Fergie's final role – the genial doyen

The lap of honour begins with an avuncular welcome for new boys, says Nick Townsend
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The Independent Football

When Sir Alex Ferguson pronounces that "Fulham are the most impressive of all the clubs to have come up recently" the suspicions of the cynical are apt to be aroused. Particularly so when it is recalled that other promoted teams include Kenny Dalglish's Blackburn Rovers, who proceeded to win the Premiership title. Such generosity is not a trait that has always exemplified Ferguson's 16 years at Old Trafford.

On the rare occasion when another club's achievements have been bestowed with his approval, there has often been an ulterior motive. Or so it has been claimed. But when he articulated such a view after training on Friday, it appeared transparent enough and not clouded by any attempt to outsmart the first opponents of Ferguson's final season. Neither was his commendation of Jean Tigana, manager of the newly-promoted Premiership club: "I think he's got the lot."

Time will tell if we are witnessing a metamorphosis as Ferguson enters the winter of his career, whether this character who is perceived as suffering from myopia where his club and their rivals are concerned is starting to mellow.

He won't thank you for suggesting it, but one suspects it may be the case. Ferguson is understandably reluctant to reveal his own emotions as he begins what is effectively a season-long lap of honour while his club grapples with the near-impossible task of replacing him. But he would have to be an ice-cold Alex to be unaffected by such a prolonged exit line.

Ferguson must be virtually unique in that his departure from day-to-day management has been so long planned. In this most transient of careers, the end, even for the best, tends to come with a late night or early morning call from the chairman and a flying visit to clear your desk and say your goodbyes.

In contrast, Ferguson is enjoying the longest "banging out" in the history of the game. It is still difficult to believe that a year today, when United begin their 2002-2003 campaign, that familiar profile will not be silhouetted above the crowd, ready to erupt into delirium or outrage; those features, at times as hard and unyielding as one of the rivets in the Glasgow shipyards where he began working life, will not be breaking into the broadest of smiles at a cleverly constructed goal or a gargoyle-like expression of contempt following some official's aberration. It will be like New York harbour without the Statue of Liberty; Egypt without the Sphinx.

Curse him for his lack of objectivity, at least in public, and his perceived reluctance to give credit to opponents, or admire him regardless for producing and maintaining a largely home-grown team, Old Trafford will experience such a lack of presence that it will appear there has been a death of the paterfamilias.

You can only imagine what it will mean to Ferguson himself, who from the moment he succeeded Ron Atkinson in November 1986 established the whole character of the club, his influence permeating from the most callow youth to the latest multi-million pound signing.

His attention to detail from day one emphasised that he was a perfectionist. As Eric Harrison, the club's former youth coach, who nurtured many of today's first team, reveals in his autobiography: "In some ways, the boss is a lot like Brian Clough. Nobody gets away with anything. Everyone at the club soon realised we were in the business of being successful – and staying successful."

He adds: "Things were happening I had never experienced. The boss and Archie [Knox, Ferguson's initial assistant] came to every reserve and youth match they could. The boys got the message. They realised the boss was watching their every move. It may have been a bit intimidating for some, but I was pleased that this was happening. Weak-kneed players are no good to Manchester United."

The result of his insistence on supervising a club from top to bottom has changed the way many managers regard the job. Younger men like Tigana may have different coaching methods, but the template Ferguson established regarding youth development and the structure of the club has been eagerly followed.

"I don't think Mr Al Fayed is putting in the sort of money that Jack Walker did at Blackburn, but they've already got a lot going for them. I know what they are doing at youth level, and it's very impressive," Ferguson said. "The structure looks excellent and they've shown a lot of ambition already, with the signing of [Edwin] van der Sar. You have to admire that from a club who haven't been in the big time for many years."

He added: "I remember Fulham in the days of [Bobby] Robson and [Johnny] Haynes but they slipped back as far as you can imagine. When you're in that position you do two things. You crumble up and die or do something about it. Quite often after a team have been in the shadows, when they get a chance back in the top league they want to make sure they don't go back."

The team that Jack Walker built with Dalglish won the championship, he was reminded. Did his comments infer that Fulham can emulate Rovers? "They [Blackburn] came up with a powerful, resilient team, but to me Fulham have got what it takes to last longer," he declared. "It will be hard work, but I think that's what they're intention is. What nobody knows is how long it's going to take."

Ferguson added: "I don't think they'll be sensational this season, but they should be all right. They play in the right way." And as for Fulham's French manager? "Good foreign managers can only be a beneficial influence on our game," he said. "There are possibly too many foreign players, but the good ones are worth having. Tigana's definitely a good manager." A rare display of approval. And from the heart. Who knows? The world may discover this season that he's got one.