For many, there’s no competition. Ferguson is the only story. He didn’t just build a team, or a club (as he said). He was responsible for the creation of a mega-brand on the back of the success of his side, which has attracted a global fan base that has invested not only its love and loyalty but also cash. And lots of it.
It was the moneymen behind Sir Alex who constructed that brand. But would they have been able to pull it off without Ferguson? Doubtful. Manchester United’s legion of global fans, not to mention the legion of Essex reds who shun their local and even London sides to pile on to coaches to worship at the shrine of their sainted Sir Alex, are buying into success. The success of Manchester United the business is predicated on the club’s success on the pitch.
Buying into the brand is expensive, but it doesn’t matter. Traditionalists may bemoan the dominance of finance in football, but it’s the name of the game today.
The Man U legion will pay through the nose, not just for tickets (the majority of Man U fans have never been within 100 miles of Old Trafford) but in pay TV subscriptions, replica kits, and any number of other souvenirs. Just so when they talk about Man U they can say “we”.
Prior to Ferguson’s arrival, Manchester United had borne the status of sleeping giant. The club still had a huge support and impressive resources. But the team always under achieved.
It took a leap of faith for Man U’s then board to stick with Sir Alex during some difficult years and wait for that to change. They were right to do so. Sir Alex’s first title, the club’s first for 26 years, was also the first Premiership title, and coincided with changes to the top flight and to the top competition in Europe (the birth of the Champions League) that cemented the dominance of the big clubs.
Only oligarchs, whether domestic (Jack Walker’s steel millions) Russian (Roman Abramovich) or from the Gulf (Sheikh Mansour) could hope to wrest the title from his grasp, with the notable exception of Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal (and the fans calling for change might care to remember that).
Abramovich and the Sheikh are still around, and thanks to their largesse Manchester United no longer enjoys the financial dominance it had during Sir Alex’s era. It won’t get it back anytime soon. It is a quoted company again with shareholders, and a board which has to produce profits.
In the excellent Why England Lose At Football Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski argue that in reality, and judged on his good-but-not-great record in European competition, Fergie only achieved what he should have achieved given the club’s advantage in resources.
That’s not quite such an easy argument to make today, given the firepower of his rivals. But will brand Man U survive a lean spell under a man without Ferguson’s unique approach and power? That’s the billion dollar question now, isn’t it.