Tommy Conlon: A giant personality who wielded a giant chequebook
Published 12/05/2013 | 17:00
In Alex Ferguson's line of work, when the bell finally tolls, it's usually someone else doing the ringing.
When it tolled for Ferguson last week, he had the gavel in his own hand; he had the rare privilege of sounding the knell on his own career.
Two weeks earlier, he had secured his 13th championship. It was the last trophy of his epic life and times at Old Trafford. But the final triumph came on Wednesday when he walked away on his own terms, at peace with himself and maybe even the world.
Now on occasions like this, the customary platitude is that nothing became him like the manner of his leaving. But in Ferguson's case the manner of his leaving was most unlike the manner of his 26-year government. Had he left like he had lived, he'd have gone down in a flurry of fists and oaths, with vows of revenge strafing the air as they bundled him out through the back door. After which, they'd have changed all the locks.
But instead, the man who'd arrived in November 1986 like a belligerent Glaswegian stevedore, departed with the serenity of a Buddhist. He was sated. His work was done. It was time to go.
Long before he retired, and in the days since, various observers made plausible parallels between Ferguson and the former prime minister Margaret Thatcher. Autocrats who ruled with an iron fist in an iron glove; conviction politicians who achieved historic successes; recklessly divisive leaders who generated enormous levels of loyalty and enmity.
But because he was a lifelong fan of John Wayne's films, perhaps one could be kind and say he was more like the bould Rooster Cogburn in True Grit, with all that unruly courage, garrulous humour and rough-handed humanity. For there was no doubting his courage. It was inexhaustible and it needed to be, given the multitude of battles he fought, and challenges he met head on. But those who know him personally testify again and again to his many acts of compassion and decency too.
John Wayne, however, was generally merciless with anyone who stood in his way. And Ferguson made sure he himself never ran out of enemies either. Once they were in his firing line, he became a vicious opponent. He abused his power. He bullied the vulnerable, intimidated the inconvenient, humiliated the weak.
He was a very nice man and at times a very nasty manager. The sheer scale of his personality encompassed both extremes. He has one of those personalities that is almost too big for a single human being. The life force, the cosmic energy, flows through him in torrents. In others it merely trickles, just about enough to keep them alive; in Ferguson it is almost uncontainable. He is capable of exceptional generosity and irrational severity because he is incapable of moderation when stirred.
Sir Alex, according to the cliché, was forged in the working-class milieu of Govan's shipyards. But he was more likely forged by the genetic material with which he was born. Ferguson is a product of his character first, his environment second. Either way, he had that rare capacity to live a big life. The ambition, the work ethic, the emotions were all on a grand scale.
As a consequence, he was big enough for Manchester United. He didn't shrink in the face of its size as an institution, or the weight of its history or the burden of its expectations. Rather he expanded to meet them.
They were made for each other, even if it was a desperate struggle in the early years. Before he could conquer England he first had to conquer Old Trafford. He had his battles in the boardroom, amongst the fans, with his rivals on the field. In time he wrestled them all to the floor. In the end he swallowed them whole, United and the rest of England.
But last week, in the deluge of tributes, some relevant history was rewritten or forgotten. The most obvious being that he spent colossal amounts of money to reach the top. As a manager, he was primarily a force of nature. But he was a chequebook manager too.
In 1989, he broke the British transfer record when he paid £2.3m for Gary Pallister. He broke it again and again in the
years that followed: Roy Keane (£3.75m); Andy Cole (£7m); Ruud van Nistelrooy (£19m); Juan Sebastian Veron (£28m); Rio Ferdinand (£30m). In addition, he shelled out tens of millions for everyone from Jaap Stam and Dwight Yorke to Wayne Rooney, Michael Carrick and Owen Hargreaves. In 2011, he spent over £50m on Phil Jones, Ashley Young and David de Gea. And last August, in one final, famous coup de grace, £24m on Robin van Persie.
Obviously the money doesn't tell the whole story; but it tells some of it. Fergie strode forth with the power of his personality in one hand, and the power of his chequebook in the other.
Along the way he delivered years of thrilling ball play and stunning drama. Along the way he saw off seriously powerful opponents. If he didn't beat them, he simply outlasted them all.
Last Wednesday, with no more worlds left to conquer, Alexander the Great reputedly cried salt tears as he handed over his kingdom. His disciples worldwide wept too. And everyone else wept with joy for they were free at last, free at last!
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