand, it must be remembered that he has also spent a great deal in the transfer market – attaining success as much through money as through a wise harnessing of youth. This has been the case since the 1992-3 season when, in December 1992, Ferguson spent £1.2 million on Eric Cantona, months after Cantona had won the league title with Leeds. Cantona quickly became the focal point of Manchester United’s early title wins. In the summer of 1993, Ferguson broke the British transfer record with the £3.75 million purchase of Roy Keane; and he repeated the feat a couple of years later, buying Andy Cole for £7 million. He has continued to spend big, especially on players from English competitors: after £28 million on Juan Sebastián Verón and £19 million on Ruud van Nistelrooy in 2001, there came £29 million on Rio Ferdinand, from Leeds, in 2002; £26 million to Everton for Wayne Rooney in 2004; £18.6 million in 2006 and £30 million in 2008 for Michael Carrick and Dimitar Berbatov of Tottenham; and last summer’s £23 million to Arsenal for Robin van Persie. The generation which Ferguson is proudly leaving behind has been bought more than nurtured, David de Gea and Phil Jones costing £18 million and £16 million respectively, and significant fees also going on Ashley Young, Shinji Kagawa, Chris Smalling, and Javier Hernández.

Thus we may bring into question the conceptions of Ferguson as a manager devoted to attacking sides, who created his title-winners singularly organically. It may in turn be asked to what extent Ferguson encouraged – rather than merely reacted to – the spiralling wage demands of top players. The thoroughly unpalatable side of Ferguson’s tenure shows in what may generously be termed the ‘gamesmanship’ about his person and of his teams. Other phrases which could stand in for this ‘gamesmanship’ include dishonesty, viciousness, arrogance, and willingness to cheat. The ‘mind-games’ which Ferguson has famously engaged in have frequently possessed an abusive, inescapably personal edge; and his reaction to defeat has typically been one of blame and vitriolic anger. He and his sides have led the way in English football when it comes to haranguing and abusing referees. His teams have possessed far more than their share of players who systematically foul the opposition; deliberately hurt the opposition; repeatedly dive; and transgress the rules in the most flagrant and obnoxious of ways.

As a Newcastle United supporter, my own sense of Ferguson stems from 1995-96 – when Manchester United overcame a twelve-point deficit to pip Newcastle to that season’s title. The abiding piece of video from the season remains Kevin Keegan’s notorious ‘I’d love it’ speech, made live on a Monday night on Sky Sports after a 1-0 victory away to Leeds. Newcastle’s twelve-point lead had slipped away, but with the two sides still in contention for the title, Alex Ferguson had implied before the game that Leeds might take it easy on Newcastle owing to their stronger rivalry with his club. More, Newcastle had agreed earlier in the year to provide the opposition for Stuart Pearce’s testimonial match with Nottingham Forest, scheduled to take place after the season’s close; and with Newcastle and Forest still to play each other in the league, Ferguson suggested these friendly relations might serve to secure Newcastle a comfortable result. Keegan’s remarks that night, and his declaration ‘I’d love it if we beat them – love it!’, have been characterised by the overseers of the game since as a meltdown, a manager wilting under pressure; rather than as an emotional but dignified and rational response to skulduggery.

Still, I had actually favoured Manchester United in the previous season’s title race, preferring their football to that of Blackburn Rovers under Dalglish; and 1996 by no means marked the peak of my dislike. After enjoying the football of the side that reached its pinnacle in 1999, it was the Manchester United of the early 2000s who confirmed my animosity for Ferguson and his club: with Keane and Giggs leading the onslaught upon referees week after week (the same Ryan Giggs who appears to have gone unnoticed as one of the most spiteful and cheating characters in the game); Van Nistelrooy star-jumping his way to countless unwarranted penalties and free-kicks; and Paul Scholes committing the violent, largely uncensored assaults which have remained central to his career.

Ferguson exacerbated the wrath many Newcastle fans felt towards him earlier this season. After halting the match to berate the officials after Newcastle scored their second, legitimate goal in an eventual 3-4 defeat, Ferguson’s comment that ‘I’m the manager of the most famous club in the world. I’m not at Newcastle, a wee club in the north-east’ demonstrated his contempt for supporters of other football clubs; and evinced his belief that he and his club are beyond the rules, more deserving as entities and as people than others. Indeed, it is easy to feel that this has been the case for much of the last twenty years: Manchester United treated differently – from decisions and appeal procedures to ‘Fergie-time’ – because their rise has entwined with and supported the rise of the Premier League.

English football will undoubtedly be different without Ferguson, and at times it may be difficult to feel that his presence isn’t being missed. For Manchester United, there exists no replacement who obviously shares Ferguson’s attributes: David Moyes is the strong favourite and seems set for the role, but his record for Everton against the top clubs is abysmal and he lacks European experience; Jose Mourinho is capable of building the same siege mentality around the club, but he is an even more polarising figure, whose teams play in a different way and without the same emphasis on youth. Fans of other clubs may cheer Ferguson’s departure – but even they may celebrate upcoming victories a little less heartily, wishing they’d been measured against his reign.

Altogether, if there are those within football with serious reservations about some of Ferguson’s impact upon it – and I’m not inclined to think there are many such figures, so much has Ferguson’s mentality won out – then the expression of these reservations remains difficult, for it is easy to see it as amounting to the stamping on one’s own livelihood. Yet the game will be for the better if, alongside proclaiming Ferguson’s positives, it reflects on his many vices and endeavours to withdraw them from the sport.