The Stretford End asked Merseyside if it was watching – and had that place really opted for such an afternoon of purgatory then it might have reflected that there would have been a few more banners rigged up, had this signature moment belonged to Anfield. The mighty images of Paisley, Shankly and Dalglish flutter across the Anfield Road end every weekend and though there was something extraordinary about the Maoist waving of red flags, and about the 71-year-old who commanded Old Trafford as he talked and breathed heavily into the microphone, don’t let it be said that he has ever enjoyed a personality cult. A few bed-sheets were held aloft in the cold early evening rain – a slightly strange “Thankyou Uncle Alex” and “Thanks Gaffer, from the Stretford End” – but the one vast banner of the bespectacled Alex Ferguson arrived late, fluttered briefly in the breeze and was quickly gone.
He has given them so much here but it says something for the complicated relationship between him and them that they have rarely had an anthem for him. Some people remember that old song “Every single one of us loves Alex Ferguson” but not terribly many and there have been very few more in the years since. The retiring manager’s most animated waving last night was reserved for his family in the directors’ box, as he drifted dreamily around the pitch for one last time, a red streamer stuck on his foot which Nemanja Vidic helpfully put a boot on to catch.
It was when the stadium announcer, Alan Keegan, not stinting on the grandiose statements, called for Old Trafford to make this “a great vision for the world to see” and asked the “greatest manager in British football” to step out that you first saw the modesty of the relationship. The man in the familiar trench coat and zip up black top just wandered down the tunnel, just like he has been doing for the last 9,685 days, out on the centre circle and back again.
A full 40 minutes had elapsed when the first rendition of “Stand up for Alex Ferguson” went up, another followed 10 minutes after the interval and by 75 minutes we had scaled the effusive reaches of “We love you, Fergie” but the real pleasure was being taken in the pain which was being inflicted on others. “Fergie 13, Scousers 0” and “Mancini’s got the sack”.
It was a challenging occasion for the fanzines to get right. “Bloody hell, is it time already?” read the speech bubble on Red Issue, with Fergie peering at his timepiece, and its own chronicle of the 26 years included admissions that there had been times when he wasn’t loved. “Would the last person to leave Manchester please remember to switch the lights out,” was the cover headline which accompanied an image of Ferguson’s head in a lightbulb, more than 200 Red Issues ago.
And then there was a wry reminder of the “most famous bedsheet ever manufactured by the old Cottonopolis” because “what had been painted on it was so shockingly out of character for us.” Of course, it read: “3 Years of Excuses and It’s still Crap – Ta-Ra Fergie”. Ouch! – as the magazine said.
There was not exactly a red-hot glow of sentimentality for the old man who is walking off either. An editorial expressed the doubt that David Moyes, United manager-designate, would be “perceived to be Fergie’s choice when Fergie is bound to be on the board that will oversee transfer expenditure and the like.”
For many, Ferguson will always be the socialist who sold out to and established an affinity with the Glazers. Others can’t forget the Rock of Gibraltar affair, or Ferguson’s inveterate dislike of FC United, the symbol of those fans who viewed the club’s commercial revolution as something which took it away from fans and erased a bit of its soul. For yet more fans, it is simply a question of familiarity and success breeding not so much contempt as mild indifference.
There are many who will not see it that way, even though the Ferguson matchday scarves were not flying off the stalls on Sir Matt Busby Way. Amid the day’s vast volume of words expended on the subject, Gary Neville’s were the best because they captured in such detail the team spirit Ferguson inculcated.
“I can remember a couple of occasions when individual players had got into trouble and he was angrier with the team rather than the individuals concerned,” Neville related. “His reasoning was: ‘Why did you let your team-mate get into trouble? Why weren’t you there to protect him? You’re all responsible for not looking after him. You make sure he doesn’t get into trouble’.” Such prescient words on the day that Mancini drew close to the sack in part because of his willingness to attack his players and colleagues in public.
The Swansea manager, Michael Laudrup, seemed surprised by the discourtesy of someone suggesting that he would he would “glad to see the back” of Ferguson but the answer was “Yes”, actually.
“Managers and players they come and go but you are talking about something very special. Not just football here but football in general. I don’t even remember another Manchester United manager,” he replied. “How a manager can go on for year after year after year with that desire to win, thinking about the present and the future as well….”
And though there was none of the emotion Steve Bruce had beforehand suggested, rather hesitantly, that we would might see in his old boss, there was a reminder of how Ferguson has affected and transfixed generations of football players. It came in the simple, measured message he delivered for them in his brief, five-minute appearance on the pitch.
“You know how good you are,” he said. “You know the jersey you are wearing. You know what it means to be here. Don’t let yourself down,” he said.
It was a moment of extraordinary power. They will miss him when he’s gone.