May 12, 2013, 3:42 AM EST
Long ago, I thought I was a Manchester United fan, back when I assumed you had to have a team to care about any league. It wasn’t long before I grew out of it – an errant soul unable to believe any of his childhood dreams, disillusioned into a life of criticism and suspicion — but in the days when the only games you’d see if you were a kid growing up in rural California were late, English league matches tape delayed by your regional sports outlet, you either followed Manchester United, Liverpool or whatever other club happened to be playing when insomnia exposed your credulity. Even back when they weren’t good – before the Premier League, Cantona, and the boon of Sky’s bankroll – Manchester United were still on television all the time, albeit at ridiculous hours when even Australian Rules Football had a mid-day highlight shows on the not-yet Worldwide Leader.
I didn’t know who Alex Ferguson was, and I’m not sure when I found out, though when I did, I’m sure I didn’t bat an eye. Even to the pre-teen me, whose knowledge of soccer barely went beyond my AYSO league and Ryan Giggs’ ability to set up a defender before his next touch, there was already a ubiquity to man overseeing the Red Devils. To me, he was both unknown and omnipresent; a transcendent figure just waiting to be revealed. The only other people I could equate him to were Quincy Jones or Clive Davis – elusive, omniscient presences that forced me to stop and asked, “Oh, he’s running this? Oh, of course he’s running this. I knew that.” There were no English league-scouring friends or Twitter followers to offer alternatives, and without their second-guessing, I was sure Ferguson had been there all along.
For people my age (mid-30s), Ferguson is as prominent in our English soccer lives as the league itself – a league that fragmented and spawned a leviathan in our early fandom, leaving entities like Manchester United and its manager to transcend the turmoil. Once the chaos settled and the Premier League was born, the United boss was its central figure, having acquired its first big star (Eric Cantona) and featuring a class of player that would define the circuit’s early commercial success: the flare of Giggs; the skill of Scholes; the inspiration of Keane; and the draw of Beckham. And while the van Nistelrooys, Ronaldos, Ferdinands and Rooneys cycled in to played their part, it was the manager that remained the protagonist. In terms of plot, in terms of narrative, there was no Premier League without Alex Ferguson driving it.
It seems like a stretch, but with 13 titles in the 21-year Premier League era, it’s no exaggeration to say each year’s drama can been seen through a Red Devils’ lens, especially given the contrast of the club’s fortunes before and after the circuit broke of from the Football League. Prior to the Sky-travaganza that started in 1992, spurring a surge that has since redefined world soccer, Manchester United went 26 years without a title. But they won in year one. And every year since, a stretch that’s seen them claim 12 titles in 20 years, each season’s defined by two questions: Is Manchester United supposed to win? And if not, how will the favorite hold them off?
During that time, English football has gone from a lightly-exported regional league to the defining brand in world soccer, a journey which can be tracked by its exposure in this country. Whereas a soccer fan born in the times of an Eastern Bloc and divided Germany had to scrounge low-budget late night repeats for their soccer fix, converts were soon able to see games an honest-to-goodness national entity. And then there was a channel that broadcast soccer. Then there were multiple games, digital packages, and starting next year, a free-to-air network committed to showing games on a weekly basis. Now, South America, Africa, Asia all follow the league with the same zeal as we do. This is not the post-Heysel, pre-inclusion league Ferguson joined in 1986. From exclusion to exemplar, England’s become the commercial benchmark.
And amid that accompanying iconography, few presences have been as constant as Ferguson’s. Perhaps you could point to Manchester United’s titles or the metronomic Ryan Giggs as other heartbeats of the Premiership’s infancy, but that’d only be dodging the obvious. Ferguson is the backbone behind each. Within that handful of clubs (seven) that have been in the league since day one, Ferguson’s has been the protagonist. If you did nothing but track Ferguson over the lifetime of the Premier League – if you were nothing but a true believer who bought into the legend before it was born — you’d be as cognizant as anybody of what the Premier League is all about.
So if you’re relatively new to English soccer – if you were lucky or young enough to not have to wade through its ascendance, to land on the doormat of this pre-constructed Orwellian monolith – this is why day like Sunday’s against Swansea and next week’s at West Brom’s are so important. Today, Ferguson manages his final game at Old Trafford – the final chance for Red Devils supporters to pay tribute to a man who literally defined the club. And next week, at the Hawthorns, West Brom and their fans will get the honor of representing the Premier League at large. The ever-present, the backbone, the constant will be gone, saying goodbye in Sandwell in front of 26,272.
Nobody watching Sunday’s game will know a Premier League without Alex Ferguson, and only those old enough to remember Ron Atkinson can speak to what world soccer was before Ferguson’s arrival. But in our confusion we can still acknowledge our ignorance and realize the change that’s upon us. Most of us don’t know of a league without Ferguson, and many of us would not be watching without him. It’s worth a moment to consider before Sunday’s farewell.
