Another milestone for Sir Alex Ferguson, his 21st anniversary today at Manchester United as the most consistently successful manager in the history of English football – and another need to ask the questions that will probably never go away as long as he draws a competitive breath. They follow him in a pack.
How it is that he acquires years but not age? Why is it that his partiality still burns like some tinder-box canyon in southern California? Can it be true that he still takes offence quicker than a hell-fire preacher in a bawdy house?
Will he ever mellow? Will he ever take off the clothes of a curmudgeon when things do not go quite as well as he likes?
No, he will not – not as long as he does what he does so masterfully. Not if he fights harder than some kid trying to make his way. No, it is not always attractive. Indeed, sometimes it is more than a little outrageous. The weekend saw a classic effusion.
The huge consensus was that it was a match of beautiful ambition – and quite a lot of beautiful content – at the Emirates. Arsenal and United shared the points and the praise, but there was Fergie raging on about a few head-banging Gooners who behaved pretty much as their United counterparts do the moment Arsène Wenger takes his place at Old Trafford.
Howard Webb, a referee on whom Ferguson has been known to heap praise, was the author of United's failure to win the game. He favoured Arsenal. Of course. It couldn't have been the resilience of Arsenal's new captain, William Gallas, and the unstaunchable enterprise of Cesc Fabregas.
To allow that would have broken one of Ferguson's cardinal beliefs. It is that, for his United, victory is not a goal but a right. Ferguson doesn't believe in defeat or even parity; it is not something that just happens, it is a sinister development which has to be explained and, having done that to his satisfaction, he can return to the essential business of not letting it happen again.
Twenty-one years at one football place, 21 years when ambition is rekindled as formally as we turn back and forward the clocks, is a phenomenal circumstance, and permits no routine explanation. It is true that his great predecessor Sir Matt Busby went 23 unbroken years at Old Trafford, built three great teams and survived, bruised and agonised in the spirit, the tragedy of Munich. But then if Sir Matt climbed great pinnacles, he also had years of pause, gaps in success that would have tormented Ferguson to the point of distraction.
Because of his nature, Busby was easier on himself – and the rest of the world. Ferguson has never stopped running, in ecstasy at moments of supreme triumph, and in anger when things haven't worked so well. He is fuelled by joy and rage and adrenalin. In another man it might be a toxic mix. For Fergie is it is life-sustaining.
Consider the ground he has covered, how much more of it there is now than that of the great Scottish triumvirate around whose examples he shaped his youthful ambition, Busby, Jock Stein and Bill Shankly. Busby, weary of all the accumulated pressure, said that enough was enough when he faced a fourth rebuilding challenge in the wake of the 1968 European Cup triumph. With Best, Charlton and Law heading towards the horizon, Busby just couldn't go again. He was 62 – the same age as Stein when he died on the Ninian Park touchline while managing Scotland. Shankly was 60 when he walked away from Anfield. Ferguson will be 66 on the last day of December. Time to act like a guy who owns a bus pass? Not with Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo and the likely lad from Brazil, Anderson, still in the foothills of their careers.
For some the celebration of Ferguson's 21 years at Old Trafford needs to be muted. Yes, he has proved himself a natural-born winner, but what about his bullying style, his refusal to see any point of view but his own? Someone said he could have caused a row among the flower people of Woodstock, possibly even at the Last Supper. No doubt they are right, but then Ferguson is what he is and the results have been tumultuous. If we salute Wenger for the artistry of his football – and recognition is, understandably enough, running at a flood time now – is he any better able to step away from the trenches than his fiercest rival? Does it not hurt him just as badly to lose, and are the results often not equally unedifying? Of course, the answers are yes.
Today we have to judge Ferguson on his work and who can say that, when you bring it all together, it does not represent a hugely rich contribution to the English game? He has given us great players, underpinned by ceaseless ambition, and if there has been ruthlessness, if such separate characters as Roy Keane and David Beckham have been let go without, in the end, a sliver of sentimentality, it has been the mark of his understanding of how to develop a team. Like Busby, he has made three championship teams. Unlike Busby, he has been careless in the matter of creating waves of controversy – and shaping his image. His signings have not been unerringly brilliant and sometimes his tactics have been open to question.
But now we are in the margins of astonishing achievement. Above all, he has demanded competitive honesty from his players, and never was the result more spectacular than at the Nou Camp in 1999, when a team who looked beaten found something that carried them beyond the normal boundaries of commitment. He could have gone then, with the historic hat-trick of league title, FA Cup and European Cup gathered in at the age of 57, and of course some urged him to do so. The advice has punctuated recent years, but, except for one period of indecision, it has been brusquely rejected.
In this we find the great and continuing redemption of Alex Ferguson. He cares less for his reputation as a gentleman of sport than the sting of battle. He ignites the game to which he has devoted his life and because he cares so much, and whatever we think of his style, so do we. It means that today the toast is not so much to a unique football manager as the sheer force of life.
Calzaghe may or may not be Britain's greatest, but he has tested himself to the very limit
In Copenhagen in 2001, when he was propping up a Mike Tyson bill against an opponent not remotely in his class, Joe Calzaghe told me that he had no argument with Roy Jones' habit of rounding up opponents from the boxing graveyard.
"He has got himself into a position where he can do this," said Calzaghe, "and I would do the same if I was him. This is a business."
You could see his point, but also you could have wept for something which, as we saw this weekend, at its best is so capable of moving the spirit.
Now Jones prepares to fight Felix Trinidad, on behalf of Don King, in another fight that mocks the best tradition of boxing – and Calzaghe pursues a contest with 43-year-old Bernard Hopkins.
You might say that, despite the American's formidable resilience, we are returning to business as usual.
However, it is also true that whenever the 35-year-old Welshman chooses to retire he cannot be remembered as a thoroughbred fighter who was never truly investigated.
His performance against the dangerous, good-hearted Mikkel Kessler required him to produce the best of his talent and his character. The result, on a weekend when the durable spirit of two other British competitors, the new European No 1 golfer Justin Rose and New York Marathon winner Paula Radcliffe, also lifted the nation, was a glorious example of pugilism when it steps beyond the imperatives of business.
Whether this makes Calzaghe the greatest British fighter of all time, as some in their enthusiasm claimed, is a different matter.
Others, citing the distant brilliance of Jimmy Wilde, and before him, Jim Driscoll, might say there is an argument about whether he is the best Wales ever produced. In Scotland, a powerful case will also be made for Kenny Buchanan, who won his world lightweight title in Puerto Rico, and successfully defended it in Los Angeles, before going down to Roberto Duran in Madison Square Garden. In England there will be support for Gershon Mendeloff, also known as Ted "Kid" Lewis. A former editor of The Ring mazagine, rating his 100 greatest fighters of all time, put Lewis in at 33 – ahead of Sugar Ray Leonard, Gentleman Jim Corbett and Georges Carpentier.
This argument, though, is perhaps Calzaghe's best reward for a superb effort. Back in Copenhagen it wasn't so easy to believe that one day he, for all his talent, would provoke such a debate.Reuse content