The Last Word: One warm gesture said more than all the Fergie hot air

The tributes to Sir Alex were out of proportion, but not his pledge to a more moving retiree

The mortal remains of Sir Alex Ferguson were not ferried down Fleet Street on a gun carriage, en route to a ceremonial funeral at Westminster Abbey. A nation was not mourning a warrior king lost in battle, or a social reformer taken before his time.

It just felt like it.

The unprecedented response to the impending retirement of the Manchester United manager was football's Princess Di moment. Admiration and respect mutated into obsession and opportunism. Best intentions were blurred by emotional incontinence. It all got a little silly and self-indulgent.

Politicians fawned and promised to ease Sir Alex's passage into the House of Lords. Academics, through their PR lackeys, peddled fatuous theories about the great man's "performance management" and the perils of "undermanaged transition".

The screeching excesses of the TV news clones, whose lack of insight was proportionate to their self-importance, seemed more absurd than ever. Social media exploded. All that was lacking in the salute to a singular son of Govan was the sight of cranes in Clydeside shipyards being dipped in his honour.

The nine major national newspapers between them devoted 180 pages to his life and times the day after news broke. There will be another ramble down memory lane when Sir Alex's valedictory speech at Old Trafford this evening is recorded for posterity. A city will be painted red tomorrow when he undertakes an open-topped lap of honour around Manchester.

This is not an attempt to denigrate him and everything he represents, although the orcs in cyberspace will doubtlessly distort these observations as the worst kind of calumny. Sir Alex deserves the privilege of effectively reading his obituaries, which will be fulsome, lyrical and dignified. Future generations will refer to the Ferguson era, and revere his constancy in a time of profound change.

And yet, where are we when a business decision, communicated through Form 6K submitted to the US Securities and Exchange Commission and signed by United's incoming chief executive, sweeps the Queen's Speech off the front page and reduces global atrocities to the news in brief?

Are lives so empty that we blindly accept apparently well-adjusted individuals becoming so consumed by the perceived conventions of the moment that they weep, on cue, for the cameras? Is football the new rock 'n' roll, or the new religion? John Lennon's historic comment on the relative popularity of the Beatles and Jesus Christ might need updating.

Sport, and its deadly antecedents in the Coliseum, has always been a conduit for irrational emotion and theatrical devotion. Gladiatorial graffiti preserved on the walls of Pompeii – "Caladus, the Thracian, makes all the girls sigh" – confirms that hero worship is not a modern phenomenon.

But perspective has clearly been lost. Ferguson will rightly be remembered for small acts of kindness to struggling coaches, undervalued staff and a variety of strangers and casual acquaintances. But his was not the most moving, and in its way momentous, retirement of the week.

When the Aston Villa captain Stiliyan Petrov announced his departure from football, and his plans to establish a foundation to help fellow leukaemia sufferers, he reminded us of the common good that can still be discovered in the desiccated husk of what was once a people's game.

"I hope to make a difference," he said. "I am moving on and I am excited by this. There is a deep joy in my heart because of what you have shared with me, not only in this past year but over the years I have been in football. I felt privileged. I still do. I always will."

Petrov's initial aim is to raise £100,000 to fund specialist nurses and drugs trials for leukaemia patients across the West Midlands. Typically, Sir Alex was one of the first football luminaries to promise his support.

That gesture is a measure of the man. It is small, simple and profound. The rest is hot air.

When money hijacks sport

The America's Cup, the oldest major international sporting event, has finally run aground. Its relevance must be questioned and its future appears bleak.

The death of British sailor Andrew Simpson, when the multihull Artemis capsized in San Francisco Bay, was such a deeply personal tragedy it seems disrespectful to his memory to talk in broader terms, but he would have understood the tenor of the debate.

This goes beyond the recurring issue of a man's right to test himself in perilous circumstances. It highlights what happens when sport and tradition are hijacked by money and a marketing strategy driven by corporate egotism.

The Cup has flirted with controversy over 163 years. It has been a billionaire's plaything, a showcase for secrecy, psychological warfare and industrial espionage for longer than anyone cares to remember.

But the element of danger involved in the introduction of the experimental AC72 class of yachts was a direct result of decline.Only four boats have entered the current edition of the Cup, which is due to start in July. Organisers sought to attract a younger demographic by creating a more extreme, television-friendly event.

If Simpson's death was a consequence of design flaws, the game is up.

Not for profit

West Bromwich Albion are an exceptionally well-run club who deserve the highest praise for leading the assault on profiteers. By blocking orders placed on a so-called secondary ticketing site, where seats for next Sunday's home game against Manchester United were reaching £3,000, Albion set an example which others should follow.

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