Sport

Sunday 20 October 2019

Comment: Football will never be the same

Simon Stone

An old boss said it as I relayed Sir Alex Ferguson's refusal to enter into any discussion about some issue or other - 'when he goes, life will be a lot easier for you, but it will also be a lot less interesting'.

Last night, as it became increasingly likely what was going to happen, and this morning when it did happen, the sense of loss was incredible.

During my time covering Manchester United, which dates back to 2003, I have been banned, sworn at, criticised and condemned. I have been stared at as if my mere presence was an affront to society.

And do you know what? I wouldn't change a single minute.

For one 15-minute audience with Sir Alex Ferguson is worth a season of other managers, who skirt around issues, who avoid confrontation, who insist everything in the garden is rosy.

I was there, in Japan, when Ferguson declared: "I wouldn't sell that mob a virus", in response to claims Real Madrid had signed Cristiano Ronaldo.

As recently as Friday, he raised a smile by claiming old foe Rafael Benitez was motivated by additions to his CV.

In his time, Ferguson has had spats with Arsene Wenger, Jose Mourinho and in particular the Football Association. He has cut David Beckham's eye with a stray football boot and even picked a fight with United's previous major shareholders.

He has laughed, smiled, smirked and mocked the inability of journalists to guess his starting line-up.

And through it all, Ferguson kept on winning. Slowly at first, before the trophies arrived with a torrent.

At 71, Ferguson checks out of Old Trafford having just won his 13th Premier League title, a trophy he will collect on Sunday and parade around Manchester 24 hours later.

It brings his overall trophy haul to a staggering 38.

Some mean more than others. That first FA Cup triumph in 1990, that long-awaited league championship in 1993, the domestic double for the first time the following year.

Wind forward 13 years. United were on their knees. Out of Europe in the group stage, Roy Keane booted out, Ruud van Nistelrooy quickly following, sponsors Vodafone making a quick exit, a club ladened with debt following the Glazer family's leveraged takeover.

From that mess, Ferguson built a side around Cristiano Ronaldo that won three successive championships and the Champions League, lost another final and semi-final, reached an FA Cup final and a semi, and also won a League Cup in 2009.

As a three-year period goes, 2007 to 2009 has been the single most successful in United's entire history.

Since Ronaldo's exit - he did join Real Madrid, underlining Ferguson's words should not always be taken at face value, especially when team news is concerned - United are said to be a pale shadow of what went before.

Let's consider therefore that in the four seasons since, they have won two more championships, failed in another by a single point and were only beaten on goal difference by Manchester City.

Few would quibble with the belief had Ferguson been in charge of City this year, they would have come out on top, no matter who Robin van Persie played for.

And the crowning glory? Those two injury-time goals in Barcelona that won him the European Cup for the first time and completed the first Treble in English football history.

There is something about that comeback against Bayern Munich that sums up Ferguson's indomitable spirit.

Such in his longevity even the bit-part players attract attention.

The guy who held aloft a banner "Three years of excuses and it's still crap - tara fergie" during a particularly painful home defeat to Crystal Palace in 1989, the man who raced onto the golf course four years later to tell the Scot he was a league champion.

Yet there is more to this complex character.

Every day, he honours a long-standing commitment to let a couple of older chaps who used to attend training at the Cliff, to watch his squad go through their paces. The biggest club in the world, opening doors to two of their most devoted fans. Ferguson makes that happen.

When friends or acquaintances are ill or in need, he makes it his business to offer support when most others would not bother.

He has offered advice to countless young managers trying to make their way in the game.

Ferguson is not perfect, far from it. But who is? How could anyone be when they have been at the top of their profession for so long?

But it is impossible to remain unmoved by such a huge personality and such a complex character.

Last Friday, it wasn't enough for bottles of champagne to be left waiting for the media to use to toast United's latest triumph, Ferguson had to pour them all out. Every last one.

My old boss was right.

United may keep on winning. But it will never be the same.

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