Skip to content

A moment’s pause as Sir Alex Ferguson says goodbye to Old Trafford

May 12, 2013, 3:42 AM EDT

Alex Ferguson

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.

source: Getty ImagesIt 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.

Latest Posts
  1. Arsene Wenger concedes Arsenal “maybe not firing on all cylinders” yet

    Aug 27, 2015, 10:01 PM EDT

    Arsene Wenger, Arsenal FC Getty Images

    Why yes, Mr. Wenger, one would have to agree with that assessment. In particular, it’s the finishing that’s killing them, he says.

  2. 2016 Copa America Centenario will be played, but CONCACAF might not be involved

    Aug 27, 2015, 9:13 PM EDT

    Copa America trophy — 2015 Copa America Copa America trophy — 2015 Copa America

    Next summers tournament will go on, but CONCACAF might not participate, which means the Copa needs a new host nation.

  3. Men in Blazers podcast: An afternoon spent inside the mind of Jose Mourinho

    Aug 27, 2015, 7:37 PM EDT

    meninblazers

    Rog talks with Chelsea’s Jose Mourinho about his coaching philosophy, post-match press conferences and football in America.

  4. Done Deals: Liverpool’s Markovic goes on loan, Llorente heads back to La Liga

    Aug 27, 2015, 7:09 PM EDT

    Lazar Markovic, Liverpool FC Lazar Markovic, Liverpool FC

    With the transfer deadline now just four days away, some of these deals are (finally) getting done.

  5. Europa League roundup: Southampton crash out in Europe; Dortmund hang 7, advance

    Aug 27, 2015, 5:41 PM EDT

    FC Midtjylland vs. Southampton FC — UEFA Europa League FC Midtjylland vs. Southampton FC — UEFA Europa League

    Southampton can now fully focus on the Premier League, because they’re officially out of Europe.

  6. Top 5 Premier League storylines ahead of Week 4: Transfer deadline day looms

    Aug 27, 2015, 4:38 PM EDT

    Aston Villa v Manchester United - Premier League Getty Images

    The transfer deadline looms large as the Premier Leagues 20 teams head into Week 4. Who will be the panic buyers of 2015?

  7. College soccer begins its season with an offense-loaded PAC_12; Huskies on the rise

    Aug 27, 2015, 4:00 PM EDT

    gohuskies.com gohuskies.com

    Yeah, you know Stanford’s Jordan Morris, but Washington’s Mason Robertson and Oregon State’s Timmy Mueller outscored him last year and will look to do the same this season.

  8. PHOTO: Check out the incredible 16-year-old Irish Neymar doppelganger

    Aug 27, 2015, 2:20 PM EDT

    Source: Limerick FC Source: Limerick FC

    Neymar could be a stunt double for Limerick’s Barry Cotter.

  9. Analyzing UEFA Champions League group stage draw for four Premier League teams

    Aug 27, 2015, 1:41 PM EDT

    chelseaman Getty Images

    UCL draw hands two PL teams favorable groups. As for the other two… woof.

  10. Lionel Messi wins UEFA’s Best Player in Europe award for 2014-15 season

    Aug 27, 2015, 1:16 PM EDT

    Lionel Messi, FC Barcelona Lionel Messi, FC Barcelona

    Argentine superstar picks up second UEFA Best Player award after stunning treble-winning season.

  11. Arsene Wenger gives injury update on Arsenal duo Koscielny, Mertesacker

    Aug 27, 2015, 11:30 AM EDT

    Arsenal v Tottenham Hotspur - Premier League Arsenal v Tottenham Hotspur - Premier League

    Experienced center backs both missed Liverpool game through injury. Will they return this weekend?

  12. Mario Balotelli hits out at Liverpool after AC Milan loan move: “Now I will play as a man”

    Aug 27, 2015, 10:05 AM EDT

    FBL-ENG-PR-QPR-LIVERPOOL

    Super Mario knows he is running out of chances to salvage his career.

  13. Arsene Wenger “confident” of new signing for Arsenal, reveals plan for transfer Deadline Day

    Aug 27, 2015, 9:20 AM EDT

    Arsene Wenger, Arsenal FC Getty Images

    Gunners boss says he will be available “24 hours” as Deadline Day approaches.

  14. PHOTOS: Manchester United unveil new blacked-out third jersey

    Aug 27, 2015, 8:28 AM EDT

    Manchester United v Club Brugge - UEFA Champions League: Qualifying Round Play Off First Leg Getty Images

    Back in black, the Red Devils have a snazzy new jersey for their UCL games this season.

  15. 2015-16 Premier League Power Rankings, Vol. I: Taking very early stock with Man City on top

    Aug 26, 2015, 10:03 PM EDT

    Manchester City’s Vincent Kompany celebrates with Manchester City’s David Silva, right, after scoring against Chelsea during the English Premier League soccer match between Manchester City and Chelsea at Etihad stadium, Manchester, England, Sunday, Aug. 16, 2015. (AP Photo/Rui Vieira) AP

    Three matches certainly don’t tell the tale of an entire season, but it’s a decent length chapter in the story of the 2015-16 Premier League.

  16. Martinez: Everton to make “very strong statement” in rejecting Stones’ transfer request

    Aug 26, 2015, 8:42 PM EDT

    LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - AUGUST 23:  John Stones of Everton applauds the fans prior to the Barclays Premier League match between Everton and Manchester City at Goodison Park on August 23, 2015 in Liverpool, England.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images) Getty Images

    Martinez wants Stones to stay, and says chairman Bill Kenwight isn’t going to cash in this late in the window.

  17. Report: Kevin De Bruyne to Manchester City “very nearly complete”

    Aug 26, 2015, 7:56 PM EDT

    In this Nov. 27, 2014 photo Wolfsburg's Kevin De Bruyne plays the ball during the Europa League Group H soccer match between VfL Wolfsburg and Everton FC at the Volkswagen Arena stadium in Wolfsburg, Germany. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn) AP

    The Times’ Chief Football Correspondant Oliver Kay says the move should be done soon, and for less than $90 million.

Featured video

Premier League, Week 3 review