James Lawton: Ferguson must not forget the cruel fate football reserves for the great managers

The immutable truth is that the game will get you in the end
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The debt to him is being honoured in a way that, given all the history of football and its time-honoured capacity to heap the heaviest cruelty on the men who have most generously tasted its glory, is quite remarkable. But do we think the dividend will be honoured much beyond tomorrow afternoon if Jose Mourinho's Chelsea turn the sword at Old Trafford after the thrusts from such mediocrities as Blackburn, Middlesbrough and Lille?

If we do, we will earn only the hollow laughter of such football ghosts as Stan Cullis, Bill Nicholson, Bill Shankly, Don Revie, Jock Stein, Sir Alf Ramsey, Brian Clough and even, and most relevantly, Sir Matt Busby. We will be saying that we do not know how these things work; that somehow all the mores of football, all the hunger for success and the unforgiving anger when it suddenly stops, can be suspended in the case of the once untouchable master of Old Trafford.

It cannot be so and anyone who disputes this will not be joined in that naïvete by the man himself. If the Glazer family still tremble at the idea of cutting down the man who made the modern United a world brand name, their resolve will be strengthened soon enough if decline on the field, so transparent in the last few games, is not checked.

The family for whom success is not a dream but a financial imperative will gain their resolve not only by their relentless concern for profit but also by the stirrings of the mob. This is not to insult the faithful of United. It is simply to recognise what happens to any band of supporters who, after being weaned on astonishing success, is suddenly denied what it has come to consider its due. The passion of football, let's not forget, is built as much on cruelty as love.

When Ferguson made his ill-considered decision to announce his retirement a few years ago, rather than simply steal into the night as a winner of football's infinitely hazardous long game, he was disappointed by the modest rewards the club offered him to act as an ambassador. Among his sympathisers, one declared United an ingrate organisation, utterly unmindful of quite how much they owed a man who pushed the club's value from around the £12m mark in the late Eighties, to the near billion-pound apex of a decade or so later, one declared that the only surprise was that Ferguson should be shocked by his treatment. Surely he knew how it had gone for the great men who went before him?

"Yes, I did," he told his public supporter, who happened to be myself. "I appreciate your support, but you got something wrong. I wasn't surprised. I know how it goes in the game."

He knew how it had gone particularly for two of the men he admired most in football, his compatriots Shankly and Stein, and maybe it was the fate of the man who built the Liverpool tradition so brilliantly, so passionately, that influenced him most. Unlike all his great contemporaries, Shankly never waited for the sound of the crowd turning on a man they had revered. He didn't wait for the knife of the conspirators. But he still died of a broken heart because when Liverpool and football was over Shankly found that the core of his life had been stripped away. It was said that Liverpool treated him poorly, but, in truth, it was a matter of degree. Cruellest of all was the passage of the years and Shankly's sense that maybe he had built his last great team. So maybe Ferguson remembered the wasteland of Shankly's last years when he reversed his own decision to retire.

Maybe Ferguson thought that it would be better to go down fighting, as the great Stein literally did on the touchline of a Scotland game at Ninian Park, Cardiff - the Stein who, after winning Britain's first European Cup with a team raised from the environs of Glasgow, was offered a job in Celtic's fund-raising pools office when he surrendered the reins of a chariot that ripped through Scottish football for a decade.

Transcending all of Ferguson's current agony is the immutable truth. Football will get you in the end, however long you hold off your fate. Any examination of the fine margins tells you that.

Where did Ferguson go wrong? Believing in the talent of Juan Sebastian Veron? Failing to come up with a proper replacement for Roy Keane? Not recognising the flaws in the competitive nature of Rio Ferdinand? History will take its time to evaluate the curdling of the United glory, but it cannot fail to recognise the catalyst provided by the shocking rise of Chelsea, who broke the duopoly of United and Arsenal not just on the field but off it. Dwindling transfer fees suddenly rocketed to the point where Mourinho was prepared to pay £21m for Shaun Wright Phillips and £2m more for a Michael Essien utterly beyond the reach of Ferguson, who had invested so heavily in the wondrous Wayne Rooney and the much more problematic Cristiano Ronaldo.

It might be that just one or two false moves undid Ferguson and that among all the great ironies of football his fall, if it happens, might prove to be the ultimate one. Consider for example the possibility that might soon change to probability: Malcolm Glazer acting as Pontius Pilate, satisfying a baying mob with a public washing of his hands of Ferguson, so soon after seeing pictures of himself being burnt in effigy. Remember how quickly the Irish horse men, John Magnier and J P McManus, saw their potential roles change from vilification as cynical profiteers to the hope that they might save United from the American invader. But the horse men took their profits, anyway, and Ferguson now must live on the edge which awaits, sooner or later, all great football men.

In this, football is utterly impartial. When Stan Cullis, the iron-handed creator of a superb Wolves team, was brusquely sacked, when the club secretary wrote to him requesting that he kindly return his car keys at the first opportunity, Sir Matt Busby wrote an impassioned letter to his friend, saying that he felt "ashamed of the human race". Yet Busby, the great figure, was a director at Old Trafford when football men like Wilf McGuiness, Frank O'Farrell, Tommy Docherty and Dave Sexton were sent roughly on their way. McGuiness lost his hair overnight.

O'Farrell, the most decent of men who came to Old Trafford with an impressive body of work behind him, wrote a book about his experiences that went unpublished for legal reasons. Its working title was, "A Nice Day for an Execution".

Whatever happens in the next few weeks and months, Ferguson may not be appeased if his fate is less than he hopes, but then if he does go in circumstances beyond his own control he can draw some huge degrees of comfort. He can tell himself that in a time when the pressure to win had never been so great, he was the man he went so much further than anyone could have believed possible when his job hung so perilously at the turn into the Nineties.

It is common wisdom that he was one match away - a Cup tie at Nottingham Forest - from being fired without a single trophy gathered in. He had sworn to carry United back to the European pinnacle achieved by Busby after 23 years in charge of Old Trafford, after the horror of Munich and the building of three great teams, and he did it 13 years after taking office. That was the moment of historic perfection, a treble, at the end of an unprecedented march through the top flight of English football.

If he had gone then, he would have avoided all of today's angst. He wouldn't have had to absorb the bitterness of Ramsey after his sacking by the Football Association. He wouldn't have had to risk the kind of public hostility which once persuaded Revie to don a false beard after failing as England manager. He wouldn't have had to see his advice ignored by the directors as Nicholson did. He wouldn't have had to watch, as Busby did, the directors of his beloved "family club" issuing new shares, new politics, a new way to subvert his dream of football as a romantic island creating its own life and its own values. He wouldn't have had to inspect his dwindling glory through an empty brandy bottle like Brian Clough, a hero turned pariah.

Sir Alex Ferguson would have beaten the relentless, circling fate of football. But then he would also have been unique. Old soldiers fade away. Great football men, almost as a matter of course, die hard.