May 12, 2013, 3:42 AM EDT
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.
Sep 16, 2014, 9:36 AM EDT
Who picked Manchester City to win its tough group, and who said they’d fail to survive their opposition?
Sep 16, 2014, 8:48 AM EDT
How was this caper achieved? Was a security guard in on the act? Was an identical water bottle substituted?
Sep 16, 2014, 7:22 AM EDT
Villa will take on Arsenal without Christian Benteke this weekend, but the forward could be back by the end of the month.
Sep 15, 2014, 11:48 PM EDT
It was a week so fertile for goals that one of the world’s biggest names couldn’t dent the strike force of the PL team of the week.
Sep 15, 2014, 11:01 PM EDT
No one’s doing it quite like this man right now, who again takes hold of player of the week honors in the Premier League.
Sep 15, 2014, 10:37 PM EDT
There are five goals here, but it only took four matches to comprise the list.
Sep 15, 2014, 10:15 PM EDT
Costa Rica won the tournament for the eighth time, defeating Guatemala in the final.
Sep 15, 2014, 8:34 PM EDT
Newcastle United players and their manager have come under fire from ex-Liverpool back Jamie Carragher, who blasted the club on “Monday Night Football”
Sep 15, 2014, 7:45 PM EDT
The Sounders have three titles and won their first win Le Toux. Soccerly hosts an essay on his quest to deny them a fourth.
Sep 15, 2014, 6:55 PM EDT
The English FA asked FIFA to extend Anelka’s quenelle suspension beyond Britain’s borders.
Sep 15, 2014, 5:54 PM EDT
Oktoberfest begins Sept. 20, and 1860 Munich is going all-in when it comes to their away attire.
Sep 15, 2014, 4:53 PM EDT
Abel Hernandez, Enner Valencia, Mohamed Diame and Diafra Sakho all made their presences felt on NBCSN at the KC Stadium on Monday.
Sep 15, 2014, 4:34 PM EDT
Certainly one of the goals of the early season, as West Ham continues to tempt the highlight reels despite a tough start to the season.
Sep 15, 2014, 4:15 PM EDT
Brek Shea had a loan debut to remember, while Julian Green had one to forget and both Tim Howard and Brad Guzan kept clean sheets.
Sep 15, 2014, 3:49 PM EDT
Abel Hernandez has a goal and had another creation ruled offsides as the hosts rose to steal the first half with late heroics.
Sep 15, 2014, 3:20 PM EDT
Schedules, chances of making the last 16, predictions. Your one-stop shop for all the info as the UCL group stages begins for four PL teams.
Sep 15, 2014, 2:30 PM EDT
Record-signing Abel Hernandez (Palermo) makes his Hull City debut as the Tigers look to pick up their second win of the season.
Sep 15, 2014, 2:19 PM EDT
Ferdinand: “It killed me. Inside I wanted to scream and grab him.”
Sep 15, 2014, 1:32 PM EDT
All four Spanish teams are looking odds on to make it out of the group stage. What about the big clubs from England and Germany?
Sep 15, 2014, 12:41 PM EDT
All the news and quotes ahead of the Monday afternoon matchup.
- UEFA Champions League group stage: PST staff’s preview and predictions 0
- Hull City 2-2 West Ham United: Debut goals a-plenty in fun draw 0
- Americans Abroad wrap: Brek Shea assists in Birmingham debut (video) 0
- Champions League preview: How will the four Premier League teams get on? 0
- Watch live: Hull City vs. West Ham United (Lineups) 0
- Premier League Playback: Manchester United shine bright like a diamond 0