| 18.6°C Dublin

Alex Ferguson: The Red icon

You can still see the boy in Alex Ferguson, even now we have reached the end. The elder statesman who called a halt after 27 years at Manchester United needs a hip replacement and feels he has won all his battles. But in his bursts of laughter, his lust for life, you can still pick out the young Glasgow firebrand who rose to become the greatest manager in British football.

Some people have an essence, a spirit that survives the ravages of age. Ferguson's is not diminished, however scared he might be of retirement.

It was there in his early phase of building flotsam teams in Scottish outposts and it shone when Eric Cantona, Roy Keane and Cristiano Ronaldo crossed the threshold at Old Trafford. Ferguson loved big personalities because he is one himself. Unusually, though, United's great leader combines the non-conforming instincts of a trade union radical with the controlling urges of a factory owner or dictator.

From his first day as a manager at East Stirlingshire in 1974, where players earned £60 a week, he learned that football management is largely about control (a word he prefers to power). Either the players are in control or the manager is: a truth he applied with brutal force in clashes with Roy Keane and David Beckham.

The caricature of Ferguson as a fulminating bully annoys his family because they know his career would have ended long before now had the 'hairdryer' been his only psychological tactic.

In his last 10 years he would be just as likely to ignore or 'cold-shoulder' a player who had been needlessly sent off or committed some other transgression. He used ice as much as fire to direct the thinking of his players in directions that would shape their futures positively.

To span the ages from East Stirling and St Mirren to Ronaldo and Robin van Persie and two Champions League wins over 39 years in management is a stunning confirmation of the link between the top and bottom of the game.

In his last decade at United the challenge became one of managing constant and seismic change as United passed from plc to Glazer-owned debt mountain and multi-millionaire players became one-man corporations with immensely powerful entourages.

By changing as the game changed, Ferguson honed his talent for working two steps ahead of his contemporaries. Only once in his 27 years at Old Trafford did he deviate badly from his principle of constant building: in the relatively fallow years of 2004-06 before a second Champions League winning side was built around Wayne Rooney and Ronaldo.

scope

The breathtaking scope of his work starts with comparative failure as a player, and especially his nondescript spell at Rangers, the stage on which he hoped to make his name as a Scottish warrior forward to rank with his hero, Denis Law.

"The adversity gave me a sense of determination that has shaped my life," he said. "I made up my mind that I would never give in." Plenty fail as players – in their own minds, at any rate – without going on to win 49 trophies, including 13 Premier League titles and two European Cups.

His confrontational style and zero tolerance for half-heartedness might have earned him more enemies than any young hopeful manager could hope to deal with. But from the start there was cleverness to go with the truculence. A carousing striker told he would "never play for the club again" would be left to dangle just long enough for him to return to the side desperate and grateful – and to reward Ferguson with a hat-trick.

In the shipyards of Govan, the Glasgow pubs he ran and all the teams he managed, Ferguson accepted that conflict was unavoidable.

His disputatious nature is partly an acknowledgement that consensus is seldom possible in an organisation of perhaps 500 people, in which results on the field of play shape countless families' lives.

Aberdeen were Ferguson's transition to Britain, to Europe, to the big tests, which he negotiated with Jock Stein's wisdom filed away in his brain. Stein taught Ferguson how not to handle players, how to see the world through their eyes.

He also regaled him with countless funny stories about Jimmy Johnstone – 'Wee Jinky' – the Celtic winger who would cause Stein to stare at his phone on a Friday evening in expectation of a call from the police.

Ultimately, though, Ferguson's energy and appetite for a fight were never going to defy the laws of time. The physical toll exerted by Manchester City's dramatic late win in last season's Premier League title race was unusually severe.

More galling than City's first championship win for 44 years was the knowledge that United had tossed away a big lead. With the loss of power in Manchester itself came an even more painful disappointment: a failure of strength on the run-in, which has been a hallmark of Ferguson's teams since his first Premier League triumph in 1993.

So, last summer was one of angst and self-reproach which offered Ferguson a choice: abandon ship straight away or go in one more time to avenge City's impertinent late surge. He chose the second, more difficult course, but with an internal voice doubtless warning that these challenges could not be faced down indefinitely. To knock City back down into a subservient role in the metropolis would complete the set of uprisings quelled.

"I've still got a wee bit of anger in me, thinking of how we threw the league away last season," Ferguson told the Harvard Business School, who were sufficiently intrigued by his mastery of management to commission a study of his record and methods. "My motivation to the players will be that we can't let City beat us twice in a row."

The precise arc of his trophy-winning years started with the Scottish First Division with St Mirren in 1976-77 and ended with United's 20th English championship this month. In between he broke the duopoly of Rangers and Celtic in Scotland with Aberdeen and found United in arguably the perfect state to forge his reputation in world football.

Imagine Ferguson taking over a smoothly-run, tee-total, talent-packed United back in 1986. To re-make the faded home of Best, Law and Charlton in his own image he had to first smash what it had become. For United to put its drink down and cut its hair the club had to become an extension of Ferguson's own fierce and restless personality.

This was the glory of the opportunity he was given, and he survived the early turmoil to construct a majestic team around Mark Hughes, Bryan Robson, Cantona, Paul Ince and Andrei Kanchelskis.

