Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Sir Alex Ferguson

Whether you love him or hate him or simply admire him, watching Premiership football will never be quite the same again with Sir Alex today announcing his retirement at the end of this season. It's quite typical of him that it's been done with the minimum of fuss and with good timing. He will not wish his departure to get in the way of running ManYoo.

Thoughts will obviously turn to who will fill those impossibly large shoes with Mourinho and Davie Moyes the bookies' front runners. That will play out in due course but in the meantime we can reflect on his achievements and where he stands in the game.

There can be no denying Ferguson's place at the pinnacle of the game with his capacity to endure possibly the most overriding quality. He is unquestionably the most successful domestic manager in British history. In his time he has seen off many managers and challenges.

Iinitially he had to deal with a hugely successful Liverpool, George Graham's Arsenal and a brief rally from Leeds. After that came Dalglish and Blackburn before the duel with Arsenal and Arsene Wenger that would define much of the next decade.

Mourinho's and Ancelotti's Chelsea came and went before the noisy neighbours emerged with Mancini at the helm. He has also seen off numerous Liverpool managers in that time most notably Benitez and rendered them now impotent for the time being. Ferguson has had the last laugh on them all.

Thirteen Premiership titles in twenty years since he first won it in 1993 and two Champions League titles are the important statistics. Unquestionable success but those two numbers in themselves display a disparity that could be the only criticism leveled at the great man, that of a comparative lack of success in Europe.

What Ferguson has done however has given an entire generation a lesson in both man and media management. It began in earnest at Aberdeen where he tore up the rule book regarding the dominance of Rangers and Celtic bringing unprecedented success to the North East club. He showed the way also to Jim McLean at Dundee United in a period of amazing competitiveness within the Scottish game that brought European success also.

The job he inherited at United was possibly far bigger than he realised and it took many years and an FA Cup final replay victory to help keep Ferguson on track to steer them to their first title in an eternity.

Since then, Ferguson has built and re-built several ManYoo teams and forged incredible relationships with his key players along the way. He has also shown the uncompromising side of his nature by jettisoning those same players when they have challenged him in any way. Just ask Jaap Stam, Roy Keane, Ruud Van Nistelrooy or David Beckham. Wayne Rooney may have just been saved by the bell.

Ferguson did of course benefit from inheriting a hugely fortuitous group of youth players who emerged on mass in the early nineties, the Neville brothers, Scholes, Giggs, Beckham and Butt would along with other recruits form the back bone of his team for years to come.

It is debatable whether ManYoo ever formed a team as formidable as when Giggs, Keane, Scholes and Beckham formed their midfield quartet, at that point it was quite simply a machine. Ronaldo came along later but Keane was well past his best by then.

Since then you could argue that they have been in a decline in terms of those heady heights. Schmeichel has never been completely replaced and trying to find replacements for the likes of the quartet above and the likes of Eric Cantona and Jaap Stam have proven difficult. Along the way of course have been phenomenal players such as Van Persie, Rio Ferdinand, Vidic, Rooney and of course Cristiano Ronaldo.

Ferguson's position as the master of the Premiership is beyond any question and it is unlikely one manager will ever surpass him. It is in Europe however that questions can be raised. Having watched the level of quality on show in the CL semi finals, he may have finally decided that bowing out with a Premiership win is the best he could hope for.

Ferguson initially struggled in the Champions League despite previous earlier Cup Winners Cup successes with both Aberdeen and United. ManYoo were perennial underachievers until 1999 and the Nou Camp and this is where the problem may lie.

Barring a freak couple of minutes in Barcelona that night and a John Terry slip in Moscow many years later, ManYoo could quite possibly be sitting with no Champions League trophies under Ferguson. Both finals they won you could argue they had monumental slices of luck and in the other two they were soundly beaten by Barca.

You do of course make your own luck but again, ManYoo rode a crest of a wave to get to the final in 1999 with maverick away performances against Inter and most notably Juventus in the semi final in Turin. The point being that United never game the impression of being a dominant force in Europe the way they did domestically, instead they rode their luck.

The problem may lie with Ferguson's ability as a master motivator but a modest tactician. When ManYoo were in their pomp, it was always a swashbuckling 4-4-2 with flying wingers and a very high tempo. His only concession was the use of a withdrawn forward within the formation such as Cantona or Sheringham. Indeed his inability to get the best out of the likes of Cantona in Europe again shows tactical issues.

There is however no doubt that Ferguson remained a student of the game and tried to address these issues. Trying to fit Juan Sebastien Veron into that midfield bank of four proved a bridge too far for him and was symptomatic of the problem yet again.

In later years, Ferguson has increasingly tinkered with his formations presumably with Europe in mind but most would argue that ManYoo do not look the same team anymore. In the Premiership they remain bullet proof but results in Europe have been mixed in comparison. Final appearances have been mixed with group stage exits.

All of that being said, Ferguson HAS delivered two CL trophies whilst delivering constant domestic success (his longest stretch since that first win without winning the title being three years) whilst taking his team through several transitional stages. His ability (afforded him by the continuity offered by the club granted) to effect gradual transitions and plan forwards is incredible, as is his instinctive ability to rotate the correct players at the right time.

Another part of Ferguson's abilities is that of dealing with the club's hierarchy and owners. One should not underestimate the skill that he has at boardroom level where he has retained a level of power that is almost beyond comparison other than with Arsene Wenger.

For ManYoo fans it will be a very strange feeling, not unlike that for hoardes of teenage girls when Take That split up and there will be a definite sense of trepidation. Big and successful clubs typically remain just that but all things have a natural cycle and it would be incredible if one or many managers could deliver in the same time frame remotely what Ferguson has.

Ferguson's greatest players were typically in his own image, huge forces of nature, his however remained the greatest of them all - No Nonsense.