The Empire Business – Fergie, Walter White and Ozymandias

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desart. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away

 – Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1818

Amid all of the fanfare, hoopla and other such celebratory nouns surrounding Sir Alex Ferguson’s book launch, it has not gone unnoticed that the side he has left behind are struggling somewhat.

Failure to put away Southampton on top of a home defeat to West Brom and a humiliating derby day at the Etihad has only served to increase the scrutiny under which David Moyes finds himself. The current situation cannot be what Ferguson imagined upon his departure from a seat which must bear an arse groove as ingrained as Homer Simpson’s.

Shelley’s sonnet, reproduced above, was used quite masterfully by Vince Gilligan in the lead-up to the final eight episodes of his game-changing TV series Breaking Bad. For the two or three unfamiliar with the premise, the show followed the rise and fall of one man’s drugs empire, a venture sparked by terminal cancer but fuelled by repressed anger, greed and power.

Ferguson is no Walter White, but to borrow a quote from the series, he was most certainly “in the Empire business”. His vision for Manchester United, set out in his early days in charge, was to place the club definitively and permanently at the top of the English game

Amid all of the talk of perch-knocking, this was surely his true goal and one which he has come mightily close to achieving.

But, as Shelley so masterfully laid out, the pursuit of permanence is futile. The mightiest empires crumble and the greatest bastions of power are reduced to dust.

As Walter White discovered and Manchester United fans are surely coming to realise, dominance, however total, is passing. Not only that, but even the slightest of changes at the top can trigger a quick demise.

Ferguson’s departure from the summit of the club has caused such a huge shift in the balance of power at Old Trafford that it would be impossible for his successor to keep them sailing placidly into the next era. When someone who runs the entire organisation with such tight control leaves, it is bound to create something of a power vacuum.

One of the bottom piece has just been dislodged on Manchester United Jenga. The fact that the tower is teetering can surprise nobody.

The plight of England’s reigning champions exposes the fragility of such seemingly impregnable momentum. Dynasty is a word more frequently associated with American sport, but plenty of teams looked like they could dominate European football for generations, only to fade from prominence.

Arsenal in the 30s, Real Madrid in the 50s, Ajax in the 70s, Liverpool in the 80s, AC Milan in the 90s, Barcelona’s all-conquering side of the last few years. All still major names in the world game, but none retained their status as the greatest for longer than five or six years.

It is especially telling that no side has retained the Champions League since the change of format in 1992. Ferguson managed to win the Premier League title three times in a row on two separate occasions, but that is as close to permanence as his side attained.

His legacy will live long in the history books, but the side he built cannot remain in control of English football forever. Even the best teams are broken up, formed again and forced to re-tread the path to greatness.

It might be some time before Manchester United are back on top. It could even be after many of those who played under Fergie have gone. The fans, who will doubtless still travel to Old Trafford every week, will hope the statue of the great man that looks down from outside the ground does not begin to resemble that of Ozymandias.

The Author

Jon Naylor

Freelance sports broadcaster and media professional based in London.

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