Friday 15 December 2017

Mindless engagement all that's left when fire is gone

That was the week

Sir Alex Ferguson during the Fourball matches on day two of the 40th Ryder Cup at Gleneagles Golf Course, Perthshire

Dion Fanning

On the morning Manchester United played Burnley at Turf Moor a few weeks ago, a colleague and I were trying to find our way in when four men climbed out of a Land Rover parked at one end of the ground.

The first man we recognised was Albert Morgan, the Manchester United factotum, but then Alex Ferguson appeared.

There should have been nothing strange about observing Alex Ferguson make his way into a football ground but somehow it felt historic, like watching old film of De Valera taking the salute on the anniversary of the Easter Rising.

That we were at a club like Burnley rather than, say, MK Dons added to this sense of wonderment. Here was one of the great figures of the age outside the ground of a founder member of the Football League.

Ferguson headed to the main entrance of the Bob Lord Stand - now renamed the Totally Wicked Bob Lord Stand, which is what the maverick Lord would surely have always wanted - as Burnley and Manchester United fans went up to shake his hand. Fergie greeted them and walked on with that pronounced gait which has become more exaggerated since his hip replacement and seems designed to promote vigour at the expense of menace.

Manchester United fans who had just shaken his hand joked that they wouldn't be washing theirs and Burnley fans asked for pictures. It was a benign scene, a picture of a man whose legacy is unquestionable.

This will probably be the verdict that history delivers on Alex Ferguson once the brief period of turmoil is out of the way, but right now everything seems uncertain.

It would be easy to say that this explains the underwhelming feeling that accompanied his address to Europe's Ryder Cup team, but that probably had more to do with the relentlessly ersatz quality of the competition itself, especially during the preliminaries.

In the world of bullshit, the Ryder Cup is the Bilderberg Group, an elite functioning at a level the rest of us can never understand.

Paul McGinley's failure to offer any inspiring reason for Ferguson's presence before falling back into the comfort zone of banter - "I'm not a Manchester United fan, I'm a West Ham fan" - was echoed by some of his players, who viewed Ferguson's appearance as an opportunity to announce some club loyalties. Rory McIlroy, Manchester United, was in "a trance". Sergio Garcia, Real Madrid, was more reserved. "Given who I support you'll appreciate I'm probably not his biggest fan in the world, but I think when you have the chance to listen to somebody who has been up there in sports, it's always interesting to pick their brain."

McGinley returned to this theme later in the week, recalling that Ferguson had something to say to Ian Poulter, Arsenal, and caddy Billy Foster, Leeds United, who in the true spirit of banter, gave as good as he got.

In front of an audience more sophisticated than a Ryder Cup team, Ferguson will appear a transcendent figure again instead of a banter godhead, a man brought in to offer statements of the obvious like making your home advantage count before giving Thomas Bjorn, Liverpool, a hard time.

Perhaps this is how he envisaged his retirement all along after last year's unpleasantness when every mistake David Moyes made - including Moyes being there in the first place - was pinned on him. Manchester United now have a manager who lacks nothing in self-assurance, but even that isn't enough when a side defends as Manchester United defend.

Maybe the Ryder Cup is what Ferguson wanted from retirement as he potters about at a corporate event dressed up to appear meaningful.

Yet there is still a cause to fight for while Manchester United continue to stumble as they attempt to emerge as a coherent force in a post-Ferguson world.

Last week Arsene Wenger made some remarks to an Arsenal magazine about the modern footballer. Wenger had said that a manager couldn't coach by fear in a world where players always ask 'Why?'. Perhaps Wenger mentioned Ferguson in the full interview but the quotes which accompanied the headlines made no mention of him. The headline claimed that Wenger had said Ferguson's style of management was obsolete, although some one added in a subhead that he had "hinted that Alex Ferguson's famous hairdryer style of management is out of date".

Wenger's hints sounded like general points. "Modern society wants less pain, wants to suffer less and wants to be treated better in every aspect of modern life. Pain has to disappear, whether you go to the dentist or go to work," he said. It may not be too much of a leap to say that Ferguson's style of management was under attack, if you accept that neither Ferguson nor a hairdryer was actually mentioned.

Ferguson, of course, had figured this out himself some time ago, refining his management to accommodate players who wouldn't shake with fear while he talked, even if pain as a motivational tool would always have its place.

Wenger did say that managers needed to be more sensitive than they were 20 years ago so it may not have been a shock that everyone started looking at Ferguson.

Next month, Roy Keane's book will be released and he will presumably have something to say about Alex Ferguson. Things are going well for Keane right now, so a book that reignites a war with Ferguson would appear to be unnecessary, but even in the sophisticated hands of Roddy Doyle, it's hard to see how screaming headlines will be avoided.

Ferguson might have another battle then, another assault on his legacy which has been threatened by everything Manchester United have done and failed to do over the past two seasons.

Ferguson built the modern Manchester United but right now it looks like they'll have to build it again. He deserves his period of mindless engagement at the Ryder Cup at a time when all he left behind is questioned. One day he will be viewed as those outside Turf Moor viewed him as he tip-toed into the ground. Although history won't overlook the menace.

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