Soccer: Last triumph in a life of hard fought wins

Combative, controlling, loyal, witty, Sir Alex Ferguson has fought and won his last battle on a soccer journey which spanned the ages and turned him into a legend, writes Paul Hayward

You can still see the boy in Sir Alex Ferguson, even now we have reached the end. The elder statesman who called a halt after 27 years at Manchester United needs a hip replacement and feels he has won all his battles. But in his bursts of laughter, his lust for life, you can still pick out the young Glasgow firebrand who rose to become the greatest manager in British soccer.

Some people have an essence, a spirit that survives the ravages of age. Ferguson's is not diminished, however scared he might be of retirement. It was there in his early phase of building flotsam teams in Scottish outposts, and it shone when Eric Cantona, Roy Keane and Cristiano Ronaldo crossed the threshold at Old Trafford.

Ferguson loved big personalities because he is one himself. His life has been a search for kindred spirits who could play from the soul and the imagination.

Unusually, though, United's great leader combines the nonconforming instincts of a trade union radical with the controlling urges of a factory owner or dictator. From his first day as a manager at East Stirlingshire in 1974, where players made £60 a week, he learned that soccer management was largely about control (a word he prefers to power). Either the players are in control or the manager is - a truth he applied with brutal force in clashes with Roy Keane and David Beckham.

The caricature of Ferguson as a fulminating bully annoys his family because they know his career would have ended long ago had the "hairdryer" been his only psychological tactic. In his last 10 years, he was just as likely to ignore or "cold-shoulder" a player who had been needlessly sent off or committed some other transgression. He used ice as much as fire to direct the thinking of his players in directions that would shape their futures positively.

To span the ages from East Stirling and St Mirren to Ronaldo and Robin van Persie and two Champions League wins over 39 years in management is a stunning confirmation of the link between the top and bottom of the game.

In his last 10 years at United the challenge became one of managing constant and seismic change as United passed from public company to Glazer-owned debt mountain and multi-millionaire players became one-man corporations with immensely powerful entourages.

By changing as the game changed, Ferguson honed his talent for working two steps ahead of his contemporaries. He saw a team in multiple dimensions, the 11 he wrote on that day's team-sheet and the United side of 12 and 24 months hence.

The breathtaking scope of his work starts with comparative failure as a player, and especially his nondescript spell at Rangers, the stage on which he hoped to make his name as a Scottish warrior forward.

"The adversity gave me a sense of determination that has shaped my life," he said. "I made up my mind that I would never give in."

Plenty fail as players - in their own minds, at any rate - without going on to win 49 trophies, 13 English Premier League titles and two European Cups.

Scottish soccer alone might have immolated Ferguson's dream of becoming a great general of the game. His confrontational style and zero tolerance for half-heartedness might have earned him more enemies than any young manager could hope to deal with. But from the start there was cleverness to go with the truculence.

A carousing striker told he would "never play for the club again" would be left to dangle just long enough for him to return to the side desperate and grateful - and to reward Ferguson with a hat-trick.

Ferguson accepted that conflict was unavoidable. His disputatious nature is partly an acknowledgement that consensus is seldom possible in an organisation of perhaps 500 people, in which results on the field of play shape countless families' lives. A believer in clans or tribes himself, he pulled United's wagons in tight. Those inside the circle could expect to be defended. Those outside were hostile forces unless they could prove otherwise, which they almost never could.

Aberdeen were Ferguson's transition to Britain, to Europe, to the big tests of soccer, and he is never happier than when reciting anecdotes from those early days.

His comic sense may have kept him sane. He is drawn not to automatons but funny and cheeky people. His staff are not terrified of him, except when he enters one of his thunderous moods for the specific purpose of putting something right.

But even Ferguson's energy and appetite for a fight could not defy the laws of time. The toll exerted by Manchester City's late win in last season's Premier League title race was unusually severe. More galling than City's first championship win for 44 years was the knowledge that United tossed away a commanding lead.

So last summer was one of angst and self-reproach which gave Ferguson a choice - abandon ship straight away or go in one more time to avenge City's impertinent late surge. He chose the second, more difficult course. To knock City back down would complete the set of uprisings quelled.

"I've still got a wee bit of anger in me, thinking of how we threw the league away last season," Ferguson told the Harvard Business School, which was sufficiently intrigued by his mastery of management to commission a study of his record and methods. "My motivation to the players will be that we can't let City beat us twice in a row."

The arc of his trophy-winning years started with the Scottish First Division with St Mirren in 1976-77 and ended with United's 20th English championship this month. In between he broke the duopoly of Rangers and Celtic in Scotland with Aberdeen, and found United in arguably the perfect state to forge his reputation in world soccer.

Imagine Ferguson taking over a smoothly run, teetotal, talent-packed United in 1986. To remake the faded home of Best, Law and Charlton in his own image he first had to smash what it had become. For United to put its drink down and cut its hair, the club had to become an extension of Ferguson's own fierce and restless personality. This was the glory of the opportunity he was given, and he survived the early turmoil to construct a majestic team around Mark Hughes, Bryan Robson, Cantona, Paul Ince and Andrei Kanchelskis.

