First we loathed him, then we loved him: Alex Ferguson's appeal transcends football tribalism

The Scot has calmed to the point where opposing fans can appreciate his natural roguishness above the nastier side of his gamesmanship

Share
Related Topics

We’ll all be swamped in this stuff for the next few days, so let’s speed through the formalities: as manager of Manchester United between 1986 and 2013, Ferguson was a prodigy. He marshalled English club football into and through a golden era. Behind him to prove it stand trophies from 13 Premier League and two Champions League campaigns; by his feet lie the countless pieces of chewing gum that paved the Scotsman’s way to glory, masticated with the same precise and unvarying level of ferocity he seemed to bring to all aspects of managing a football club.

Paeans from fans and players will fill in much of the rest – the hairdryers, the wine, the text messages to fellow managers and the pleasure in mind-games. What might be missed, however, is what exactly lifted Ferguson above the tribal loyalties of football fans and turned him in to something approaching a – there’s no avoiding it – national treasure. Because tonight there will be little carping on ArsenalMania or BlueMoon or the ShedEnd fan forums. Pints will be sunk respectfully, even a little morosely, in pubs around the country. The contrast with Margaret Thatcher’s passing – which timing invites us to make in face of obvious absurdities (not the least being that Ferguson is alive) – couldn’t be much clearer. The Tungsten Scot, Britain’s other defining leader of the late 20th century, leaves his job to applause – not bitter discord.

Part of this has to do with the mellowing of age. Ferguson is now 71, a doyen. Fifteen years or so ago, his style seemed to consist primarily in getting up people’s noses. Keegan crumbled; Wenger snorted; the public wanted anyone to win but Manchester United. Since then the Scot has calmed to the point where opposing fans can appreciate his natural roguishness above the nastier side of this gamesmanship. We will miss the quips - "that lad was born offside" - and the cod poetry: on his first sighting of a young Ryan Giggs, Ferguson recalls: “He was 13 and just floated over the ground like a cocker spaniel chasing a piece of silver paper in the wind”. Curiously, as Ferguson has lost his violent streak football has too – shifting from central midfielders in the brutal mould of Keane to those more cultured, like Michael Carrick.

Another explanation for Ferguson’s broad appeal lies in the increasingly monied nature of his rivals. Before Abramovich and co arrived, Manchester United were the club to hate mainly because they won too much. Now - with the globalisation of the Premier League - you can choose to hate a victorious club because it’s plumped with money extracted from the crumbling of Soviet Russia (Chelsea), or because it treats managers like cabaret turns (Chelsea), or because it has even more money than Chelsea (Manchester City). Hating on Ferguson seems quite parochial by comparison.

It also seems pointless. Unlike most politicians and public leaders, Ferguson earned respect by not caring what the press, and by extension the public, thought of him. Rather than come to press conferences and court approval, he banned whatever reporters irked him, refused to speak to the BBC for years, and generally treated the media like parasites. Treated with such indifference, knowing an inspirational manager lay beneath, we bent towards Sir Alex, a state of affairs Wenger summed up acutely in 2005: “Ferguson does what he wants and you are all down at his feet”. Today we are all down at his feet once more. And you know what, we’re going to miss them very badly indeed.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Energy Engineer

£25000 - £30000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Energy En...

Sales Representative, Leicester

£25-£30k Plus Car: Charter Selection: Major well established nationwide market...

Sales Representative, Birmingham

£25-£30k Plus Car: Charter Selection: Major well established nationwide market...

HR Administration Manager - Hounslow, West London

£28000 - £32000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Administration Manager...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

August catch-up: The Hitch on Americans, literature, liberal intervention and language

John Rentoul
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses the nation on the country's Independence Day in New Delhi, India  

With Modi talking tough and Sharif weak, the India-Pakistan love-in could never last

Andrew Buncombe
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law
Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?

Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world...

But could his predictions of war do the same?
Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs: 'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs
Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities, but why?

Young at hort

Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities. But why are so many people are swapping sweaty clubs for leafy shrubs?
Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award: 'making a quip as funny as possible is an art'

Beyond a joke

Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

Sadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire: The joy of camping in a wetland nature reserve and sleeping under the stars

A wild night out

Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire offers a rare chance to camp in a wetland nature reserve
Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition: It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans

Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition

It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans
Besiktas vs Arsenal: Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie

Besiktas vs Arsenal

Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie
Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

As the Northern Irishman prepares for the Barclays, he finds time to appear on TV in the States, where he’s now such a global superstar that he needs no introduction
Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to Formula One

Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to F1

The 16-year-old will become the sport’s youngest-ever driver when he makes his debut for Toro Rosso next season
Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

But belated attempts to unite will be to no avail if the Sunni caliphate remains strong in Syria, says Patrick Cockburn
Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I would end up killing myself in jail'

Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I'd end up killing myself in jail'

Following last week's report on prison suicides, the former inmate asks how much progress we have made in the 50 years since the abolition of capital punishment