This is how they all dream of leaving. Every politician, every captain of industry, every totalitarian leader of every rogue state and every football manager that ever lived will have looked on Sir Alex Ferguson's day at Old Trafford on Sunday and thought that, as farewells go, it would be pretty impossible to improve on.
It was one man alone amid a frenzy of admiration, gratitude and emotion. There was the guard of honour, the speech and then there was the hanging out to dry of Wayne Rooney. There was the late winner through Rio Ferdinand, which is nothing new at Old Trafford. But after 26 years six months and six days in the job, it was the sheer weight of history of what had gone before that leant the occasion such enormous significance.
When finally Ferguson took the microphone on the pitch at the end of the game he told the supporters that he had "absolutely no script" in his mind. "I'm just going to ramble and hope I get to the core of what this football club has meant to me." Then as he ticked off those he wished to thank: his family, the fans, his staff, he built to one simple, powerful message.
"I wish the players every success in future. You know how good you are, you know the jersey you're wearing. You know what it means to everyone here. And don't ever let yourself down, the expectation is always there."
It will be inscribed on a wall one day soon at Old Trafford. It will adorn a thousand t-shirts. It was a lesson in what went into the building of Ferguson's United and it is the kind of legacy that future United teams will either thrive under or crumble.
Within minutes the first player to fall foul of it had been identified when Ferguson confirmed that Rooney had requested a transfer and had that request turned down. Conflict seemed eternal under Ferguson at United and now he has bequeathed his last battle to David Moyes. Rooney has been arguably the most challenging of the leading players Ferguson has managed at United but even he could not overshadow a momentous day
The red flags in the hand of every Manchester United supporter prompted some to make a comparison with the Soviet rallies in the days of the iron curtain but no-one was at Old Trafford under duress. They were there because they wanted to be there, because they had begged and scrapped for a ticket, because on an occasion like this they could not imagine themselves anywhere else.
For those at Old Trafford for whom Ferguson has been a rock solid certainty in their lives through every birth, death, marriage and divorce of the last 26 years there was a sense that they would see a different man emerge from the tunnel at 3.58pm.
No longer the unyielding leader of the most successful football club in Britain. Just a 71-year-old grandfather at the biggest retirement party anyone could remember. The first shot of him in the tunnel caught Ferguson blowing a deep breath like a man trying to force the emotion deeper back inside. When finally he did emerge with that brisk short stride of his, hands in the pockets of his overcoat, waving occasionally, he just looked a bit embarrassed.
In the directors' box, Ferguson's first captain at United, Bryan Robson was in tears. And this was Robson, the original 1980s throwback who could boss a midfield carrying the kind of injury that would get you discharged from the army.
They played "My Way" and "The Impossible Dream" over the Tannoy. Someone programmed "26 38" into the fourth official's dot matrix board to mark 38 trophies in 26 years. But to mark the 723rd and last home game for United under Ferguson nothing captured the success, and the tyranny, of his years in charge than the subplots developing elsewhere.
Over on the east side of town, Manchester City were disposing of another manager, their 14th permanent appointment during Ferguson's reign at United. Remarkably, Roberto Mancini might be denied the honour of being the City manager to outlast Ferguson should he go before Sunday. The contrast was painfully sharp. At City they bundle another out the back door. At United he is carried out shoulder high,
But even more pertinent than Mancini's departure was the story of Rooney. What more has defined Ferguson's style than his willingness to exert himself over the biggest names in the team, and ultimately dispose of them? At the medal presentation, where Ferguson greeted every single player, Rooney was booed by some fans and treated to the most cursory of handshakes by his manager.
It is hard to believe that Rooney could have witnessed the scenes at Old Trafford yesterday and still wanted to walk away from it. This was the passing into history of an era of excellence and unsurpassed achievement. It may all continue under Moyes but it will never be like this again. It will never be the story of the man who built the club back up again from its post 1960s-malaise. There may be further trophies but this chapter has closed.
If it has been a struggle to take the measure of Ferguson's effect on English football over the last two decades, indeed his position in British public life, then this felt like a sufficiently epic afternoon. There was a degree of wonder among even his players as they approached him with their families for pictures. No less so than that among the ground-staff and paramedics who lined the side of the pitch to shake his hand.
There is still Sunday at the Hawthorns when Ferguson will pick his last United team and walk off a pitch as United manager for the last time. But this was the grand farewell when, after the game, from the family enclosure, came his grandchildren, all of them in matching United shirts with "Grandad 20" on the back, to converge upon him.
The younger ones took his hand or insisted on examining his league winners' medal. The older ones took pictures on their phones. It is not the first time we have seen Ferguson's small army of descendants but on this day, after this retirement, it felt like a small but significant glimpse of Ferguson the man, rather than Ferguson the manager - the latter of which he will be for just one week more.
‘Things changed when my sister-in-law died’
Sir Alex Ferguson used his last post-match interview at Old Trafford to finally lift reveal why he decided to call step down. “I decided I was going to retire last Christmas,” he told Sky Sports. “Things changed when my wife Cathy’s sister died. For 47 years she’s been the leader of the family, looked after our three sons and sacrificed for me. Now she’s got all the grandchildren and they all dote on her. She’s lost her best friend, her sister Bridget, so I think that was important. To go out as a winner was also important.”
Ferguson’s departure was confirmed on Wednesday and he admitted it had become impossible to withhold the news any longer. “It was very difficult,” the 71- year-old said. “We nearly blurted it out to the family but we told our sons about March and my brother didn’t even know until Tuesday night because I wanted to tell the players first. Unfortunately, there were rumours going around Tuesday and you never know – our club’s a sieve. Stuff leaks out and it shouldn’t leak out. So we then started to speed things up a bit.”
Asked what he would miss most, Ferguson said: “Those last-minute goals. I loved those. We did put in a few so it’s part of the deal. When we lost the league to Manchester City last year, who suffered the most? Man City suffered the most but it’s just a part of history now.
“I’ve got plenty to do. My son Jason’s been organising things. I won’t be sitting still. My piano playing’s not very good so I’ll probably need a tutor.”
- More about:
- Manchester United