James Lawton: Ferguson may find he is next offering to the game's sacrificial fire

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The Independent Football

Down the football ages it has always been a harsh, immutable truth. It is that a football man, however great his achievements, is never safe. There is never a time when he can settle back into the certainty of unbroken acclaim.

The game said this to the great Stan Cullis when an embarrassed club secretary of Wolves, the team that had been lifted out of the Black Country and on to a glittering international stage, was required to type out the manager's letter of dismissal - and curtly add that he should return his club car to Molineux at the first opportunity.

Football said it to Jock Stein when, after guiding Celtic to Britain's first European Cup victory with a team drawn from no further than the outer suburbs of Glasgow, he was offered a piffling job in the Parkhead pools department. And now, against the longest odds you might have cared to name a few months ago, might it just be preparing to say it to Sir Alex Ferguson?

Even with the increasing vigour of the attack on his position at Old Trafford by his erstwhile friends, and the 25.49 per cent shareholders John Magnier and J P McManus, the possibility still seems surreal. How does an empire expel its creator? How can the most famous organisation in world football cut down the man who in less than two decades took a club about to be sold for roughly the cost of its most recent signing to a position of unparalleled wealth - and glory?

The worrying reality for the Ferguson camp is that it happened routinely under the old rules - as we saw in the Cullis and Stein and other cases - and, as the Magnier forces have spelled out so clinically this week, it can be accomplished even more relentlessly, and efficiently, under the new ones of plc football.

Of course if it should happen, if the current board, who own just three per cent of the shares, fail to satisfy Magnier with their internal inquiry into the conduct of recent transfer deals and Ferguson falls as a consequence of a successful take-over bid, there would be scenes of terrible emotion at Old Trafford.

The air would be thick with banners and impassioned cries of boycott. But how long would the protest last as the oxygen of publicity grew thinner? Maybe a week.

Ferguson, with fanaticism and brilliance and greed, for unbroken power if nothing else, has taken 18 years to make the modern United but the way it is in football, and has always been, that aura would dwindle in such a brief time; not in any historic sense, no doubt, but in the force of that old question: what can you do for me today?

Football fans necessarily have to have a fair measure of romanticism. But in most of them a pragmatist is merely biding his time.

Across the city, back in the early 70s, Joe Mercer, who presided over a short but superb flowering of Manchester City with his protégé, Malcolm Allison, was aghast when a successful take-over bid imperilled his position. "How is it possible to hi-jack a football club in full flight?" asked a grand old man of the game. It was possible then and if Mercer had been around today he would have seen under the regulations governing the conduct of a public company, 10 per cent of the shares is enough to get the sky-jack off the ground.

When Bill Shankly's relationship with the Liverpool board began to deteriorate seriously in the early 70s, he told a friend of his fond belief that any strike against him would provoke a ferocious reaction from the Anfield following. They would burn down the ground - after first making sure the directors were inside, and tied to iron girders.

It was true that no football man had ever so engaged the emotions of the fans. Once, after a Cup success he waved a red handkerchief from the balcony of Liverpool's City Hall and told the assembled horde that they made him feel as powerful as chairman Mao. One witness, the former club secretary and chief executive Peter Robinson, offered the opinion that on that day a word from Shankly would have sent his red army charging down the Mersey Tunnel to invade Birkenhead. But when Shankly eventually worked as a consultant to Wrexham, hurt and disillusioned by his treatment by the club he made, in some ways no less dramatically in his time than Ferguson has United in his, the fans kept on cheering the achievements of Bob Paisley and Joe Fagan.

Don Revie imagined that the Leeds United board would attempt to persuade him to stay when he was offered the England job, but no serious counter-offer was made. His superb career suffered an agonising denouement with the national team. Earlier a Leeds director had wondered why it was that, "Revie got all the praise around here," and there was no protest less than 20 years later from another Elland Road board when one of Revie's successors, Howard Wilkinson, decided to take down the pictures of the great team of the 60s and 70s.

Stein was a man of modest means when he died, of a heart-attack on the touchline, as manager of Scotland. Nor did Ferguson's great predecessor Sir Matt Busby, who had protected the interests of United against the demands for higher rewards by several generations of gifted players, receive any great financial reward for the supreme effort which took him from what had seemed to be his death-bed in Munich to the peaks of football achievement.

Ferguson is at least insulated against a retirement, whenever it comes, of genteel poverty. His personal fortune is considerable - it was recently estimated at £20m - after the years of high-earning, for which, stupefyingly, he had to fight aggressively before the financial sub-committee of United plc, a testimonial and a blockbusting autobiography. At the time he was negotiating for a deal as a club ambassador, after announcing his intention to quit as manager, he reacted strongly to a suggestion that he had been naive to think that great achievers in the game automatically received their due. "Every football man," said the fierce product of a street which backs on to the docks and shipyards of the Clyde, "knows that the bastards will try to get him in the end." The bastards were not specifically identified, but you knew he meant they were men in suits who did not feel or know enough about the game that had so dominated his life.

Now, even his fiercest admirers would admit that his current situation is a little more complicated than that. Still, the resonance of that bitter remark gathers strength with every passing day. Right or wrong, Ferguson is living proof of the one way in which football hasn't, and probably never will, change. It is that no one, not even Sir Alex Ferguson, can ever afford not to look over his shoulder.