On 8 November 1986, Alex Ferguson managed Manchester United for the first time. It would be the start of an era the like of which English football had never witnessed and will never again see. Thirteen Premier League titles and two Champions Leagues as part of a 38-trophy haul in 26 years tells only part of the story of the man.
But football in this country just hasn’t been the same since Sir Alex retired in May 2013, and just as he wrote a touching letter to Eric Cantona “as a mark of respect and esteem” shortly after the Frenchman’s 1997 departure from Old Trafford, the legendary boss deserves to know how much he is missed in the modern game.
So The Sportsman follows Sir Alex’s lead with an open letter to the man himself…
Dear Sir Alex,
In many ways it seems like yesterday since that rain-soaked speech as you said goodbye to us from the centre of the Old Trafford pitch. But in truth it has felt much, much longer, and football feels so far removed from the way it was that day.
“You have been the most fantastic experience of my life,” you said back in May 2013, and you were the most fantastic figurehead for our sport. Your obsessive pursuit of perfection was astonishing, and every fan of every team around the country wanted a Sir Alex Ferguson to come in and nurture the values of their club in the exact same way that you had done at Manchester United. But that could never happen, because you are a complete one-off.
Even seven-and-a-half years on it doesn’t feel right when a name other than yours is prefaced by the title ‘Manchester United manager’, not to United fans and not to the rest of us. You were everything that club represented, but more than that you were everything our football sought to represent. The pride the fans had for their club, you injected in them. The fear that neutrals held when facing them, you instigated.
And when you left, we kept expecting you to come back. Just as you told Eric Cantona in your letter that “When we re-started training, I kept waiting for you to turn up as normal,” neither did we really believe you would retire. United fans in hope, the outsiders in dread.
We had grown so used to you being a part of our everyday consumption of football that we took you for granted. You thoroughly deserved to leave on that high with a 13th Premier League title, but we had to step into the unknown without British football’s patriarch.
It was telling when you said that day that “I’ll now be able to enjoy watching them rather than suffer with them,” but it hasn’t been enjoyable, has it? United have fallen way short of your standards. The club doesn’t feel the same anymore, and neither does football. You provided the framework for the modern game, and it feels hollow now that you’re not a part of it.
United alone have been through a series of managers since you left, with the club’s fabric having become frayed in the last seven years, but it’s typical of what football has become since you retired. We don’t see anybody with your longevity, your statesmanship or your colossal presence. You truly were one of a kind in that dugout.
Sure, we have enjoyed seeing the likes of Jurgen Klopp, Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola get teams to the top and become big characters in our game, but it’s not the same. None of them have shown they can be the perennial yardstick. Fortunes fluctuate as ever, but clubs aren’t being compelled to attain ever-increasing standards because of a need to better Sir Alex Ferguson. Who is driving the standards these days? Title challengers come and go now. Nobody is ever in the running every single year, pushing all the way, in the way you demanded of your sides.
There was something about you that we all connected with. You were a constant in our footballing lives, whether you made our dreams come true or tore them in half. In making United better and better, the rest of us had to get better and better to have any hope. The standards you set for the entire country were immense.
Football in the last seven-and-a-half years has taught us that everything we feared about your retirement was true. Manchester United are a million miles away from what they were under your stewardship, while being in the opposite camp feels neither as satisfying when United lose nor as gut-wrenching when they win. It’s all a bit bland without you in the dugout. There’s not that cup final feel about playing at Old Trafford like there used to be.
We hope you continue to enjoy a very long and happy retirement. Truly we do. Because nobody deserves it more than you. But there will always be a part of all of us that wishes you were still the Manchester United manager. Because that’s when football just felt right, somehow.
And, just as you said to Eric, you know where we are if you need us.