Fergie looks to the future
IT WAS typical of Sir Alex Ferguson that as he said farewell to the Old Trafford faithful last weekend his most urgent thoughts were not with his illustrious past but with Manchester United's future.
"Your job is to support the new manager," Ferguson told the United crowd.
That has always been the Ferguson way. The club comes first, personal glory a distant second.
Therein lies the secret to his phenomenal managerial success at Manchester United which came to a close in retirement after more than 26 years following a remarkable 5-5 draw against West Brom in his 1,500th game in charge today.
No-one was ever allowed to get too big or too important to unbalance the fundamental team ethos which has seen United win 13 Premier League titles, two Champions League trophies and five FA Cups during Ferguson's reign.
Jaap Stam and Andrei Kanchelskis were victims of Ferguson's ruthless intent to protect that team ethos. So too were faithful servants such as Roy Keane and David Beckham who were dispensed with despite their fame and
influence when the appropriate time arrived.
Even as Ferguson steps down it appears another big name in Wayne Rooney might be about to follow in their footsteps, albeit having asked for a transfer following a season in which he has been left out of vital games by the manager.
Granite-hard. Driven. Utterly focused. That was Ferguson, even when he reached an age when most men would be content to reach for the slippers and reminisce on past achievements.
You can be sure that United's tactical preparations for the trip to the Hawthorns will be as meticulous as any of the 1499 which went before.
Yet it was the way 71-year-old Ferguson came to terms with the developing demands of his job in an industry which is awash with money and malevolence which was perhaps his most distinctive achievement.
He has spoken of how he had to accept the need to delegate many of the tasks he used to carry out personally.
"There must be about 40 people who report to me now, quite separate from the players," Ferguson said. "It's a big staff, more than Marks and Spencer."
And he added: "It would be impossible to work in the same way I did in 1986."
That is the way to build dynasties, with a leader capable of accepting the need for change while keeping intact the fundamental principles of the business.
Ferguson has been the master of reinvention. He has constructed sublime teams from a position of strength over and over again.
From the era of Bryan Robson, Mark Hughes and Gary Pallister, to Eric Cantona, Keane and Peter Schmeichel, to the golden generation of Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and the Nevilles, through to Rio Ferdinand, Rooney,
Cristiano Ronaldo and the players who recently landed the latest of his league titles.
There is one common thread, as well as energy and buckets of sweat, running through Ferguson's 39-year career as a football manager since taking charge of East Stirlingshire in 1974.
It is the swashbuckling way the trophies, 49 of them in all, were delivered. Winning might be the only thing for some managers, as former Liverpool boss Bill Shankly once pointed out.
But that has never been the case for Ferguson. Ferguson's teams have always entertained. It is the United way, the legacy handed down by Sir Matt Busby and protected passionately by his most esteemed successor.
The genius, however, lay in being able to combine the swagger with the rock-solid values which have become the club's hallmark.
Taking Eric Cantona to Old Trafford for a bargain £1.2million was a defining moment, a move which delivered United's first league title in 26 years in 1993.
The nurturing of the flamboyant Ronaldo was another, as was his dogged pursuit of Ruud van Nistelrooy whose initial transfer was delayed because of fitness concerns but who eventually scored 150 goals in 219 appearances for the club.
The signing of Robin van Persie was Ferguson's most recent stroke of genius, although Ferguson's instinct and eye for a player were not flawless and Eric Djemba-Djemba and Juan Sebastian Veron were testimony to the fact that even the best can pick a turkey or two at times.
The fire in Ferguson's belly has not always been a force for good either. His seven-year feud with the BBC was embarrassing, as were many of his copious confrontations with match officials. Yet his legacy as the greatest manager to grace the British game is assured.
Better than Jock Stein, Britain's first conqueror of Europe with Celtic. Better than Brian Clough, who with Kenny Dalglish and Herbert Chapman shared the honour of being the only men to have won league championships with two different clubs.
Better than Shankly. Better than Liverpool's Bob Paisley, with his 13 major trophies, including three European Cups.
Better than Busby, British football's European pioneer.
Ferguson is unique. A manager who alighted on the most accomplished way to run a football club and deliver trophies. Year after year after year.