Friday, May 17, 2013

To the faithfully departed

I see a red door and I want to paint it black
No colours anymore
I want them to turn black
(Paint it Black, The Rolling Stones, 1966)

It’s been a week since the sun set over Old Trafford and Sir Alex Ferguson, arguably the greatest manager in football history, called time on an illustrious career. This piece has been a week in the making, but I’m still in mourning so please forgive me if I seem a little irrational. 

After twenty six years - the majority of my life - at the helm of the world’s greatest football club, Fergie (as he’s affectionately known by the Red Devils) is reaching for his pipe and slippers and retiring to the drawing room for a final snifter of port.

Over the past week I’ve scoured countless blog posts, podcasts, newspaper articles, fan comments and the like, all eulogizing the great man and his remarkable feats in English football. You know what I’m talking about – 13 titles, 2 Champions Leagues, 1 Cup Winners Cup, blah, blah, blah. He’s got more trophies than Kim Kardashian’s got extra pounds in her arse.

I’ve been praising Fergie – live, online, and in my dreams – for the best part of two decades. But now is not the time to flatter. Now is the time to race for the toilet before I sh#t my pants in an absolute panic.

Because Sir Alex Ferguson, Fergie, Sir Alex, Sir, The Gaffer, is being replaced by…drum roll please…David Moyes. That’s right folks, a footballing deity is moving out, and an angry Scotsman who has never won anything significant since the St Patrick Under 15 B’s, is moving in.

The terraces at Stamford Bridge, Anfield, the Emirates and Etihad Stadium have just been crushed under the weight of thousands of fans hitting the deck and rolling around uncontrollably, doing their very best David Luiz impersonation.

“How’s your mother?”
“I’m afraid she’s on her way out”
“We all are. Act accordingly”
(The Departed, 2006)

Fergie’s retirement has been a ticking time bomb since 2001, hanging over the club like a Frenchman’s guillotine. As each and every year past it seemed less likely that he’d ever hand over the keys, despite this concept defying the laws of God and men. Was Fergie secretly making trips to the Cronulla Sharks to elongate his life? Did he have Lance Armstrong’s medical team on speed-dial? Had he ordered a life-long supply of deer antler spray online? Does copious consumption of wine and whiskey really lengthen the lifespan?  

“Who the f#ck are you?”
“I'm the guy who does his job. You must be the other guy.”
(The Departed, 2006)

Welcome David Moyes…the other guy. If he’s not permanently sh#tting his pants for the next few months while waiting to take charge he’s either a cybernetic being or he’s on a permanent diet of dry toast and chamomile tea.

Everyone keeps crapping on about the similarity between Moyes coming into United and Fergie’s appointment in 1986. So let’s break this down:

Same, same

  • Admirable job in a smaller club punching above its weight – tick
  • Hard as nails – tick
  • Crazy left wing Scotsman who doesn’t abide ‘Big Time Charlie’s – tick
  • Mutual hatred of Liverpool Football Club – tick

But different

  • Fergie at Aberdeen won 3 league titles (breaking the Rangers and Celtic duopoly for the first time in 15 years), 4 Scottish FA Cups, 1 European Cup Winners Cup and 1 European Super Cup. Pretty impressive resume
  • Moyes at Everton has won NOTHING. I know the big clubs dominate, but this season Wigan won the FA Cup, and Swansea won the League Cup. Even Portsmouth won the FA Cup during Moyes time at Everton, and they’re now playing in the Vauxhall Conference…or something like that
  • When Fergie arrived at Manchester they were a club verging on crisis, with a losing culture only eclipsed by their well documented drinking culture
  • On Moyes first day as Manchester United gaffer he’ll be taking charge of the English champions and his first game will be the Charity Shield
  • In 1986, Fergie’s first season, the coaching merry-go-round didn’t exist the way it does today. And Champions League qualification, with the attached financial incentives, wasn’t on the cards
  • In 2014 David Moyes will be stepping into the hot seat knowing that the expectation is to win. Period. If anyone disagrees just look across the road and see what happened to Mancini after delivering City their first trophy since Moses parted the Red Sea

The moral of the story is the gap between 1986 Fergie and 2014 Moyes is the size of Tom Cruise’s nose…f#cken massive. And that scares the crap out of me.

“Keaton always said, ‘I don't believe in God, but I'm afraid of him.’ Well I believe in God, and the only thing that scares me is Keyser Soze.”
(The Usual Suspects, 1995)

Over the past 26 years, fear of Fergie has been built up to almost mythical proportions. During his reign of terror Sir Alex has scared off many pretenders to the throne, most famously Kevin Keegan, whose brain imploded on live television whilst his Newcastle side was busy giving away a 12 point lead and the Premiership. 

