Flame burns too brightly for Ferguson to quit at 70
Published 30/12/2011 | 05:00
NOBODY who reads the great Seamus Heaney line ever forgets it: The way we are living, timorous or bold, will have been our life.
Seventy years after he burst into the industrial light of Glasgow -- four winters before the end of the Second World War -- Alex Ferguson joins the ranks of septuagenarians tomorrow with his Manchester United side fancied to end 2011 on top of the Premier League.
A point or three against Blackburn Rovers in tomorrow's lunchtime kick-off would represent a fitting birthday gift from players who currently struggle to match Manchester City's verve, but are always equipped to fight back with experience and tenacity.
Ferguson is retirement-phobic. He has taught himself to mistrust the utopian fantasies of those tired by the relentlessness of work.
On the other side of front-line management he sees a void, not in relation to family life but on the frontiers of the spirit, where the bold stride on and the timorous look for comfort.
He carries on because he has too much to give up: the company of fellow coaches he has known for 20 years or more; the vitality of youth all around; and the constant realignments of enemy forces, this time only a couple of miles away, in the northern districts of Manchester.
Ferguson and Bobby Robson talked often about stopping and what might come next.
Robson remains the oldest manager to have sent out a Premier League team. He was 71 years and 194 days when Newcastle United sacked him for the crime of finishing fourth, third and fifth in the league Ferguson has won 12 times with United.
The late Robson would urge Ferguson never to stand down so long as he had his health. Losing the Newcastle job felt like a bereavement to him and he never stopped wanting it back, right up to his death.
In 2002, when Ferguson might have turned to his wine and his horses, Robson was among those who told him he was making a mistake he would always regret.
These conversations acquired a philosophical hue we can all recognise.
It must be even sharper to those who have lost jobs against their will: the sacked and laid-off of this debt-flattened age.
Imagine someone bringing down a curtain on a job you loved and there being no real prospect of it ever coming around again.
In this shrinking industry -- newspapers -- people are falling off the edge all the time and are having to remake their lives.
Retirement presents a different set of agonies. Some want to gallop off to freedom and stick a Luis Suarez digit up to the toad, work. But just as many fear the loss of shape and purpose to their days, the slackening of mind and body.
Ferguson, you suspect, is appalled by the idea of his powers fading and is not about to assist in his own diminution by handing control to someone else before he is entirely ready.
Those of us under 50 forget that 70 year-olds often see their friends descend into boredom, illness and death without the daily rigour of challenges and responsibilities.
Winston Churchill was 70 by the time Nazism was conquered in 1945.
In a famous speech Mark Twain joked of reaching threescore years and 10: "For you the strenuous life is over. You are a time-expired man, to use Kipling's military phrase."
"Time-expired" is a gruesome term that will carry no weight with Ferguson as he guides a largely young team into battle against Blackburn, whose manager, Steve Kean, has none of his rival's power to decide the date of his abdication.
Kean clings to office with bloodied nails. Ferguson scans the future and finds no compelling reason to abandon a passion over which he retains full mastery -- however prosaic, some days, the United midfield.
As retirement ages are forced up by crushing economic debt, few workers will feel enthusiastic about the loss of their freedom to decide when to stop.
Their sleep may be haunted by all the things they would like to do but will now have to wait to enjoy.
Until you reach that stage in life it is impossible to know how it will feel. But 70-year-olds can study old friends from school days and see how retirement has affected them, good and bad.
Ferguson has one huge advantage. Work, for him, is Carrington at 7am: a university of energy and talents. It is the audacity of Phil Jones with the ball at his feet or the impishness of Danny Welbeck.
For Ferguson, with all his trophies, life is always being renewed, right in front of him, by a team built in his image. He will need a better reason than a number on a birth certificate to walk away from the sustaining joys of management. (© Daily Telegraph, London)