Alex Ferguson and immortality

by Alex Anderson

Sir Alex FergusonPopes and Poets Laureate retiring is one thing. Immortal Scottish managers being allowed to put the feet up is quite another. Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement ends not just a massively controversial and successful career but also, it is to be hoped, the cult of Caledonian football martyrdom. To the outside world Jose Mourinho was the most obvious replacement for the manager’s job at Old Trafford but Davie Moyes fits the local myth far more snugly.

From Herbert Chapman to Keith Alexander, English managers from modest backgrounds have tragically passed away in the midst of historic careers. However Scottish gaffers always seemed more primed for mythologizing. Matt Busby twice received the Last Rites after the Munich air crash but went on to win the European Cup. Former professional sprinter Bill Struth built Rangers for 34 years then died within two of retirement. Jock Stein fatally collapsed minutes after sending his country to a World Cup.

The notion of suicidally dedicated Scottish managers, with a soundtrack of Bill Shankly’s quotable gravitas, still protects Britain’s biggest clubs from accusations of corporate soullessness. Poverty, coal mines, shipyards, alcoholism and stultifying sectarian mores – a football man surviving pre-war Scotland guaranteed English fans stolid dedication. But Ferguson’s generation has both experienced and outlived the age of genuinely epic working class heroes.

Sir Alex recently mocked Mourinho’s snivelling claim that Govan’s most famous son would manage into his 90s. A Scot surviving top class management for almost 40 years gets a keen perspective on football’s relationship to life and death. Fergie’s interconnectedness goes beyond bending Sir Matt’s ear or bullying clubs who sack his son. This former trade unionist, a Labour voter in his 70s, knows the masses for whom his mentors gave their all are now split; into a middle class who have so much more than their team’s results and a disenfranchised underclass who can’t afford match tickets.

One of Shankly’s famous pronouncements was that retirement came when “you’ve got the coffin, they put the lid down and your name’s on top”. Stein, the man Shanks declared immortal in a Lisbon dressing room after Celtic’s 1967 European cup win, died 18 years later in the Ninian Park medical room. Ferguson, assistant boss that night, had to break the news to the players before shouldering Stein’s legacy through the remainder of the 1986 World Cup campaign. Stein wasn’t a drinker and his difficulty with sleep – at Celtic he’d open Parkhead before the janitor was out of bed – added to his weight problems. Sir Alex stays trim while enjoying his wine.

A devastated Graeme Souness, the suspended Scotland captain at Cardiff in 1985, informed the press of the passing of one man he actually feared. Within months Souness became one of the two Rangers managers it required to equal Stein’s record of successive Scottish league titles. A year after leaving Ibrox he underwent major heart surgery while leading Liverpool to the FA Cup. Ally McCoist said of Ferguson’s friend Walter Smith, the man who assumed the Rangers nine-in-a-row baton from Souness, “He arrived looking like Sasha Distel and left looking like Steve Martin”.

In the second decade of the 21st century septuagenarians can enjoy high-pressure, front-line posts, but we also know a hip replacement operation signals the time to stop. Ferguson’s “Football – Bloody hell!” and “squeaky bum time” are hardly Wildean but perhaps as much as we can expect from a man with the hours and pay of a corporate executive, refusing to go the same way as his grandiloquent predecessors.

Shankly’s wife Nessie pleaded with him to retire before he did and, after acceding to her wishes in 1974, he was asked to stop gate-crashing Liverpool training sessions at Melwood. Cathy Ferguson knew inactivity was more likely to end her husband in 2002 so he reneged on that particular retirement. Shankly fought with Tommy Smith – Ferguson with billionaire horse owners. Stein waded onto the terraces to confront Celtic fans singing sectarian songs – Ferguson just wished Man United fans would sing. Shankly hated holidays – Ferguson knows he now deserves a long one.

The socialist ethic survives – Everton’s Moyes, son of a college lecturer from Glasgow’s poshest suburb, refused to send his children to private schools – but amid men who can become millionaires with second-tier clubs, in a world educated in stress management. Kenny Dalglish walked away from Anfield when the cumulative effects of Heysel and Hillsborough merged with sporting pressure. Both he and Owen Coyle – an Eire international born in west coast Scotland – are famously tee-total.

Shankly claimed he was the best and would have won more if he’d resorted to the deviousness of rival managers. Ferguson has won more than anyone but the Sky generation lauded his slandering of Blackburn players and mocked Kevin Keegan’s angry working class reaction. Sir Alex unveiled more than a bronze image of himself with a quip outside Old Trafford last November; “Normally people die before they see their statue, so I’m out-living death”. The man forever asking for more time knows that the modern masses celebrate survivors.

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