Liverpool were the first to be brought down. Ferguson knew the Anfield aura well from his visits with Aberdeen. To him, Liverpool were a bastion where surrendering possession of the ball would bring long periods of spectating. English football's dominant club were synonymous with strong men (Shankly, Paisley, Dalglish) and billboard-topping talents: Souness, Rush, Beardsley, Barnes.

Ferguson arrived in Manchester as the bright young star of Scottish management with what could be described as an inferiority complex in relation to Liverpool. He has no recollection now of saying he would "knock them off their perch" but the sentiment was there, and acted upon.

By the time United began their run of 13 league titles and two Champions League crowns, Liverpool were already in shadow. New forces were arrayed against him: Arsene Wenger's jazzed-up Arsenal, then the Chelsea of Roman Abramovich and finally City, who seemed intent on claiming the very soul of Manchester with their vast Etihad Campus and local emphasis.

To endure all this, Ferguson has relied on a cast of allies: a republican guard led by Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Gary Neville, who speak truth to power and spread the kind of values Ferguson built his final decade on.

Youth development, self-improvement, loyalty and progression through science. So thorough and driven has Ferguson become in the athletic sphere that Rooney's occasional lapses into chubbiness offend the very spirit of the manager's work, as he demonstrates by leaving 'Wazza' on the bench.

Jose Mourinho's Chelsea caught United at a time when they were lulled into buying players off the peg (Kleberson, Eric Djemba Djemba), before Ferguson redirected the emphasis into finding pearls that could be polished. Phil Jones is perhaps the best recent example of a player spotted young at another club (Blackburn) and seized with decisive speed. Rooney and Ronaldo are earlier examples.

The internationalisation of United's scouting network was another example of Ferguson extending the range of his work to take account of changes in the industry.

Twelve years after retirement first entered his head (the u-turn of 2002 stopped Sven-Goran Eriksson becoming United manager), United fans can look back on a decade in which Ferguson's teams won a Champions League final against Chelsea in Moscow, home town of Roman Abramovich, and in which the lull of 2004-06 was followed by three consecutive Premier League titles from 2007-09, a year which ended with the first of two Champions League final defeats to Barcelona, Ferguson's nemesis on the biggest stage.

In those years a potentially crushing assortment of challenges came and went with Ferguson still on top. Keane, who began acting like the de facto United manager, berating the squad's young players on MUTV and arguing with the manager and his staff when he found things not to his liking, was purged, at great emotional cost to Ferguson, who nevertheless knew he had won one of the biggest political struggles of his career.

Beckham's burgeoning fame presented another kind of dilemma. Unlike Giggs, Scholes, Nicky Butt and the Neville brothers, Beckham looked beyond the United fence for affirmation and Ferguson began to feel the distractions in his life were undermining the footballer who had been arguably the most enthusiastic of anyone in the so-called Class of '92.

The pattern was repeated: friction, crossroads, exit, stage left, the player. The same was true, for other reasons, with Ruud van Nistelrooy.

Rooney successfully engineered a huge pay rise, but it was no guarantee of a starting place when his performances dipped. Throughout every reconstruction, and in all his individual dealings, Ferguson was able to employ a vast store of wisdom, experience and natural managerial talent to keep the whole organisation moving forward.

With his team quizzes on trains and at meal times, his enthusiastic renditions of classic songs and his love of mischief, Ferguson might have come across to the younger players like a slightly eccentric uncle.

When management became too consuming, and his life felt too narrow, he turned to horse racing, wine collecting and intense reading on subjects such as the Kennedy assassination and the American civil war.

obsession

A developing obsession with the Turf led to the biggest crisis of his reign: a dispute with the Coolmore Stud, who also owned shares in United, over breeding rights to the prolific Rock of Gibraltar.

As a football romantic whose love of attacking football was fanned by the great Real Madrid sides of the 1960s, Ferguson has featured heavily in that great Spanish tradition, and not just through United's many tussles with the club of Puskas and Di Stefano.

Surely his greatest association with world-class talent – Giggs and Beckham aside – was to invest his faith in the 17-year-old Ronaldo when many in English football were dismissing him as a "show pony."

In Madeira, via Lisbon, Ferguson found the player of his dreams, steering him away from theatricality and unlocking the physical courage inside. To make one of the great footballers from such raw material from another culture was Ferguson's finest individual achievement. To sell him to Real for £80m confirmed that transformation.

Somehow, too, the sale went through with United appearing broken and bereft: a mark of the club's strength, its ability to recover from setbacks.

Deep in his psyche, of course, Ferguson welcomed these chances to display his gift for recovery. He also relished confrontations with match officials and journalists, both of whom he often suspected of working against United's interests, if only by being unfit (in the case of referees).

The life of a director, ambassador, public speaker, raconteur and grandfather now beckons. Even Ferguson himself would not pretend that it will be comfortable for him to walk away from the daily bonfire of managing United.

One day soon, the camera will train itself on the United dug-out and we will search in vain for the bespectacled, gum-chewing, dark-overcoat-and-zip-up wearing autocrat who made the club an extension of his own character, and who lit up our days and nights with his brilliance and his energy.

Letting go is not going to be easy, for him or us. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent