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.
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Jul 31, 2015, 9:47 AM EDT
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Jul 31, 2015, 8:50 AM EDT
Terry: “Regardless of what people say, you can’t take away what I have won and done in the game.”
Jul 31, 2015, 7:55 AM EDT
Gunners keep experienced duo around, as Walcott decides to stay at the Emirates.
Jul 30, 2015, 9:27 PM EDT
Louis van Gaal seems to have misplaced his club’s $90 million investment, purchased just 12 months ago.
Jul 30, 2015, 8:10 PM EDT
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Jul 30, 2015, 6:24 PM EDT
Julian Green will be playing in the fourth division of German football to begin the 2015-16 season.
Jul 30, 2015, 5:05 PM EDT
The terms and conditions of building a stadium next to Marlins Park couldn’t be any less favorable to the prospective MLS franchise.
Jul 30, 2015, 4:02 PM EDT
CONCACAF’s refereeing department could be in line for something of an overhaul in the coming months and years.
Jul 30, 2015, 3:00 PM EDT
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Jul 30, 2015, 2:00 PM EDT
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Jul 30, 2015, 1:05 PM EDT
Zlatan’s contract with Paris Saint-Germain expires next season, but he won’t let anyone know his plans for the future.
Jul 30, 2015, 12:10 PM EDT
Last season was a complete disaster for Newcastle. Can Steve McClaren turn things around for the Magpies?
Jul 30, 2015, 11:02 AM EDT
Liverpool could lose two strikers, while Mario Gomez is on his way to Besiktas.
Jul 30, 2015, 10:06 AM EDT
The South Korean billionaire is looking to become the new president of FIFA, and he had some choice words for his rivals.
Jul 30, 2015, 9:10 AM EDT
Heading into Louis van Gaal’s second season at Old Trafford, trophies are on the minds of everyone in Manchester.
Jul 30, 2015, 8:15 AM EDT
The defender had been heavily linked with a move to Manchester United, but it looks like he’ll be staying at Madrid.
Jul 29, 2015, 11:15 PM EDT
Kaka and David Villa scored for the All Stars, which built on last year’s 2-1 win against Bayern Munich.
Jul 29, 2015, 11:09 PM EDT
Halftime substitutions including Andreas Pereira gave some life to United, but the Red Devils still couldn’t find the back of the net.
Jul 29, 2015, 11:01 PM EDT
The 86th minute tally came moments after FCKC had drawn level at 2-2.
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