Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson announced his retirement on Wednesday, ending a legendary career that included 13 English league titles, five FA Cups and two UEFA Champions League trophies over 26 seasons at England’s most successful club. Five thoughts on the end of an era:
• There will never be another manager like him. Ferguson, 71, stayed in charge at United for 26 years in a high-pressure environment that spits out fired coaches like the shells of sunflower seeds. Consider that Pep Guardiola felt the need to take a sabbatical year after just four seasons in charge of Barcelona. Ferguson leaves the game as one of the greatest managers in the history of sports, right up there with Vince Lombardi, Phil Jackson and John Wooden, if you’re looking for U.S. comparisons.
• The timing seems right. Ferguson announced that he was planning to retire a decade ago but reconsidered and later called it one of the best decisions of his career. Now, however, the timing makes sense. Ferguson just won his 13th English top-flight title with United, and his health is starting to deteriorate. (He has hip surgery scheduled for August.) Hindsight is always 20/20, but I wondered if something was up when the retirement rumors started spreading on Tuesday. In March I had met in New York with Ferguson’s son, Jason, to discuss writing a long magazine feature on his father. They seemed interested in participating at the time, but in recent weeks a response had not come, causing me to wonder.
• Ferguson happens to be a charming interview. I interviewed him twice: once in a sitdown setting in Manchester, in 2003, and once in a phone interview for a story on José Mourinho in 2010. Ferguson had a fascination with certain aspects of American culture, including the Civil War (he had spent time in the past with Civil War historian James McPherson) and, of all things, John Wayne films. “I’ve got all the Duke’s movies,” Ferguson told me in ’03. “I always pictured John Wayne as a man you could bring on if you needed a last-minute goal. Know what I mean? He’s a battler. Always winning every fight, every shootout.”
• In essence, Ferguson became Man United. It’s hard to imagine modern-day Manchester United without Sir Alex Ferguson. During an era when players seemed to have the power, sometimes earning far more money than their coaches, Ferguson always stayed in charge. And if anyone challenged that authority, he had no problem shipping out big names. “I never have a problem with egos,” Ferguson told me. “You know why? Because you have to win. You can’t escape the field. And if the money has affected them, they have to go. Easiest decision ever made.”
• Is this the day soccer says good-bye to the old school? For Ferguson, a taskmaster raised in the shipyards of Glasgow, old school wasn’t a marketing catchphrase. It was standard operating procedure. A few years ago he read When Pride Still Mattered, David Maraniss’ biography of Vince Lombardi. “I saw myself,” Ferguson explained to me. “Obsession. Commitment. Fanaticism. It was all there.” Everyone could see it. For 26 years, Sir Alex Ferguson ruled Manchester United. The sports world won’t be the same without him.