I was once asked during a job interview that if Sir Alex Ferguson was to retire as manager of Manchester United on the same day that a government minister challenged the Prime Minister in a leadership election and Tesco declared bankruptcy, what story would be the most news-worthy? Sir Alex was my answer, and this week that decision was justified: Ferguson's retirement was first on the BBC's 6 p.m. news bulletin, beating out new government legislation on immigration (I didn't get the job, by the way).
The retirement of Sir Alex after 27 years and 38 trophies is difficult for soccer fans of all tribes to describe. For Manchester United supporters, it is one of trepidation. For others, it is one of relief coupled with envy: the end of the beautiful game's benevolent lifetime dictator. Premier League executive Peter Scudamore rightfully tweeted, "The world has gone crazy. We have never known life without Sir Alex Ferguson."
For Americans not known for their love of soccer, commentators will reach for the inevitable comparisons to U.S. greats, Vince Lombardi among them. Yet while Lombardi has a trophy named after him, Ferguson has won a handful more. His tenure far exceeds that of the Packers legend. But statistics and silverware aside, and my own personal loyalties aside, Ferguson leaves a mark on the game far greater and more symbolic.
Soccer in Britain creates three things in a supporter: loyalty, hysteria, and rage. As a supporter of West Ham United, a London team used to middle-rank mild happiness and dreams of a bygone age, I was always assured of feeling all three when facing Sir Alex's team: the belief in our players, the joy of the rare victory, and the anger at the other team's dominance.
Yet even I—someone who is incensed by a team that has won the Premier League far too often and that draws more of its support from middle-class amateurs in need of something to talk about in the pub than true Manchester locals—have felt a sense of both hysteria and loyalty towards Sir Alex. The 1999 Champions League final, which saw Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer score in extra time to overturn a 1-0 Bayern Munich lead, remains etched in many young people's memory: the first European trophy for a English side after a 15-year wait and following a brief ban on English clubs playing on the continent since the 1985 Heysel disaster. My primary school teacher made us write about that momentous victory in Barcelona the following day; I remember writing about Sir Bobby Charlton's tears.
After 27 years one's memory begins to focus on the notable events easy to plot in a timeline, forgetting that the first five years of Ferguson's reign were mixed: A disgruntled fan unfurled a banner in December 1989 reading, "Three years of excuses and we're still still crap, ta-ra Fergie." The club's hierarchy stood by him, and the gamble paid off. Even when Ferguson dithered over his retirement in the early 2000s, at a time when Manchester United's dominance was being questioned by Arsenal's "invincibles" and Chelsea's influx of Roubles, there was no urgency in replacing him.