Arsene Wenger permanently looks like he’s got his period. But in his early years (aka before Arsenal was rubbish) he really got under Fergie’s skin. Now he resembles a French poodle with a Scottish boot up the rear end. In 2009 Rafa’s famous Fergie rant coincided with Liverpool’s demise. Jose Mourinho was a valiant foe but left British shores to battle continental opponents, and it’s only fitting that Roberto Mancini got the arse whilst Fergie is still in charge. Adios amigo. If I’m heading out the door so are you, you cocky powder-blue scarf wearing frog eater.

“The only thing in this world that gives orders... is balls.”
(Scarface, 1983)

Not only has Fergie battled the best managers in Britain, he’s also stared down some of the fiercest footballers on the planet, usually on his own training ground. Bryan Robson, The Great Dane, Steve Bruce, Paul Ince, Nemanja Vidic, Eric the King and of course Roy Keane, the hardest of hard men. 

What made Fergie so great was his ability to channel their fury to avoid any internal disruption and unleash that power on unsuspecting foes. Keane could easily have been a locker room cancer with his antics. Under Fergie’s guidance he unleashed his celtic rage on his enemies. Cantona was well known to be a club house nut job before joining United. Only Fergie could turn this loose cannon into a precision weapon – that’s not meant to be a jab at arsehole Crystal Palace fans.

“Paulie may have moved slow, but it was only because Paulie didn't have to move for anybody.”
(Goodfellas, 1990)

Over the past week one of the critical comments about Fergie is his lack of a signature footballing initiative, like Pep’s tiki taka that defined Barcelona's recent era of dominance. But there’s one constant that everyone agrees on, and that’s ‘Fergie time'. Fergie didn’t change football. Fergie changed time itself. When the 90 minutes was up it seemed that Fergie had an innate capacity to slow down or lengthen stoppage time just enough that United could sneak in a winning or equalising goal.

“Fredo, you're my older brother, and I love you. But don't ever take sides with anyone against the Family again. Ever.”
(The Godfather, 1972)

David Beckham
Jaap Stam
Ruud van Nistelrooy
Roy Keane
Paul McGrath
Jim Leighton
Paul Ince

The list of players that have crossed Fergie in some way shape or form is long and distinguished. But the outcome is the same...the club moves from strength to strength.

The only player left standing after taking Fergie head on is Wayne Rooney. Although judging by recent events Rooney is on his way out of Old Trafford and into the closest Pie Face. Personally if I were him I’d stay indoors on a rainy Manchester day lest he be hit by a bolt of lightning.

“Bunch of slack-jawed f#ggots around here. This stuff will make you a god damned sexual Tyrannosaurus, just like me.”
(Predator, 1987)

I don’t know how this relates...but it’s a great quote and deserves to be respected.

“Nice guy? I don't give a shit. Good father? F#ck you! Go home and play with your kids. You wanna work here - close! You think this is abuse? You think this is abuse, you c#cksucker? You can't take this, how can you take the abuse you get on a sit? You don't like it, leave.”
(Glengarry Glen Ross, 1992)

Fergie has never been the sentimental type. Easily enraged, the Fergie hairdryer is as much a part of footballing folklore as the Maracana, Hand of God, or a cevap roll at Bonnyrigg Sports Club.

And whilst Fergie is famous for shielding and protecting his juniors, famously pulling a teenage Ryan Giggs into line before his chest resembled a bear-skin rug, he's not been shy in making tough calls to cut loyal soldiers loose.

Two moments stand out. 1993/94 was Captain Marvel Bryan Robson’s last season at Old Trafford. By this stage Robson was a squad player, usually on the bench and making infrequent appearances. United made the FA Cup final and everyone was banking on Robson making the bench to at least have a shot at a final winner’s medal. Not Sir Alex, who ruthlessly left him out of the squad. In similar circumstances Captain Courageous Steve Bruce was left out of the squad for the 1996 FA Cup final against Liverpool, denying yet another club stalwart the chance for glory in his last club appearance.

“In the casino, the cardinal rule is to keep them playing and to keep them coming back. The longer they play, the more they lose, and in the end, we get it all.”
Casino (1995)

Whether you celebrate Sir Alex as your patron saint, or your curse him like the devil incarnate, no one can argue he's isn't the greatest winner in football. Each time it seemed that a new challenger would finally take him down - Arsenal’s European invasion, Roman’s rubles or City’s petro dollars - Fergie was there waiting to strike back and bring the Holy Grail to the Theatre of Dreams. In the end…he won it all.