8 May 2013

A Blair-esque departure for Sir Alex – with Europe still nagging?

A decade ago Tony Blair and Alex Ferguson both made the same mistake.

They both announced they’d be retiring in a year or two, and as a result they quickly lost their authority.  In Ferguson’s case he told the world he’d be retiring at the end of the 2001-02 season.

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Then, in early 2002, the day before Manchester United were due to announce that Sven Goran Eriksson would be their new manager, Ferguson changed his mind.  He couldn’t stomach the idea of being without football, or not knowing what to do all day.  And he couldn’t stand the idea of Eriksson being his successor.

Just as well that he did.  For United have won almost as many trophies since 2002 as they did under Ferguson before then.

And Ferguson learnt the lesson.  When you announce your retirement, do so suddenly and unexpectedly, at a moment of your choosing.  And quit on a high, with the crowds wanting more.   That’s what he did today.

Manchester United are certainly on a high right now, having this season easily regained the league title from their rivals Manchester City.  And by a lovely statistical quirk, Fergie’s last match, against West Bromwich Albion on 19 May, will be his 1500th for the club.

I’ve seen about two-thirds of those games, home and away, including the very first, a dismal 2-0 defeat at Oxford United’s old Manor Ground in November 1986.  I was there for the treble in Barcelona in 1999, and Moscow in 2008, and saw us lift two other doubles.

If you’d have told me that afternoon in Oxford that Ferguson would bring back the title to Old Trafford (after a 19-year drought at that point), I’d have been delighted, though it took another seven years before the first one arrived (making a 26-year gap).

If you’d have told me in 1986 that Ferguson would win 13 titles in 27 years, I’ve have said you were mad, and so would everyone else.  And there are five FA Cups, and four League Cups, and the fact we’ve not been out of the top three in the League since 1991.

Farewell Fergie – Sir Alex Ferguson in pictures

And yet there’s a small blemish to that record, one which rankles with Sir Alex, and partly, in my view, explained why he kept going into his 70s.

United have not enjoyed the same success in Europe one would expect from a club which has been so dominant in English football.  And Manchester United more than anyone are a club built on their European pedigree.

We were the first side to play in the European Cup – against the wishes of the English football authorities – and in 1958 eight of the Busby Babes died in that quest.  Europe became an obsession for United’s then manager Matt Busby, finally fulfilled in 1968.  And yet during Liverpool’s great run of success in the 70s and 80s, they picked up four European Cups (plus another one later), United in contrast managed just two European Cups – the famous victory over Bayern  in 1999 and defeating Chelsea on penalties in Moscow in 2008 – but neither was totally convincing.  We were runners-up twice, resoundingly beaten by Barcelona in 2009 and 2011.

Ferguson may have far more league titles than any other manager, and more FA Cups, and a tremendous record with Aberdeen, but his lack of success in Europe is the blemish.

United have a record breaking run of 17 years in the European Cup (now, stupidly, called the Champions League), but over the years we’ve seen endless disappointments against lesser sides such as Monaco, Basle, Benfica and Bayer Leverkusen.  It’s an astonishing poor record given that United are one of the two wealthiest and best-supported clubs in the world.

Perhaps Sir Alex Ferguson concluded that if he carried on at Old Trafford he might pick up more domestic titles, but that further European success might prove as elusive as before.  The competition from Europe is probably stronger than ever before, not just from Barcelona and Real Madrid, but now from Germany, with the extraordinary and sudden emergence of Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, who together beat the two Spanish sides so decisively in the recent semi-finals.  So it will now be an all-German final at Wembley at the end of May.

Sir Alex will no doubt be there, admiring two new great teams, yet troubled by the slight nagging feeling that his Manchester United never quite conquered Europe.

The greatest manager in the British game, undoubtedly.  But…

Michael Crick is author of The Boss: The Many Sides of Alex Ferguson. Follow @MichaelLCrick on Twitter