Declan Lynch: Masters know that the secret to life is self-reinvention
Retirement isn't in the lexicon of greats like Alex Ferguson and David Bowie
Published 13/01/2013 | 05:00
The great ones have their own way of dealing with the ageing process. Indeed, for Alex Ferguson or David Bowie, it seems there is no process, as such, as there is for other men
A process suggests some sort of an acceptance of the way things are done, a surrender to the inevitable. It involves a sense that there is an end in sight.
But today at Old Trafford, a fortnight after his 71st birthday, Sir Alex will be driving Manchester United towards a probable victory against Liverpool, as he has done so many, many times. And last Tuesday, on his 66th birthday, David Bowie launched the next phase of his career with the release of the single Where Are We Now?
At an age when some of our senior public servants have been receiving their pensions for at least 15 years, these men are still answering the call. Though the manner in which they marked their actual birthdays was somewhat different – Ferguson, as is his wont, became even more belligerent than usual, distracting the media with a tirade against Newcastle United manager Alan Pardew, just to show that far from winding it down, if anything, he is becoming even more incorrigible in his old age. Bowie meanwhile, was more inclined towards an open celebration of his own extraordinary contribution.
Neither man, it seems, has any intention of retiring, nor at this stage can they see any good reason why they should retire, probably because there is no good reason. Ferguson may tolerate a certain amount of idle talk about his "stepping down in the next two or three years", but in truth there are no circumstances other than death in which Ferguson will "step down" from anything.
Mentally at least, he is still about 14 years of age, probably quite an immature 14 year old at that. No well-rounded person could possibly have achieved what he has done.
When a man has lived for a long time, he tends to become more measured, even more reasonable about certain things, perhaps less driven to destroy his enemies. Sir Alex Ferguson would not be one of those men.
And so with every new game and every new victory, he is reborn. With every perceived injustice he is energised, driven to displays of rage which would be embarrassing in a deeply troubled adolescent. Yet unlike that angry youth, he has the gift of absolute power, and the strength of character which means that he really doesn't give a damn what anybody thinks of him. So it works for him, and if anything, it is working better the longer that he does it.
In fact, his defiance of the usual assumption that a sportsman should be thinking of packing it in around the age of, say, 70, may be based on nothing more than that feeling of defiance itself – simply because everyone else seems to take that point of view, would be enough of a deterrent for a man of Ferguson's temperament.
And he might also be thinking of Bill Shankly, who made the tragic mistake of retiring. It is often argued that Shankly retired too young, at 60, but for such a man to retire at 90 would still have been too young. For the great ones there is no such thing as "taking it easy", or "putting your feet up", or any of those strange elderly practices that eventually broke Bill Shankly's heart.
Indeed in one sense, the never-ending quest of Ferguson is more impressive than that of David Bowie. Because even though Bowie had been silent for a long time, for lovers of his work the music still existed on a daily basis. And if he had stayed silent, it would in no way have diminished anyone's enjoyment of Station to Station. But football being the most demanding of all disciplines, Ferguson needs to win at least one match every week just to stay vaguely sane. Anything less, in his own eyes, would be an abomination.
Like Bowie, he seems to have discovered that the meaning of life is to be found in constant
reinvention. He has created numerous winning United teams, with scores of different players all of whom seem to collectively represent his vision on the pitch. The 2013 side is scoring winners deep into injury time in exactly the same style and with the same desperate hunger as the sides of 2003 or 1993.
Bowie, meanwhile, for decades has been sending out different versions of himself, apparently aware from an early age that he would be around for a long time, that his persona would need to be frequently renewed. Put simply, he would just pretend to be someone else for a few years, while somehow remaining always David Bowie. Even when he pretended to be The Laughing Gnome, or he duetted with Bing Crosby, he would get away with it, just as Ferguson pretended that a team with Darron Gibson and John O'Shea in midfield could beat the Arsenal – and they did.
We get the occasional glimpse of the "real" David Bowie, or David Jones, who, oddly enough, comes across like a fairly regular chap. Ferguson too, has a more agreeable side to him in "real" life.
Not that that ever lasts for long. "Real" life may be satisfying enough for most men. But it will never be enough for the true originals, the warriors.