James Lawton: Ferguson the Old Trafford legend must quit while he is ahead

Click to follow
The Independent Football

As Sir Alex Ferguson ponders his future this weekend, wonders, maybe, if he has the stomach to see close up quite how Malcolm Glazer goes about riding profitably on the back of the empire that has been bought with someone else's money, he should avoid the mistake of so many Manchester United fans. He should see the world that he did so much to create as it is and not how he would like it to be.

As Sir Alex Ferguson ponders his future this weekend, wonders, maybe, if he has the stomach to see close up quite how Malcolm Glazer goes about riding profitably on the back of the empire that has been bought with someone else's money, he should avoid the mistake of so many Manchester United fans. He should see the world that he did so much to create as it is and not how he would like it to be.

It is no longer, if it ever was, a monument to his brilliant, transforming work. It is a set of business opportunities and assets, and the harshest truth of all is that it is no longer certain that he is any longer one of them. For this reason, and given all that he has done, and all that he can still reflect upon with uncomplicated pride, it is impossible not to see this as the time for him to go.

To go, that is, with his pugnacious head up, and not with the weasel words of some slick business operator making in his ears a mockery of achievements which, even when clouded by recent disappointments, remain both astounding and unique.

He can go knowing - and this might be some comfort - that the cruelties of football were long in place before the men in suits saw the advantages of going "plc".

Stan Cullis made a legend of the Wolves, opened up the thrilling world of floodlit, international football, and his ultimate reward was a curt letter from the club secretary telling him he was fired, and would he please hand in as soon as possible the keys of his club car.

Jock Stein won British football's first European Cup, just a few years before being offered a job in the Celtic pools office. Bill Shankly died of a broken heart, something to recall, maybe, as the Liverpool heirs to his tradition go for their fifth European Cup in Istanbul later this month.

So if we weep for the dilemma of Fergie, we should not be ignorant of all the other tears that have been shed. When Cullis was fired, Sir Matt Busby, whose rewards at Old Trafford were only a fraction of those that Ferguson has - rightly - received, wrote to him to say that there were times when he felt ashamed for the human race.

How might the father of Old Trafford feel right now? He might revert to the realism of his native Lanarkshire coalfields. He might say that life is tough for most of the people, and then they die.

For Ferguson, the greatest danger now is to be cut by a sense of ingratitude, a bleak view of the fickleness of the game which has so shaped his life. This, though, is unlikely despite his heavy step around Old Trafford at the end of a deeply frustrating season, when the fans who had so generously applauded the new champions Chelsea walked into the night before their own erstwhile heroes had completed a shuffling, embarrassed circuit of the field.

A few years ago, when Ferguson had announced his impending departure and was negotiating terms for an ambassadorial role when the reins of command were released, there was some rage in this quarter when this man who had created all the wealth of the modern United was cast in the role of Oliver Twist.

It was written here that while it was appalling that his contribution to the club was not being freely acknowledged, and rewarded, in some sweetheart retirement deal - a prize for pushing the value of the club towards the £1bn mark a decade and a bit after being offered on the market for around £12m - it was also surprising that he had not anticipated such a dogfight. Did he not realise that in the end the game screwed every football man, and whatever his success?

The result was a tap on the shoulder in the aisle of a plane. There was Ferguson, and he said: "Yes, I did." Now Ferguson would not be human if he did not look back with some regrets and wonder how much stronger his position might be today if he had made several different turnings in the last few years.

He must speculate on whether his former friends John Magnier and J P McManus would have sent Glazer back to the trailer parks and the gridiron but for the war over the stud fees and disputed ownership of the champion thoroughbred Rock Of Gibraltar. Did that battle, and the ill-advised provocations of some United fans, not make it inevitable that the "Coolmore Mafia" would sell to Glazer when they deemed the price to be right?

Did Ferguson make a grievous error when he returned to the coaching of Carlos Queiroz, a decision that seems to have drained away the natural aggression and confidence of a team which, at their peak, always operated in Ferguson's own image of relentless combativeness and self-belief? Did he become too entrenched in the best of a past that included a Roy Keane, undoubtedly his best signing, operating at the peak of his physical powers rather than from a brilliant memory?

Because of his nature, some of Ferguson's reflections will no doubt be bitter. He might think of those personal profits drawn by his former boss - and ally - Martin Edwards, who, while on the way to extracting £93m, said that the possibility of a rise for the manager would have to be referred to a financial sub-committee of United plc.

What, he might well wonder, would have been the effect of the signing of Ronaldinho, one which he pushed for so hard only to see it dwindle in the hands of the former United chief executive Peter Kenyon, who now, to turn the knife in Fergie's soul, is writing from the endless chequebook of Roman Abramovich.

The list of such questions is endless and maybe, like the responsibilities of command, should be put away now, with honour and an intelligent understanding that in every life there is an overwhelming requirement to take stock and see what is possible - and what is not.

Does he really need the harassment of a new business regime at Old Trafford, a new bunch of arbiters of the current state of his ability to motivate a team of underachieving multi-millionaires? Does he want to hear, in an American accent, "Now, Alex, what can you do for me today?" This is the question that must haunt him most in the next few days. At 63 does he need any of this? Of course it is true, as the great champion Sugar Ray Leonard once declared before going into a fight at Madison Square Garden that most everyone but him knew he couldn't win, that "fighters fight for as long as they can because it is their life, it is the thing they do best". And of course we know how much Ferguson still cares.

For confirmation you only have to see him when his latest protégé Wayne Rooney scores an astonishing goal, or when the perceived conspiracies of the game and fate work against him and his team and he rages, as he did on the touchline at Everton recently, against a rival manager, in that case the young comer David Moyes, whom he respects so highly.

But then, perhaps he should ask himself, what is the greatest trick in life? It is to quit when you are still ahead, before you have been sucked down into circumstances not altogether under your control. If Ferguson had been a master of this art, he would have walked away six years ago - at the age of 57, one considered to be highly advanced in the world of business wizardry, where men can earn so much money by their thirties or forties they are already staking out the first of their retirement homes.

That would not have done for Ferguson; it would have denied him the supreme years of his working life, the distillation of all that he had strived for since boyhood in the shadow of the Govan shipyards. At 57, he could have taken his knighthood on the mountain top of the historic treble of Champions' League, the championship of England and the FA Cup, and he could have wrapped up his reputation in cotton wool and had it for all time.

The point he should remember is that, despite the convulsions of recent years, he remains ahead. He is the creator of the United wealth which Malcolm Glazer and, before him, Rupert Murdoch coveted so hard. He gave the wealth and he gave the fulfilment of the dreams of those fans who now decorate Old Trafford with their despair. It is enough, surely, for any reasonable man.

But then it is also true that if Ferguson had always been an entirely reasonable man his legacy would not now have been turned into such a desperate and ferocious battlefield. Even so it is hard, if not impossible, not to say that his wisest course now is to say that he has done all that he can.

Controversial, bullying, ungraceful, he has been all of that. But then try to imagine English football without him these last 20 years. Where would have been the standard, the passion to win? That is the true legacy of Sir Alex Ferguson - one which in the end does not depend on whether he sips the wine and smells the roses, or goes down fighting.

It is, after all, his choice - and his right.