The Theatre of Dreams was a cauldron of noise Sunday night as Manchester United bid farewell to their chief of 26 years. A guard of honour welcomed the Scot who looked slightly bashful as he walked onto the hallowed turf – this is not a man who is comfortable with individual tributes, having consistently emphasized the importance of the collective throughout his career. Old Trafford, almost entirely bathed in red, erupted in a cacophony of noise as The Boss climbed into the dugout for the final time.
The players played their part too in giving him the perfect send-off, rambunctiously setting about Swansea right from the get-go, and eventually scoring through Javier Hernandez. The energy levels died down slightly midway through the game and Michu equalized, threatening to rain on United’s parade. And then of course it ended, almost poetically, in the manner that has come to typify a Sir Alex Ferguson team – a winner right at the end. Rio Ferdinand nearly tore the net off as he thundered home a volley, sending Old Trafford into raptures. It wasn’t quite in “Fergie-time”, but it was close enough nevertheless. The old Scot excitedly leapt out of his seat in celebration – a scene seen countless times over the years. It was a beautifully poignant moment of joy and disbelief, yet it was tinged with nostalgia and some sadness that this was it.
In an interview with BBC two days ago, Michael Carrick said the United players were left silent after Sir Alex told them he was retiring. I was similarly stunned when I heard the news. My first reaction was outright denial. When the news first broke, it was not supported by any official statements; only “reports” were cited. “No”, I told myself, “these are merely unconfirmed rumours. They must be.” But deep down I feared the worst. Some stories are just so incredible that no editor would even bother running them without a significant assurance of reliability – Sir Alex retiring is one such story. And so, within a few hours, it was confirmed, with an official statement from Manchester United, and the man himself, that he was indeed stepping down after more than a quarter of a century in charge.
I am young enough to have only known Man United under the management of Sir Alex. Ever since Dad, a United supporter himself, introduced me to the Red Devils, the gum-chewing, referee-haranguing, hairdryer-administering Scot is – has been, now – the only boss of United that I have ever known. While supporters of other clubs have the opportunity to acquaint themselves with new managers every few years, that never happened at United – stability was the name of the game. And so was success – I was spoilt by the success that Sir Alex brought about. Winning the league was generally a matter of course, rivals swatted aside with relative ease. Pretenders to the throne emerged, but they were swiftly acknowledged and usurped.
Dad introduced me to United in, of all years, 1999 – that famous Treble-winning season. I recall him telling me assuredly “Man United are the kings.”
“Kings of what?” I innocently asked.
“Kings of England, the whole of Europe!” he replied, animatedly.
That was when my love affair with the biggest club in the world began. I was fortunate enough to support a team in the charge of the greatest manager in modern-day football, who was steering his club to championship after championship. I had the luxury of going to school every Monday bragging that we had just beaten this team, or won this title and that title. And as I grew older, I began to learn more about the rich history of Manchester United, the traditions associated with this club, and its culture. The more I read, the more I fell in love with this great institution. Best of all, in Sir Alex, they had a manager who epitomized old-fashioned classical values such as loyalty, hard work, and team spirit whilst simultaneously embracing change and evolution to meet, and overcome, new challenges.
The closest I ever came, literally, to the Devils was in 2001 when they visited Singapore during their pre-season tour of Asia. Caught in my own club vs. country battle, I was torn between supporting my beloved United and rooting for my beloved country. In the end I chose both – I celebrated as United knocked eight past us; and rejoiced when Singaporean striker, Indra Sahdan Daud scored. 8-1 the final score was. I remember that game as the one in which the eccentric goalkeeper, Fabian Barthez, played outfield. Watching it all happen against the familiar backdrop of Singapore’s Kallang Stadium was almost surreal for me. It is, until today, personally, one of the more memorable experiences I have had supporting United. There have been many, so many it would be ridiculous to even try listing them. And that must be the greatest accomplishment of Sir Alex’s reign – the fact that it is nigh-on impossible to decide upon his greatest accomplishment – there have just been so many peaks, all of them great in their own right.
Most of my generation don’t know of a reality in which Sir Alex wasn’t at the helm of Man United. Supporters of the older generations know what it was like when Sir Alex wasn’t – and it was not pretty. We are all entering uncharted waters – it is uncomfortable, unnerving, and perhaps even scary, to a point. In his final speech at Old Trafford on Sunday, The Boss called for the fans to get behind his successor David Moyes, reminding them that they had stood by him similarly in the past when things looked shaky. We’ve trusted Fergie’s judgement all these years – we would do well to trust this final judgement call of his.
Throughout Sir Alex’s reign, there was one mantra that he kept repeating: “Nobody is bigger than the club.” And perhaps that’s the best way to treat his retirement too – nobody, not even Sir Alex himself, is bigger than Manchester United. His departure is indeed a sad day for all concerned, a day United supporters everywhere hoped would never come, but the club will, and must, move on – and you get the feeling the great Scottish knight would settle for nothing less.
This article is adapted from a commentary first published on The Breakfast Network, a Singaporean news website, as a fan’s perspective on Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement.