James Lawton: Ferguson kept from grand exit by thirst for the fight

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The question will again be on many lips now that Sir Alex Ferguson has confirmed the strength of arguably football's most ferociously realised comeback. With his 19th major title for Manchester United, his 10th annexation of the world's most powerful football league – and the imminent possibility that in the old Moscow citadel of the oligarch Roman Abramovich he can deliver a final swordstroke to the man who presumed he had the wealth, and the coach, Jose Mourinho, to invade and diminish his empire – Ferguson will once again be asked if it is not time to take his last and ultimately triumphant hurrah.

Consider the incentives of retirement for the 66-year-old who has lasted longer and more successfully than any of the men who shaped his ambitions when he was the overachieving striker of Rangers bred in the dockside streets of Govan – his countrymen Sir Matt Busby, Jock Stein and Bill Shankly. We might also profitably reflect on how much more profoundly satisfying such a Caesar's farewell might be now than when it was first suggested to him after his astonishing treble of '99, when he raced along the touchline of the Nou Camp after winning the European Cup, the Premier League and the FA Cup.

Then, he would have been leaving at the more conventional age of 57 and at the end of a cycle of power and accomplishment which had seen him match his great predecessor Busby's achievement of making three title-winning teams crowned by the mastery of Europe. Now, he could point to the unprecedented creation of a fourth team – an achievement that in these days, when every football club is at the mercy of its profit line, the ebb and flow of the circumstances, and perhaps also the whims of its most significant investors, has almost certainly become untouchable.

Now he would be marked also by extraordinary survival, at an age when every other significant figure in football had chosen, or been required, to take at last a sniff of the flowers, on the very brink of career destruction. Whatever was thought of the wisdom of his decision to fight the Irish power brokers John Magnier and J P McManus over the ownership of the racehorse Rock Of Gibraltar, his re-emergence – not only with no more than flesh wounds but also as a transcendent winner, the greatest in the history of English football – puts him in a class of combativeness entirely of his own.

It is a class marked indomitable. It is a way of thinking and fighting never likely to be compromised or checked by the debilitating effects of rational calculation or reflection. It comes, astonishingly when you think about it, not from the experience of age but, still, the vigour of youth that was never satisfied.

Here, probably, we have the essential futility of those who seek to influence some grand exit from football by a man who did once hover over the possibility of walking away.

His closest ally, and warmest supporter at Old Trafford, Sir Bobby Charlton – the man who passionately argued the case for his appointment in 1986 – has reported how he was prepared to make a last stand against what he would have considered a wastefully premature abdication.

In his autobiography Charlton recalled: "Alex could have walked away at any point after delivering the treble and been given all the acclaim and honour that went to the Old Man [Busby] when he decided he had done enough in the game. However, when he announced he was doing it four years ago I was shocked. It seemed such a waste of a unique competitive intensity which was not staunched in any way. But then what could I say? If ever a manager had earned the right to go in what he considered his own good time it was surely this one. He announced that he had talked it over with his wife Kath and his sons and decided it was time to sip the vintage wine and pursue his racing interests.

"I wondered was it really time to begin the search for the right man to pick up the baton at Old Trafford? No, I didn't really think so. Certainly there was no lack of impressive candidates, stretching from Martin O'Neill to such Italian coaching giants as Ferguson's friend Marcello Lippi – but who knew more about the needs of the club, and who was more capable of meeting them, than the man who had already done so quite brilliantly and, it seemed to me, was still at the peak of his powers? It was a conviction I nursed and was determined to express before he finally walked away.

"It was thus something of a relief when we met at the Old Trafford lift one morning and he said, 'I've had a chat with Kath and I've decided I'm staying on. I smiled and said to myself, 'Surprise, surprise'."

But then how much less so would it be if he was to pass on a different decision to Charlton on another morning soon when Old Trafford, with all its pressures and its expectations, stirs into life? The question is relative because if Ferguson still conjures all the old passions, and sometimes risibly one-eyed interpretations of anything that even vaguely touches the interests of his team and his club, if he still celebrates his players as though he has helped to make them with his own hands, he is six years older than when he last weighed in the balance the heat of action and cool recall of a job that in so many ways could not have been better done.

Three of those years, let us not forget, were besieged with angst. The Irish war threatened the unravelling of a masterful image. The onslaught of Chelsea's wealth and Mourinho's ego – fuelled by two league titles and confirmation that he had a rare ability to organise and inspire devotion even in players whose monthly wages cheque would blunt the competitive drive of most ordinary men – further undermined the idea that Ferguson, with the enduring challenge of Arsène Wenger's Arsenal, would for the foreseeable future set the agenda for English football. Wouldn't Ferguson only have been human to have reconsidered then the wisdom of aborting his stroll away down the high road of football history?

But then maybe we are missing here something vital from the equation. Perhaps we are overlooking the essence of the Ferguson story. Could it be that in the end his results are secondary to the fight itself?

Certainly few in any area of the sporting life restore themselves so quickly after the pain of a significant defeat. Ferguson, even after the Champions League semi-final débâcle in Milan last season, which might have ravaged the confidence of most managers in their teams, and the long-term underpinning of their own futures, was quick to believe again in the heroic pictures he had painted around the talents of Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney. So often it seems that defeat is not the demon in the life of Sir Alex Ferguson. It is the horror of not having the chance to square it away, to avenge it with the most exquisite pleasure.

Whenever he goes, and however he does it, that, we have to believe, will be the cruellest loss of all.