Sir Alex Ferguson's Lesson for the English Premier League: Loyalty Counts

The Manchester United soccer manager has retired after 27 years with the team, leaving behind one of the longest, most successful coaching tenures in sports history.

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AP / Matthias Scharader

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.

That loyalty—of club to manager and vice versa—is why rival fans are envious as they cheer the end of Ferguson. As research at Warwick University has shown, the average English manager's tenure at any club has fallen from 3.12 years in 1992, when Ferguson was in sixth year, to just 1.36 in 2009. Blackburn Rovers, another English side that won the Premier League in 1995, have seen four managers in the dugout this season. The research also shows that a high managerial turnover doesn't provide success. Blackburn only just avoided relegation this season, from a league below the one they once graced and won.

Ask any rival club in the country, bar Arsenal who have stuck to their manager, and most will envy a team that avoids the drama at the top of the pyramid to ensure more drama and success on the pitch. I used to be proud of West Ham's loyalty to its managers: 10 leaders in our first 106 years. Now I despair at 12 years gone by with six different managers.

What has that loyalty given Manchester United? It has turned them from a team languishing in 21st in the old First Division to 13-times winner of the Premier League. An old boss of mine once told me during another interview (this one had a happy ending) that he wasn't one of those "glory hunting" Manchester United fans, but one who had been a supporter since the dark days of the 1970s and 1980s when Liverpool dominated and United struggled.

For any fan whose team once experienced glory days—West Ham in the mid-1960s, Tottenham in the early part of that decade, Everton in the 1980s—one's appreciation of Ferguson comes from that belief that those days of greatness are possible. Not with the short-term bonanza of money that has befallen Chelsea, but with long-term grit and determination like Ferguson's that placed faith in young talent.

That faith in far-off goals has characterized Ferguson's resignation, and his replacement of David Moyes, a man who has patiently plied his trade at Everton for a decade on a tight budget but with ample and consistent success. Sources told the Press Association Sport that Ferguson's successor "will be cut from the same cloth as him—with a similar passion for playing attractive soccer, bringing in top-class players and a strong record in youth development. United will be looking to the long term with the appointment, rather than a quick fix." That last statement sums it up: Glory comes with patience.