Ferguson's iron grip has lost none of its strength
Manchester United's longest-serving boss has won every major battle in his 24 years, writes Paul Hayward
T he pathos of football management is that most great careers end badly. Bill Shankly faded into a regretful ghost, Jock Stein died on the job, Bobby Robson's great Newcastle repatriation finished with the sack from Freddy Shepherd and Brian Clough hit the bottle.
Even Matt Busby, whose longevity at Manchester United Alex Ferguson will surpass today, presided over disintegration as his last act. Prolonged exposure to the strains of satisfying players, spectators and directors while also fighting to subdue mighty rivals empties most men out in the end. But if you look at Ferguson now, after 24 years, one month and 14 days in charge, you see a 68-year-old who has reversed the old law of diminution to grow stronger with every trial.
The miracle of his survival is that each test has tightened his grip on power. There is a formidable litany of challenges faced and overcome. Some were external: Liverpool, back in the 1980s, then Arsene Wenger's Arsenal and Roman Abramovich's wealth. These days United are the second richest club in Manchester but Ferguson welcomes City's provocations because they reaffirm his own team's most cherished values: experience, unity and the faith in youth that connects him to Busby.
All those gauntlets have clattered at his feet since the supposed turning point of January 1990, when United faced Nottingham Forest in the third round of the FA Cup with Ferguson's job in jeopardy. But if Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea and now Manchester City supplied the threats from beyond Old Trafford, internal obstacles were no more easily surmounted.
Ferguson spent his formative managerial years attempting to reach a perfect autocratic state. "I'm in complete command here," Vince Lombardi, the great Green Bay Packers coach, told his players and public. Ferguson, who admires Lombardi, has been able to claim much the same in the face of challenges from Roy Keane, David Beckham and, most recently, Wayne Rooney, not to mention the drinking culture he inherited in November 1986 and the changes in the club's ownership -- any one of which might have weakened his position.
The truth at the heart of his thinking is that either the manager is in control or other people are. And those other people might be celebrity players (Beckham), self-appointed unofficial dressing room sergeants (Keane) or complication-causing owners (the former plc, or the Glazers, should they deviate from their policy of staying well out of Ferguson's way).
This obsession, which is often cast as a power addiction, is rooted generally in logic. Ferguson's empirical belief is that clubs who are dictated to by star players are doomed to decline and that no director can know as much as a manager who has won 11 Premier League titles, two European Cups, five FA Cups and four League Cups.
Ferguson saw the late Bobby Robson, who always urged him "never to retire", buffeted by the whims of Newcastle's owners. To him that was anathema. He saw Shankly mistreated in retirement and now observes the random sackings of friends and colleagues.
To him the choice was always simple. Football is him or me; them and us. Like Clough and Stein he worked out that only success could place him beyond the reach of directors or empire builders who might try to pick a fight. So, when Keane became drunk on the sound of his own disputatious voice, Ferguson knew a rival authority was encroaching on his turf.
Even then Keane needed to exceed the bounds of acceptable opposition to cause his own eviction. An enduring myth is that Ferguson rules only by fear. In fact, he learned from Stein the dangers of alienating players through needless bullying.
As the Rooney saga demonstrated, his political skills have sharpened down the years, perhaps because he reads so much about American presidents and other influential figures. On the pre-season tour to the US he made a pilgrimage to Gettysburg. Cristiano Ronaldo's yearning to return to Iberia -- another crisis -- was handled cunningly, with the manager persuading him to stay for a year before his move to Real Madrid for £80m and then bidding adieu with the fondness of a father waving a son off on a gap year.
The stability of the Glazer years is explained by Ferguson's close and trusting relationship with David Gill, the chief executive. This synchronicity is a model few other clubs can match. Probably the biggest threat to Ferguson's reign arrived when he took on John Magnier and JP McManus, shareholders in United, over the breeding rights to Rock Of Gibraltar, but by then he had won too many trophies to expose himself to serious risk of dismissal.
A talent for power-retention would be worthless without a gift for team-building, for regeneration. In two seasons, after his first great side had reclaimed the league title in 1993, Ferguson lost the services of Paul Parker, Steve Bruce, Paul Ince, Bryan Robson, Mark Hughes, Andrei Kanchelskis and Lee Sharpe but built a new team around the FA Youth Cup-winning team of 1992, and then extended the club's reach to marquee foreign talent: Jaap Stam, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Ronaldo. All through those 24 years you see United sides reach the end of cycles and then reform. In the past 10 years alone he has planned to retire (in 2002) and changed his mind, had a pacemaker fitted, been usurped by Jose Mourinho's Chelsea, put Ronaldo on the game's summit, landed a second Champions League trophy and won three consecutive Premier League titles up to 2009 to draw level with Liverpool on 18 English championships.
Busby-era veterans would say there has been no trial for any modern Manchester United manager to match the Munich air disaster, which destroyed a young team and left a wrenching emotional legacy that is still visible in the survivors, not least Bobby Charlton. Busby even had his own sideshow: George Best, the pathfinder for errant poster boys. But in the main Busby inhabited a time of slow change. Financially and culturally, English football evolved in inches, if at all, between 1945 and 1970. In Ferguson's time the footballer has mutated into a multi-millionaire one-man corporation. Armies of agents, fixers, charlatans, sponsors, spin merchants and speculators have flooded the industry.
The clan loyalty of Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Gary Neville will expire with Ferguson's tenure but he would say new allegiances to the badge are forming at Carrington all the time. The task was to manage change, to control it, for 24 years, one month and 14 days. And to be in control of the ending after all that time is a feat that's unlikely to be repeated. So how long can, Ferguson, 69 on New Year's Eve, go on? Bobby Charlton, for one, doesn't see him stepping down any time soon. "His body language suggests there is no reason why he shouldn't keep doing more and more. I think that is what is going to happen," Charlton says.
"It is a shame for our rivals. They might not be to happy to think Alex Ferguson might be here for another five or 10 years. For them it is unthinkable. But what a pleasure for Manchester United fans."