It’s hard to believe that Sir Alex Ferguson is no longer going to be the manager of Manchester United. Given his relentless, almost legendary drive, I thought that he might have gone on for a few more years; in fact, I half-suspected that he would one day have to be carried out of Old Trafford in a box. On the thirtieth anniversary of one of his greatest triumphs – Aberdeen’s win against Real Madrid in the final of the European Cup-Winner’s Cup- it seems fitting to republish this piece from a couple of years ago. Ferguson’s fierce competitive streak might not have endeared him to some, but –to my mind- there are five reasons for stating, with confidence, that he is the best manager the game has ever seen.
1. He had unprecedented success with an unfashionable club.
Most professional leagues are dominated by a handful of powerful clubs, so anyone who can buck their local trend deserves to be considered an exceptional talent. Perhaps you’d have to live in Scotland to appreciate the scale of what Ferguson achieved at Aberdeen in the early eighties. To break into the Celtic-Rangers duopoly was a monumental achievement; to win a European trophy was simply off the scale. It can be argued that Brian Clough, in terms of over-achieving at unfashionable clubs, has a better record than Ferguson. His feats at Nottingham Forest and -to a lesser extent- Derby County were remarkable, but Clough doesn’t score in the other categories.
2. He had success over a sustained period.
Ferguson won promotion with St. Mirren in the mid-seventies and won his first league title with Aberdeen in 1980. 33 years later, he was still winning. Old-timers might mention Bill Struth at Rangers, who managed for 34 years, amassing ten league titles, ten Scottish Cups, two League Cups and various other Glasgow Cups and Merchant Charity Cups. With all due respect, some of these trophies don’t carry a whole lot of weight in historical terms and Struth’s Rangers (like Jock Stein’s all-conquering Celtic in the 60s and 70s) competed in a relatively weak league that is dominated by two teams.
3. He had success with different clubs, in different leagues.
Some managers have great success at one club, but fail to replicate that success elsewhere. Don Revie, for instance, was outstanding at Leeds, but did little of note away from Elland Road. It takes truly exceptional talent to achieve great success in more than one job and Ferguson has been a league champion and a European trophy winner with two teams in two countries. Mourinho has succeeded in Portugal, England, Italy and Spain, while Huddink, Robson, Trappatoni, Herrera and Eriksson (and probably a few others) all have very impressive CVs, but none of them score as convincingly in the other categories.
4. He successfully built a number of winning teams over a prolonged period.
Ferguson built at least four or five successful teams at Manchester United. Bob Paisley scores highly for his work at Liverpool, as does Jock Stein at Celtic, but Paisley inherited a side that was already very successful. He clearly took his club to another level, but his 1977 European Cup-winning team featured six players who had played in Bill Shankly’s last match in charge. Jock Stein, brilliant as he was, worked at a club with massive domestic advantages, playing –to all intents and purposes– in a two-team league, wherein any achievements have to be viewed in the context of an extremely lop-sided domestic set-up.
5. He won the trophies.
Nothing in the modern era compares with the haul achieved by Ferguson. He won thirteen league titles at Man Utd, three at Aberdeen, four major European trophies and god knows how many FA Cups and League Cups. It's a frightening total.
Some have suggested that for a club of Manchester United’s stature to have won the Champions League ‘only’ twice is a tad disappointing. Bob Paisley, after all, won three European Cups in five seasons and, since it is the major trophy in club football, there is a case for saying that he was more ‘successful’. But the European Cup in those days, much as it might be difficult for fans of Liverpool, Nottingham Forest, Aston Villa and Celtic to concede, was a knock-out tournament in which two successful rounds (perhaps against part-time Scandinavian or mediocre Eastern European opposition) took you to the quarter-finals. The European Cup was an easier tournament in which to be successful than the current Champion’s League. That is why teams like Malmo, Bruges and Partizan Belgrade could make it to the final; that is why teams Nottingham Forest, Aston Villa and Steau Bucharest could win it.
It has been claimed that Ferguson was lucky to survive at Old Trafford after his first three seasons appeared to lack any obvious signs of progress, but he had inherited what was, in effect, a social club that played occasional games of football. He recognised quickly that he would have to dismantle not only the team, but the whole culture of the club. That was always going to take time and, if the progress at first appeared to be sluggish, it now seems clear that Ferguson was far too talented and driven not to have succeeded, one way or another.
Some folk say that he wouldn't have been successful away from Manchester United, but that is a bit like saying that Roger Federer wouldn't have won the British Open if he had taken up golf instead of tennis. It's entirely hypothetical and pretty close to being pointless. On the available evidence, it would more logical to speculate that, had he gone to another club when opportunities arose in the mid-eighties, further success would have led to him moving on, because Alex Ferguson was born to manage Manchester United.
Thirty years ago, we might have guessed it, but now we know it; love him or loathe him, he was the best. The football landscape just won’t be the same without him.