25 years of pure gold

After managing United for a quarter of a century, Ferguson still hasnt lost his appetite for a challenge

plenty more to come:  In a career spanning 25 years, Alex Ferguson has made Manchester United one of the biggest and most feared teams in the world. APHe signed up as team manager on November 6, 1986. He has built and rebuilt the side many times over. He needed time in the beginning to put his attacking philosophy, his fighting spirit, into players and into all levels of a club that expects to be the best in England, and one of the best in the world.

“Managing change,” he once said, “is the hardest challenge there is.”

For one man to manage the changes of a club for five years is an achievement. To sustain five five-year spans is exceptional. And to approach, as he does, his 70th birthday still enthusiastic about the daily challenge of bringing fresh youth into play is unheard of.

But around the corner, goading him, stimulating him, is a challenge like none before it. Manchester City, United’s closest neighbor, has spent a Gulf oil sheik’s fortune buying its way toward parity, and 10 days ago City handed United its biggest hiding in Ferguson’s time as manager.

“I’d never lost 6-1 before -- as a player or manager,” Ferguson said. “It’s all right playing the history books, but common sense has to come into it. Having a player sent off was a killer blow, but after that we kept attacking. We went 3-1 down, 4-1 down, and we should have settled for that. But we kept attacking -- our full backs were playing like wingers.

“It was suicidal, crazy.”

Yet it was the very instinct that Ferguson preaches. His 38 trophies in the quarter century have come through forward thinking and largely through going forward as a team that does not dull itself or the audience with too much emphasis on defense.

Ferguson’s best speech was his shortest: “Go for their bloody throats.” He said that while managing Aberdeen in his native Scotland, urging young players not to be afraid of the Scottish giants Celtic and Rangers. He even breathed that fiery defiance into Aberdeen when it went for the throats of famous Real Madrid players to win the European Cup Winners Cup.

Ferguson, the son of a Glasgow shipyard manual worker, was summoned south to Manchester United where another Scot, Matt Busby, had retired after making United great. Sir Matt, knighted by the British realm, built the base. Sir Alex, as Ferguson eventually became, took on that chalice in a different era.

Ferguson’s players become millionaires in their teens. He manages those egos, sometimes with fieriness known as The Ferguson Hairdryer, the rage directed at players who let the team down -- especially lazy or big-headed players.

The Hairdryer, says Ferguson, is a myth. He reckons he has mellowed; the temper only simmers now. It undoubtedly did after City’s 6-1 victory at United’s Old Trafford stadium. A soothing glass of red wine, the short drive home to his wife, Cathy, and, he maintains, the ire is gone.

One doubts that. The City challenge will smolder for the rest of his time. The players will know it, feel it, hear it. They come nowadays from 15 nations spanning all creeds, cultures and continents.

Going for the throat is simple enough to translate. The standard United sets is also unequivocal. The team’s history demands that it be among the best, and in the best style. And whoever comes into the squad sees what it takes in the form of Ryan Giggs who, as a boy and now the most senior player, has reached those standards every season that Ferguson has ruled.

But the boss has been ruthless, too, in moving out players or moving in new ones. Managing change is his business, the key to life.

“I’m lucky I’ve been here such a long time,” Ferguson said in a recent BBC interview. “Nobody talks of sacking Alex Ferguson, or any of my staff because we’ve been here more than 20 years. “So I can look years ahead and visualise the youngsters coming in. We’ve got years on our side. You look at other clubs, and they’re sacking the manager after a year.”

He was born into Calvinist trade unionism, where the workers had to stand together to earn, in his father’s time and in his own, when he briefly apprenticed in the shipyard to be a toolmaker for a weekly stipend of 7 pounds, or about $10. He works now for millions.

In the business of football, at the level he maintains by winning the English Premier League more seasons than not, he earns his wage several times over with his judgment of when to sell, whom to buy and which members of the club’s famed academy to push at the right time into a team followed in more than 200 countries. When Ferguson reached age 50, he wondered how much longer he could manage his job. When he reached 65, he talked of retirement. Indeed, he announced his retirement date, and then reneged after his wife asked him daily what would he do with his time, with his unspent emotions, his rage, his desire, his spirit to face challenge.

Now, he says, three, maybe four more years. The youngsters are growing, and he will leave his successor a better team going forward than looking back. But there is a challenge out there that appeals to him. It is not, per se, City. It is Barcelona, the team that has twice beaten United in Champions League finals in three years.

Ferguson has never seen a better style, and better players to carry it out, than Barca’s. He sets United’s ambition by that measure. Twenty-five seasons on, 2,050 matches under his belt, and the boss is bent on winning the next one. And on improvement.

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