Liverpool were the first to be brought down. Ferguson knew the Anfield aura well from his visits with Aberdeen. To him, Liverpool were a bastion where surrendering possession of the ball would bring long periods of spectating.

Ferguson arrived in Manchester as the bright young star of Scottish management with what could be described as an inferiority complex in relation to Liverpool. He has no recollection of saying he would "knock them off their perch" but the sentiment was there, and acted upon. By the time United began their run of 13 league titles and two Champions League crowns Liverpool were already in shadow. New forces were arrayed against him - Arsene Wenger's jazzed-up Arsenal, then the Chelsea of Roman Abramovich and finally City, who seemed intent on claiming the soul of Manchester.

To endure all this, Ferguson has relied on a cast of allies: a republican guard led by Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Gary Neville, who speak truth to power and spread the kind of values Ferguson built his final decade on - youth development, self-improvement, loyalty and progression through science.

So thorough and driven has Ferguson become in the athletic sphere that Wayne Rooney's occasional lapses into chubbiness offend the spirit of the manager's work, as he demonstrates by leaving "Wazza" on the bench.

Mourinho's Chelsea caught United at a time when they were lulled into buying players off the peg before Ferguson redirected the emphasis into finding pearls that could be polished at Carrington. Phil Jones is perhaps the best recent example of a player spotted young at another club (Blackburn Rovers) and seized by United with decisive speed. Rooney and Ronaldo are earlier examples. The internationalisation of United's scouting network was another example of Ferguson extending the range of his work to take account of changes in the industry.

Twelve years after retirement first entered his head (the U-turn of 2002 stopped Sven-Goran Eriksson becoming United manager), United fans can look back on a decade in which Ferguson's teams won a Champions League final against Chelsea in Moscow, home town of Abramovich, and in which the lull of 2004-2006 was followed by three consecutive Premier League titles from 2007-2009, a year which ended with the first of two Champions League final defeats by Barcelona, Ferguson's nemesis on the biggest stage.

In those years a potentially crushing assortment of challenges came ... and went.

Keane, who began acting like the de facto United manager, berating the squad's young players on MUTV and arguing with the manager and his staff when he found things not to his liking, was purged, at great emotional cost to Ferguson, who nevertheless knew he had won one of the biggest political struggles of his career.

Beckham's burgeoning fame presented another kind of dilemma. Unlike Giggs, Scholes, Nicky Butt and the Neville brothers, Beckham looked beyond the United fence for affirmation and Ferguson began to feel the distractions in his life were undermining the footballer who had been probably the most enthusiastic of anyone in what became known as the "Class of 92". The pattern was repeated: friction, crossroads, exit the player.

Over 27 years Ferguson built up such a credit-line of success that no player or cabal could defeat him. Rooney engineered a huge pay rise but it was no guarantee of a starting place when his performances dipped.

Throughout every reconstruction, and in all his individual dealings, Ferguson was able to employ a vast store of wisdom, experience and natural managerial talent to keep the whole organisation moving forward.

With his team quizzes on trains and at meal times, his enthusiastic renditions of classic songs and his love of mischief, Ferguson might have come across to the younger players like a slightly eccentric uncle. His world is still populated by friends from Govan he has known for 60 years.

When management became too consuming and his life felt too narrow, he turned to horse racing, wine collecting and intense reading on subjects such as the Kennedy assassination and the American civil war.

His professional life conformed to the Japanese masks-of-life template. Around friends and family he is gregarious and quick to joke or sing. But the journey from home to Carrington or Old Trafford brought another mask from his bag, that of intense concentration. His ability to think on several levels at once and across 10 or 12 problems simultaneously is rare in management. Without his intelligence, his passion and strength of character might not have taken him this far.

As a soccer romantic whose love of attacking play was fanned by the great Real Madrid sides of the 1960s, Ferguson has featured heavily in that great Spanish tradition.

Surely his greatest association with world-class talent - Giggs and Beckham aside - was to invest his faith in the 17-year-old Ronaldo when many in English soccer were dismissing him as a "show pony".

In Madeira, via Lisbon, Ferguson found the player of his dreams, steering him away from theatricality and unlocking the physical courage inside. To make one of the great footballers from such raw material from another culture was Ferguson's finest individual achievement. To sell him to Real Madrid for £80 million confirmed that transformation. Somehow, too, the sale went through with United appearing broken and bereft - a mark of the club's strength, the ability to recover from setbacks. Deep in his psyche Ferguson welcomed these chances to display his gift for recovery.

He also relished confrontations with match officials and journalists, both of whom he often suspected of working against United's interests, if only by being unfit (in the case of referees).

The life of a director, ambassador, public speaker, raconteur and grandfather now beckons. Even Ferguson would not pretend that it will be comfortable for him to walk away from the daily bonfire of managing United. One day soon, the camera will train on the United dugout and we will search in vain for the bespectacled, gum-chewing, dark-overcoat-and-zip-up-wearing autocrat who made the club an extension of his own character, and who lit up our days and nights with his brilliance and hisenergy.

Letting go will not be easy, for him or us.

- Daily Telegraph UK

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