The clash between Real Madrid and Manchester United last night was probably the most anticipated game in the recent past. The Red Devils entered the superderby in good shape – after a comfortable 2-0 win over Everton in the weekend and yet another slip up by city rivals Manchester City, United have all but secured the English Premier League title and can concentrate in the UCL with optimism.
This season is another testament to the resilience and grit of the Old Trafford team. Last season they lost the title in the most dramatic of fashions – after 34,200 minutes of football, a last second Sergio Aguero strike earned City the title on goal difference. It was probably the most emotional ending to a football league season ever and anywhere in the world. Some people might have considered it a sign of better times to come. It was an uncharacteristic season for United – they had the lead in the table, but lost it after their loss at home to Blackburn and Everton came back from two goals down to take a point. It was thoroughly uncharacteristic stuff – United are the ones who usually come back from behind to earn points and relied on deadly consistency versus the lower teams. So maybe they had finally lost their mojo? Just maybe, Sir Alex Ferguson, at the helm for more than a quarter of decade, was finally getting old?
Instead, Manchester United came back stronger than ever. Alex Ferguson simply said that the dramatic ending to the campaign was just another chapter in the team’s history. Instead of dwelling on the missed title, he focused on how to make things better – his team lacked its usual flair and explosiveness, so he brought in Robin Van Persie. It has worked like a dandy so far.
It may seem interesting now, but Sir Alex has been doing it for a long time. He has stood the test of time and the challenges of many worthy opponents. Most fans probably don’t remember this far back (a lot were not even born), but when the scot took the reins at United, it was Liverpool that was the dominant power in English football. From the point of view of that time, it seemed almost laughable to consider Manchester a challenger to the mighty Anfield machine. Merseyside fans often teased United fans with “call us back when you win 18”. Now United are on the brink of number 20.
After Liverpool, United enjoyed a long spell of total domination. The next big challenger was Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal with their smooth style of play. They often mesmerized fans with their slick football and managed to snatch United’s dominance, with the Invincible season, where they didn’t lose a single game during the campaign as their highest point. However, they didn’t last. Alex Ferguson found a way to deal with them and get back on top.
Next in line were Chelsea, backed by the unlimited cash pile of Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich. They, too, successfully challenged United. After Wenger, Jose Mourinho was the next highly capable foreign manager to lock horns with Ferguson, and he again found a way to eventually outlast him and come back stronger than ever. So Manchester City and Roberto Mancini are just the next in line to challenge supremacy. Like their predecessors, they enjoyed some early success, but it only seems to bring the best in Alex Ferguson.
So how has he been able to remain the one ultimate constant in English football for over 20 years? First and foremost, it was exceptional personnel management. Ferguson has always been able to assemble great teams by blending young talent from the United academy with superstar signings from around the world. The team has always combined a sense of appreciation for the history and traditions of United, which can only be carried by boys who have grown up with the club and superb football skills. Ferguson has been able to always keep his players in maximum motivation and to manager strong characters.
One of the key things Ferguson has mentioned as a key to his success is always remaining in control. It has helped him stay on top of capricious and temperamental stars like David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo. He has shown no exceptions or special treatments for them, one time famously hitting Beckham with a boot in the locker room after a poor performance. He has never been shy about leaving a player on the bench for any game, saying he draws on personal experience. As a player, he was left on the bench for a Scottish FA Cup final with Aberdeen, arguable the high point of his not-so-illustrious playing career. He said it was tough for him to accept it, but he understood it was what the manager thought best for the club, so he expects his players to act and think in the same way.
An old man is bound to be set in his ways, right? On the contrary, one of Ferguson’s greatest strengths that has helped him stay ahead of the curve for so long is his constant appreciation and interest in new knowledge. He analyses and adopts the newest, most advanced tactical and training techniques. After dominating English football for years in the 1990’s with a 4-4-2 formation, he very quickly understood when it was becoming obsolete and seamlessly integrated the more modern and now standard 4-2-3-1 way before other teams in England.
Ferguson’s unmistakable eye for talent is probably the last major building block of his lasting success. He has not only been able to spot great talent at a young age, but also to nurture it and develop it until it is ready for the prime time. It has happened with boys from the academy like Beckham, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs, who became the foundation for the team’s great successes. Ferguson needed just 90 minutes in a friendly game to recognize Cristiano Ronaldo’s great potential, which he then managed to develop,thus producing one of the most complete players in the history of the game.
Nobody goes into football management for the job security. In a game where success is quickly fleeting and fans and owners are notoriously short tempered, remaining at the helm for almost 30 years is in itself a remarkable achievement. Doing so, and remaining at or near the highest level of play and achieving success throughout the whole period, is truly one of kind. There is no doubt that Sir Alex Ferguson’s legacy will remain embossed with gold letters in the history book of football and will live much longer than 27 years in the hearts of fans.