As an American, I normally refrain from calling Ferguson “Sir Alex,” but eight hours before his final match in Manchester, I can’t think of a more appropriate tribute. You don’t have to cower to British honorifics to make “Sir” into something else, if only for one day. Use it to recognize his achievement. Use it to recognize his influence. But on Sunday, use ‘Sir Alex’ to recognize an icon is saying goodbye to Old Trafford.
La Liga and Serie A roundup: Valencia, Napoli falter in Champions League bids; Milan derby a stalemate
Nov 23, 2014, 10:20 PM EST
Catch up on all of Sunday’s action and movement in La Liga and Serie A.
Nov 23, 2014, 8:15 PM EST
The Revs and Galaxy may both hold one-goal advantages, but they’re very different leads built in very different ways.
Nov 23, 2014, 7:45 PM EST
The Crystal Palace manager hailed his side’s “Neil Warnock performance” as they pull themselves out of the relegation zone.
Nov 23, 2014, 7:14 PM EST
The Galaxy find themselves just 90 minutes from the third MLS Cup final in four years after a narrow victory over the Sounders.
Halftime, MLS Cup Playoffs: LA Galaxy, Seattle Sounders in 0-0 Western Conference Championship stalemate
Nov 23, 2014, 6:05 PM EST
Zeroes on the scoresheet, but plenty of action in the first half. Sounders very patient, but Galaxy getting close.
Nov 23, 2014, 5:32 PM EST
He’s only ever done it twice in his MLS career, but with the season — and maybe his career — on the line, Thierry Henry will play on artificial turf next week.
Nov 23, 2014, 4:50 PM EST
The Spurs manager wouldn’t be drawn into talk about the winner from Christian Eriksen or the red card to Gaston Ramirez, instead discussing how he was just delighted to get three points any way he can.
Lineups, MLS Cup Playoffs: LA Galaxy host Seattle Sounders in Western Conference Championship, leg 1
Nov 23, 2014, 4:25 PM EST
Lineups are in for the Galaxy and Sounders’ Western Conference Championship first leg matchup. Two massive omissions leave Seattle shorthanded.
Nov 23, 2014, 4:07 PM EST
The Eastern Conference Championship first leg finished Red Bulls 1-2 Revolution, putting Jay Heaps’ side in full control of the series.
Nov 23, 2014, 3:10 PM EST
Steve Bruce challenged the decision to give Gaston Ramirez a straight red card, and criticized Tottenham defender Jan Vertonghen for going down too easily.
Halftime, MLS Cup Playoffs: New York Red Bulls 1-1 New England Revolution after thrilling first half
Nov 23, 2014, 2:52 PM EST
The first 45 at Red Bull Arena was wild. Take a deep breath and relive the thrilling actions, goals and all.
Nov 23, 2014, 2:00 PM EST
New England is undefeated in 11 straight matches with Jermaine Jones in the lineup.
Nov 23, 2014, 1:29 PM EST
Brendan Rodgers was quite downtrodden following Liverpool’s 3-1 defeat at Crystal Palace, the club’s third defeat in a row.
Nov 23, 2014, 12:55 PM EST
Hull led inside 10 minutes and looked solid on both ends, but a straight red to Gaston Ramirez for a kick at Jan Vertonghen, and Christian Eriksen completes the Spurs comeback a minute before full time.
Nov 23, 2014, 11:50 AM EST
Fastest ever red card? It certainly has a shout after Australian completes an ugly tackle straight after coming on.
Nov 23, 2014, 10:48 AM EST
Mauricio Pochettino has called on Ben Davies and five others to fix things for Spurs, as both sides make a whopping six changes to their lineups from last weekend.
Nov 23, 2014, 10:26 AM EST
Yannick Bolasie was a force down both flanks as Neil Warnock’s Crystal Palace pulls out of the relegation zone.
Nov 23, 2014, 10:01 AM EST
David Moyes began his tenure in Spain with a 0-0 draw, but there was more to it than that.
Nov 23, 2014, 8:19 AM EST
After missing the World Cup while rehabbing a serious ankle injury, Marco Reus is faced with yet another long road back.
Nov 23, 2014, 7:48 AM EST
With Daniel Sturridge shelved for weeks and Mario Balotelli unable to get past a groin knock, Liverpool turns to Rickie Lambert to produce goals at Selhurst Park.
- Inside Look, MLS Cup Playoffs: How Revs, Galaxy built very different one-goal leads 0
- Recap: LA Galaxy grab 1-0 lead over Seattle Sounders in Western Conference Championship 1
- Despite artificial turf, New York Red Bulls’ Thierry Henry says he’ll play next week at New England 1
- Recap: New England Revolution snatch 2-1 lead, two away goals from New York Red Bulls 6
- Video: Brendan Rodgers says Liverpool needs to “become a team” 1
- Crystal Palace 3-1 Liverpool: Bolasie carves up Liverpool defense 3