Age no burden to true giants
Alex Ferguson is the perfect example of why experience will never be undervalued, writes John O'Brien
Yesterday at lunchtime they sang to him on the occasion of his 70th birthday at Old Trafford. Another milestone reached in the remarkable career of Sir Alex Ferguson. It doesn't seem that long ago that they marked his 25th year at the helm of England's most successful club. Soon it will be something else. That's how it is when you have reigned so imperiously for so long. The seasons pass and the milestones fall, one by one, like dominoes.
The wonder isn't that he has reached such a fine age despite the blood-curdling pressures associated with a job that borders on obsession, but that he has done so with no perceptible decline in his powers or any diminishing of his appetite. There Ferguson was last week, speaking to his club's official website about the next generation, the Paul Pogbas and the Ravel Morrisons, and his hopes of recreating another "Class of '92". Age hasn't withered him. Not even a jot. Witness his demeanour as he left the pitch after yesterday's shocker.
In truth, all the fuss about age probably irked him. More than the tributes or the candles, what Ferguson would have wanted more than anything yesterday was three points and a firm message delivered to their upstart crosstown rivals who, through their new-found wealth and limitless ambition, have done more than anything to ensure he remains determined and focused for a few years to come at least. That his side couldn't manage that will have soured him immeasurably.
Over the years the odd reporter has stuck his head above the parapet and asked the Manchester United manager the big retirement question. Predictably, Ferguson would confront it with studied disdain or barely concealed irritation. In mellower moments he will reflect tenderly on his friendship with Sir Bobby Robson and talk angrily of the day the Newcastle board sacked him for being too old, a blow Ferguson seemed to take personally.
Nothing surprising there. When Ferguson famously committed the rookie error of announcing his own retirement, it was Robson who telephoned him to successfully talk him out of it. "It was not a question," Ferguson later said, describing the nature of their conversation. "It was a demand. 'You're not retiring are you?' Of course I'm not. Not after he'd said that."
Ferguson often ascribed Robson's durability as a "special talent", a monument to the enthusiasm that drove him. "That enthusiasm," he said. "You just can't explain it, special people have got it." Subconsciously, perhaps, he was drawing a self-portrait too. The great managers didn't just survive or endure or simply count the days from one to the next. They marched on imperiously, relishing each new challenge, seeing no obstacles their knowledge and experience couldn't help them overcome.
And Ferguson is by no means unique. Giovanni Trapattoni will lead Ireland at Euro 2012 next summer at the grand old age of 73. Fabio Capello will trot behind at a sprightly 66. The crafty Karel Bruckner was 70 when he called time on his long reign as Czech Republic manager last year. The average age of the current top six Premier League managers is almost 57, kept so low by the presence of the impossibly youthful Andre Villas-Boas at Chelsea, and maybe it isn't a coincidence that, of the six, it is the 34-year-old's job that is most imperilled.
Why they do it isn't a deep-lying, unfathomable mystery. For all the wealth they accrue, it isn't the money but something more elemental. Earlier this year, Jack McKeon, not a day under 80, took charge of the Florida Marlins, a down-at-heel Major League basketball franchise that had lost 18 of its previous 19 games. No matter. McKeon had received a distress call and was happy to answer. "I don't need this job," he explained, "but I love it."
Perhaps the greater your staying power, the more appalling the vista at the other side of the divide becomes. Think of what they will miss. The adrenaline rush only match day can bring. The capacity crowds sometimes roaring approval, other times invective. The harsh refereeing calls and hard tactical decisions. The stormy post-match press conferences. Even those things Ferguson hated most about the job would still leave a void that family and whatever hobbies he took up could never satisfactorily fill.
This year in Ireland we bade farewell to Mick O'Dwyer, arguably the greatest septuagenarian manager of them all. Or did we? It has always been part of O'Dwyer's roguish charm that second-guessing his intentions is a pathetically futile business. When he finished with Laois in 2006, he spoke about the boat waiting for him in Derrynane harbour to fill out his days. Other times he has spoken about retirement as the day he is lifted into the ground. Ultimately, who knows, maybe not even Dwyer himself?
It's much easier to argue his durability as a top manager. There are those who would question O'Dwyer's relevance to the modern game and have been doing so for the guts of a decade and more. Yet to focus on his obvious distrust at some of the more recent developments in Gaelic football is to entirely miss the reality that O'Dwyer remains a supreme motivator and, in his own way, a superior psychologist to some of those who carry reams of paper qualifications.
His mere presence in Wicklow ensured an initial upward surge but, over the course of the four years he stayed there, the graph has pointed mostly upwards. Last summer they only reached the second round of the qualifiers, losing a replay to Armagh, but they played four games and were competitive to a degree that would have been unimaginable in the dark pre-Dwyer years.
You can't help wondering how he will fare next summer when the sun shines and the first championship ball is thrown in. For sure, the place will seem strange and a little emptier without him. Increasingly, it seems, the average age of inter-county managers spirals downwards and, while there's no reason the younger generation can't prove themselves, it would be a shame if the currency of experience and wisdom became severely devalued.
The likes of Ferguson and Trapattoni have proved it doesn't have to be so. You don't even have to like them. It might seem churlish to point out that Trapattoni dragged Ireland through a shockingly tame Euro qualifying group and beyond a feeble play-off challenge from Estonia, at times playing shameful football, but in the burning passion he brought and his fierce disdain for those young millionaires less than fully committed to the cause, it is possible that he made his most inspiring contribution.
As a manager, Ferguson too has often been hard to like. The churlishness with which he has treated the media. The childish attacks on match officials or anyone foolish enough to cross swords with him. In his intemperate attack on the United manager a couple of weeks back, Roy Keane reminded us of Ferguson's quarrel with John Magnier and Coolmore over stallion rights. That he was prone to poor judgement and the occasional tactical error is in little doubt.
Yet those flaws were an integral part of the man and contributed to a compelling and always fascinating whole. And if Keane was to be brutally honest, he would surely concede that he has already made as many mistakes in his short time as manager as Ferguson has committed in 25 years at United. It has surely crossed Ferguson's mind that one day maybe he too will be dispensed by United just as ruthlessly as Keane was when his services were no longer required. In its illustrious history, few at Old Trafford are ever allowed to be deemed bigger than the club.
Sir Matt Busby was one who was, of course, and he was a relatively youthful 60 when he resigned as United manager in 1969. Such was the shadow Busby cast, it took the club the best part of two decades to find a truly worthy replacement and how they must hope that Ferguson's fire burns for years to come because the task of filling his shoes, when that time comes, will not be for the faint-hearted.
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