Butler: Ferguson's retirement the end of a football era

Noel Butler,
5/10/2013 4:26:15 PM
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Almost half a century ago Alex Ferguson was cutting his managerial teeth in the backwaters of the Scottish second division at St. Mirren.

The ex-Glasgow Rangers player had taken up the appointment on the recommendation of Celtic legend Jock Stein.

Intense club rivals, these colossal football figures share something rather significant: They are both cut from the exact same principled working class cloth which has served Scotland so magnificently.

Ferguson was toiling in the shipyards whilst Stein would swap his miners hat for Parkhead, where he would eventually go on and guide Celtic to European Cup triumph in 1967. It marked the very first time a British club got to drink from UEFA's chalice.

In Ferguson's first season St. Mirren won promotion to the top division.

Hard to imagine our world when Ferguson was appointed Manchester United's Governor General on November 6, 1986.

Brian Mulroney was our Prime Minister. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher ruled their particular roosts as the Montreal Canadiens continued along in their jolly old way after yet again recapturing Lord Stanley's mug.

Quite coincidentally Chris De Burgh's “Lady in Red” topped our charts as Liverpool got off to the stellar start in defence of their English title.

That championship must seem like a few lifetimes ago to the Anfied faithful today.

Measured in Real Madrid terms, Ferguson's tenure at Old Trafford equates to a total of 24 managers at the Bernabeu.

That number will rise to the quarter-century mark following Jose Mourinho's departure at season's end.

Ferguson's self-imposed role at Manchester United was to always demand and get the best possible production out of Manchester United's most influential assets: The pool of talent at his disposal.

But much in the way the most senior executives influence their particular place of business, Ferguson's managerial philosophy required he initially lay his foundation right across every facet of the club.

Even with the very calculated and stealth way Manchester United set about planning for the day it would publically be known Ferguson was departing the Carrington practice pitches, their NYSE share price was still negatively impacted.

At the opening bell on the NYSE Wednesday morning downward pressure resulted in a near five per cent decline in the share price from Tuesday evening's closing price. The drop wiped tens of millions off the club's overall valuation.

It is crystal clear a Ferguson-less United is a far less valuable a commodity than the one that sits him at the helm of the Old Trafford bench.

This was reinforced when the share price dipped again yesterday as they announced a six-year deal for David Moyes.

The working class protestant from the impoverished Glasgow streets who married a catholic girl, Ferguson is a man of immense principle who went out of his way so as not to hide what at the time was very much frowned upon in Glasgow let alone for a Rangers player.

Not able to fathom why so much was made of the sectarian divide, Ferguson dedicated himself to fully understand his wife's ancestry - the intricate and delicate issues that have divided and united Ireland through the course of time.

Ferguson has excelled as the atypical hard-nosed working class curmudgeon.

In reality this is a man who suitably impressed Harvard Business School when invited over last summer to present to the faculty and student body his management techniques. Summers are ordinarily spent with his doting wife Lady Ferguson at their chateau in southern France.

In the vineyard Sir Alex talks to the grapes as he does with the likes of Marcello Lippi - in French, a bi-lingual Ferguson not part of the public persona.

Maybe it was on a trip to their chateau that the trouble and strife famously convinced her husband to un-retire in early 2002.

His autobiography includes a passage that states Mrs. Ferguson vetoed a move to Nottingham Forest after her husband had been offered a contract. She didn't wish to live in England, at least not then.

Notts Forest would come back to a very significant Ferguson prominence after what was a very difficult start to life at United and one that legend has it could have come to a grinding halt in early 1990.

United, struggling in the first division landed a third-round FA Cup trip to a rampant Forest.

United entered the match riding an eight-game winless streak dating back to mid November 1989.

If that figure had risen to nine there would have been dire consequences for the manager. However, a late winner propelled United on to eventually claim the very first piece of silverware under the House of Ferguson, after a replay.

United claimed the 1990 FA Cup and with it no thought given to their 13th place finish in 1989/90.

It had taken three-plus seasons and much anguish around the Old Trafford corridors over the huge transfer outlay on so many under-performing highly-regarded players. Ferguson would never again suffer such a barren spell.

Having witnessed on a number of occasions Old Trafford in full Ferguson flow, one of the most meaningful events in my experience actually occurred some five time zones away from the hallowed turf.

An occasion from almost a decade ago that lit up the heart of an ex-boss of Ferguson's from that now famous Govan shipyard. An ex-Glaswegian who had settled in the Montreal area got in touch with me through a mutual friend to see if I could help reunite the old work colleagues.

Sending out an S.O.S. to the then-Manchester United press manager Diana Law who in turn took my plea to the most appropriate Old Trafford confidante, Ferguson was delighted to hear from his former boss requested a phone number.

A phone rang in a Montreal suburb the following Sunday afternoon - it was Sir Alex calling a long lost friend. Forever the family man Ferguson was calling from his son's home whilst babysitting the grandchildren.

Earlier on in the day Ferguson the working man had overseen yet another Manchester United Premier League victory.

If we thought the outcome of the 2011-12 Barclays Premier League title sent seismic shockwaves reverberating round the red half of Manchester, that was at least contained by the full force of Manchester United's very measured response this season.

However the effect of Wednesday's announcement will cascade around the famous Old Trafford hallways and corridors forever. The BBC aptly stated it was the footballing equivalent of the Berlin Wall falling.

Sir Alex Ferguson's physical presence will be replaced by the 71-year-old's immense spirit and one that is sure to unravel and reveal itself just as Sir Matt Busby's high watermark guided the Glaswegian to greater things.

With little time for pomp and ceremony Ferguson will not settle for merely passing on the Old Trafford managerial baton.

There likely won't be a dry eye in the house Sunday when the Old Trafford curtain comes down on Ferguson's time as manager of one of the world's great global institutions.

We can all be inspired by the journey it has taken.

In 1978 St. Mirren sacked Ferguson. In turn he claimed unfair dismissal. Ferguson eventually lost that courtroom battle too.

In this, the year the English FA fittingly celebrates its 150th anniversary we all now know who has claimed victory in English football's war room.

Arise Lord Ferguson.

You can reach and follow Noel Butler at:


Noel Butler

Noel Butler

Noel Butler is an analyst for TSN's soccer coverage and his blog can be read on You can follow him on Twitter at and listen to his radio program oranges@halftime on TSN Radio 690 Montreal.


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