Wheeler: A United fan looking back at Ferguson's legacy

Gareth Wheeler
5/17/2013 1:57:55 PM
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This Sunday, it comes to an end - the Manchester United era under Sir Alex Ferguson.

Almost 27 years and 38 trophies later, Ferguson steps away from managerial life at Manchester United after a trip to the Hawthorns.  An away tie at West Brom provides the stage and context for the most anti-climactic 'Fergie Time' imaginable.  If it were not for an unjust red card to Nani that turned the tides in United's Champions League tie with Real Madrid, a more appropriate send off in a Champions League final at Wembley could have been in the cards for the decorated gaffer. 

But this is what we're left with.

Ferguson's swansong cannot live up to the pomp and circumstance of the past 10 days since he announced he was stepping away.  Tributes have poured in from around the world, bidding adieu, congratulatory messages, words of praise, acknowledgement of accomplishment.  In addition to aforementioned acclaim, Sir Alex' managed his final match at Old Trafford, hoisted his 13th Premier League title trophy and took in the celebratory parade through the streets of Manchester, commemorating league title No. 20 for the world's most famous club.  Manchester went Red, allowing Ferguson to move nicely into his quasi-retirement director's role, at peace. 

All my life I've supported Manchester United.  I'm a Red, through and through.  I can honestly say some of the best moments of my life have come supporting United.  It's my passion.  And as far back as I remember, that meant supporting Sir Alex Ferguson. 

Sir Alex is the only manager that any of us who were born in the 1980's knows firsthand.  Watching and consuming Premier League football is easy nowadays.  Turn on the radio or television. Go online.  It's all at your fingertips.  It took considerable more effort in my youth.  Soccer Saturday on TSN was a prime destination.  Press clippings in the mail from overseas kept me up-to-date.  Or heading to the pub to watch matches on the satellite were our basic staples. 

I remember getting my first Manchester United kit from family in the UK in the early eighties: a red Adidas shirt with SHARP sponsor in the middle with the Manchester United crest above it.  I still have the jersey and it surprisingly fits (kind of).  The shirt pre-dates Sir Alex, but it was upon his arrival in 1986 I took a real interest.  

Supporting the club as a child, the work a manager does goes by the wayside.  Your true heroes are the players. The players are the stars.  They score the goals.  They dazzle with their skill and vision.  I remember wanting to be the next Steve Bruce, which turned into wanting to be the next Paul Ince as I worked my way up the field in my own playing days.  I grew up with Manchester United's golden generation.  Scholes, Beckham, Butt, Neville(s).  I swear if I ever have a son I'll name him Giggs.  Cantona was a godsend.  Keano was our fearless leader.  And Robin van Persie is United's new patron saint. 

Manchester United has been a place where the biggest names in world football have plied their trade and won.  Won lots of trophies.  It doesn't get better for a supporter.  The last 27 years, the Impossible Dream has been a reality for United supporters.  It's been incredible.

Stoppage time magic in Barcelona.  Penalties in Moscow.  The ups and downs of a decisive run in the Premier League.   It's been a ride.  And if you get down to it, none of it would have been possible without The Boss.  Nothing.  The sporting heroism of the players turns to admiration of the manager.

It's easy to become jaded by sport.  The non-stop managerial and player turn-around at clubs across the world waters down identity.  It's a by-product of modern sport, and I get it.  But it's something United has largely been immune.  Yes, players come and go.  Some probably stay too long.  But it's the identity of what being part of the club that's remained the same.  And that has been set by Ferguson. 

Responsibility comes with playing for Manchester United.  The history of the club is part of that.  But Ferguson did the rest.  He set the tone, steering the course, knocking off adversaries and keeping United at the top.  Players were held accountable.  Once a player put one above club, he'd be knocked down or sent away.  The club first mentality has been preached to the end.  Wayne Rooney the last player to feel the brunt of Ferguson sending a message, watching United's final home match from an executive suite.

It's perspective Sir Alex brought. Professionalism.  A column penned by former England goalkeeper David James gives a poignant glimpse how Manchester United players developed into a difference breed.

And it came about because Sir Alex demanded more.  The full 90 on and off the field.  Superior focus.  A winner's mentality.

I still can't believe Ferguson agreed to be a guest on Off the Record with Michael Landsberg on United's North American summer tour in 2010.  Michael invited me into studio that day, knowing my passion for United.  I had just landed from spending 40-something days covering the World Cup in South Africa and couldn't make it.  It's one of my biggest regrets - not being able to meet the man in person.  There's no substitute for a real face-to-face conversation.  Covering sport you meet personalities of all kinds.  But Sir Alex to me is in a league of his own.  That would have been special.

Next season will not be the same without Ferguson on the sidelines.  I'll miss Fergie Time,' which has become preferred terminology when too much stoppage time is given.  Anything can happen in Fergie Time and usually did.  I'll miss the gum chewing and the assumption of the 'hair dryer' after a poor 45 minutes. 

I'll miss questioning his squad selection.  Ferguson has often remained steadfast and loyal to players and formations deemed not suffice.  Yet time after time, Ferguson got it right.  No matter whom he left on the bench, or what wonky substitution was made, it would all somehow work out over the long haul.  His ability to see beyond the immediate into the big picture and manage accordingly may be his biggest strength, evidenced in his team hitting stride each year in and around the hectic holiday season.

I'll miss the mind games.  Ferguson had his ups and downs with the media.  But how he went out of his way to send a message to a match official or opposing manager after an innocent question was a thing of beauty.  There were no mincing words.  And the message always delivered.

I'll miss his visible love for the club and respect for its supporters.  He was a pillar of strength, often controversially after the Glazers' take over of the club.  He'll have to continue to be influential behind the scenes so the new manager can thrive.

Above all, I'll miss having blind faith of a Ferguson managed team on the field, no matter who they're playing, who was on the field, or what the score line may be.  The best way to describe Ferguson is a winner.  The mentality is contagious.   

Managers come and go but how do you move on when Ferguson's the only one I've known?  You don't.  There is no way to truly replace Sir Alex.  You simply move on with faith that the culture established carries through to the next edition of the team. 

I'm choosing to be optimistic.  At the very least, the entire idea of change is exciting.  Most supporters of other clubs go through this on a semi-regular basis.  New tactics, new motivation, fresh life into the on-field product has to be a positive under the backdrop Ferguson helped build.

The club is bigger than one man.  The club will move on.  Football is fluid.  Ferguson's recognized this better than most, speaking to his longevity.  Match 1,500 will be his last Sunday.  A day I'll sit back, enjoy, and be thankful Sir Alex Ferguson was the manager for my football team.


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