David Beckham has admitted his career would never have hit the heights it has without guidance from Sir Alex Ferguson.
The former Manchester United midfielder led the tributes to the 71-year-old Scot after he announced his retirement after 27 years at Old Trafford.
And Beckham, who went on to play for Real Madrid, AC Milan and the LA Galaxy after leaving United, was quick to acknowledge the role Ferguson played in his life.
‘As I have said many times before the boss wasn’t just the greatest and best manager I ever played under he was also a father figure to me from the moment I arrived at the club at the age of 11 until the day I left,’ he said.
‘Without him I would never have achieved what I have done in my career. He understood how important it was to play for your country and he knew how much it meant to me.
‘After ’98 (when Beckham had been sent off for England in the World Cup and faced a hugely hostile response back home) without the manager I would have found it virtually impossible to cope with the attention I was getting on and off the field and for this I will always be grateful to him for his support and protection.
‘I am truly honoured to have been guided by the greatest manager in football and to have had the career that I had under him.
‘Thank you boss and enjoy the rest!’
Defender Rio Ferdinand was the first current Manchester United to register his reaction, tweeting: ‘The bosses work ethic, his desire to win + to make us better players were unrivalled. Thanks boss.’
Cristiano Ronaldo meanwhile earlier led a wave of Twitter tributes from his fellow former United players and figures around the sporting world after Ferguson’s retirement.
Ferguson turned the Portugal forward from a showboating teenager into a superstar and sold him to Real Madrid for a world-record £80million in 2009.
Ronaldo’s message was simple – he posted a picture of his first day at Old Trafford with Ferguson in 2003 with the message ‘Thanks for everything, Boss.’
Another of Ferguson’s most inspired signings, Peter Schmeichel, said he was very surprised by the announcement.
‘I’m shocked – I just can’t make sense of the timing,’ he told Sky Sports News. ‘It has come as a bombshell, I really don’t know what to make of it.
‘Yesterday I was really happy with what he had done this season, now this, I’m disappointed and very sad.
‘He’s always said the day would come when something in his life wasn’t right, is it is hip operation (he will have this summer)? I can’t see him retiring over that.
‘Until he explains why, we can guess and guess. There is something there we don’t know about, he won’t retire for the sake of retiring, it is difficult to makes sense of it.’
The Great Dane’s team-mate Bryan Robson – Ferguson’s Captain Marvel at Old Trafford – also expressed his astonishment at the announcement, saying: ‘It came as a surprise. He’s probably the greatest manager there’s ever been.
‘To be at Manchester United for 27 years is a magnificent achievement never mind to win what he’s won.
‘I’m sure there are good reasons, whether its to put his feet up and spend more time with the grandkids and have more family time, I don’t know.
‘He was always the first in to the training ground. Nothing’s been said at the club about a successor but like everything at Manchester United they will probably know in their own minds who the next manager will be, because it’s going to be an unbelievably hard task for whoever it is.
‘One thing going for them is that the club has the structure in place for continuity. There’s not much work to do on that side of things.’
A United legend from even further back, Denis Law, said he doesn’t know why Ferguson chose now to retire.
‘I was extremely shocked. I couldn’t believe it. I was with him only last week in Manchester. I always thought he would go on until 90 and then say, “That’s it”. He’s too young to retire,’ said Law.
‘Who will take over, I don’t know? Who takes over from the most successful manager of all time? Its a difficult job for anybody but he has left Manchester United in a strong position. Whoever comes will be given time.
‘I’ve no idea why he’s taken the decision. His life is football. The good thing about Sir Alex is that he’s never changed after all this success.
‘He always knew the future of the club was about getting good young players into the club. He has created three-to-four great teams within his time.’
Former United striker Louis Saha also paid tribute to Ferguson: ‘Wow S A Ferguson leaving. Hope is [sic] health ok. He is the most powerful man i ever met in my life after my dad. Huge respect for Football God.’
Fellow former Old Trafford striker Michael Owen also took to Twitter to show his appreciation for his former manager.
He posted: ‘It’s just not sinking in! Manchester United with no Sir Alex just doesn’t feel right. What a man and great that it has ended on his terms. What a privilege to have played under arguably the best manager the world has ever seen.’
Former United reserve player Bojan Djordjic tweeted: ‘Will never forget mornings at Carrington in Sir Alex office. He used to show us in the youth team videos of him elbowing defenders! #legend’
Figures from around the game also spoke out in tribute of Ferguson, including FIFA chairman Sepp Blatter, who said: ‘Was honour to present Sir Alex with Award at 2011 Ballon D’Or. Will his longevity at the top ever be repeated?’
Former West germany captain and coach Franz Beckenbauer added: ‘A legend retires: Sir Alex Ferguson is one of the best coaches ever. We bow to his great performances and personality.’
Striking pair: Michael Owen and Louis Saha are two of the former United stars to tweet their support
England manager Roy Hodgson said the news was a blow to football.
He said: ‘The unexpected news this morning that Sir Alex Ferguson has decided to retire marks the end of an era in football management.
‘No one will be able to match his achievements, his dedication, his support for colleagues in need and his team building know-how.
‘This is a sad day for English football. I personally wish him a happy and successful retirement.’
Vincent Kompany, skipper of United’s local rivals Manchester City, showed there was no malice between the two clubs on the momentous day by posting: ‘Sir Alex, one of the best managers of all time. After 26 years of success in the game, we all owe him a tribute.’
City fan and former boxer Ricky Hatton echoed Kompany’s view, saying: ‘Can’t believe I’m saying this seeing as the man was a thorn in our side for so long but what a manager Sir Alex Ferguson was’
Triple Olympic champion, fastest man in the world and and United fan Usain Bolt also tweeted his appreciation, posting a picture of the two of them together.
With the picture, he posted two messages, saying: ‘A major iconic football figure,’ followed by:
‘Always words of encouragement even though we were in different sport #Willbemissed.’
Golf star – and die-hard United supporter – Rory McIlroy posted: ‘An end of an era today! Sir Alex Ferguson, the greatest of all time! United will have a tough time trying to replace him!’
Atletico Madrid’s scoring sensation Radamel Falcao – tipped by many to move to the Premier league this summer, made sure he was among the glowing tributes, posting: ‘Stand up, put your hands together and give him a big round of applause! Sir Alex Ferguson is retiring. Congrats for an amazing career!’
Even the political world had its say. David Cameron took to Downing Street’s official Twitter account, posting: ‘Sir Alex Ferguson’s achievement at #MUFC has been exceptional. Hopefully his retirement will make life a little easier for my team #AVFC.’
His chancellor George Osborne, who is MP for the Cheshire constituency in which Ferguson lives, wrote on Twitter: ‘Sir Alex – amazing manager & a constituent. Have memories of spectacularly unsuccessful attempt to canvass his house as a young candidate.’
Leader of the opposition Ed Miliband highlighted Ferguson’s continued support of his own party, saying: ‘Proud man. Great manager. Staunch Labour Party supporter. Sir Alex Ferguson will never be forgotten.’
All smiles: Usain Bolt posted this photo of him and Ferguson on Twitter