Football's inexorable treadmill leaves little time for respite or reflection. During a summer dominated by Euro2008, the shameless duplicities of Calderon, Blatter and Platini, and the greed of perfidious Ronaldo - to say nothing of the onrush of the Olympics and the start of yet another football season - there has been little enough in celebration of Manchester United's outstanding double of League and European Cup championships last May, nor of the place in football history that must surely be accorded the club's manager, Sir Alex Ferguson.
In statistical terms, Ferguson's career is, quite simply, incredible and would be so even if it were fiction. The end of last season brought him a tenth English league championship in 21 seasons as United's manager. No other manager in English history even comes close: Bob Paisley won six with Liverpool, Matt Busby five with United and Herbert Chapman four with Arsenal and Huddersfield in the 1930s. If we look outside England, Rinus Michels won five league championships (4 with Ajax and one with Barcelona) whilst Fabio Capello won seven (4 at AC Milan, 2 at Real Madrid and another at Roma; another two at Juventus were subsequently set aside because of match-fixing). Only in Scotland is Ferguson's achievement matched: Jock Stein, his friend and mentor, led Celtic to 11 Scottish titles.
In all, United won 702 (58%) of the 1210 league games played under Ferguson to the end of May. That surpasses even the record of Matt Busby: 576 (50%) wins out of 1141 games. And Ferguson's teams lost only 18% of their competitive games, compared with 26% under Busby. Since the inception of the Premier League, Ferguson's record has been even more remarkable. In the 16 years of the Premiership, United have totalled 155 more league points than Arsenal, their nearest challengers, 221 more than Chelsea and 244 more than Liverpool. That's nearly 10 points a season better than Arsenal on average, nearly 14 points better than Chelsea and more than 16 points better than Liverpool - astonishing margins. In the process, United also played the more attractive football consistently, averaging 1.97 goals per game (compared with 1.69 for Arsenal, 1.58 for Chelsea, and 1.6 for Liverpool) and defended better (conceding 0.87 goals per game compared with 0.88, 0.98 and 0.98 respectively for their main rivals).
If all that were not enough, Ferguson has also brought United two European Cups, a European Cup-Winners Cup, five FA Cups (a record for a manager) and two League Cups, 20 major trophies in all. Against that, Michels won a total of 14, Paisley 13, Capello 9, Busby 7 and Chapman 6. But there's more. Before joining United in 1986, Ferguson led Aberdeen to 3 league championships, 4 FA Cups, one League Cup and a European Cup-Winners Cup in Scotland. There's also the matter of two European Super Cups (one with each club) and an Intercontinental Cup (United beating Scolari's Palmeiras in 1999 to become, so far, the only English winners of that trophy). That's 32 overall, ahead even of Stein's 29 in Scotland (and achieved in a much tougher competitive environment). Along the way, there have been three English League and FA Cup doubles (the first to do it twice and then three times), and one League and European Cup double. Above all, in 1999 Ferguson led United to the treble of League championship, FA Cup and European Cup, the single greatest achievement by any club in English football history and something unmatched in Europe's main leagues (England, Italy, Spain, Germany and France).
You could not make it up. However much partisanship might colour our perceptions of the relative merits of the great managers, indisputably Ferguson stands pre-eminent in the history of English and European football.
Yet statistics do not give us the full substance of the man. It is all too easy to forget, given the global monster that United now is, that Ferguson took over something of an empty shell in 1986, a club living on (fading) memories of the Busby era, as much about tabloid notoriety as football achievement. With a ferocity that many found difficult to live with, he removed the drinking culture that he found, got rid of some outstanding players who had lost their way, confined the media to the fringes of the club's business, resurrected the club's youth development system, built a professional training and coaching system still unsurpassed in England, and demanded and got (as the price of being at the club) a unity of purpose and clarity of focus that turned talented players into winners. (What might a team including Robson, Muhren, Strachan, Whiteside, Stapleton and McGrath have won with Ferguson driving it, instead of the nothing that it did in fact win?)
Perhaps his greatest achievement has been that he has managed to blend the demands of a more tactical and defensive modern game with the attacking verve and individual swagger established by Busby as the United way of playing, a way that made a provincial club the best-supported team in the world. It was a challenge that defeated previous United managers (including even Busby in his late years) but Ferguson's teams have managed to provide plenty of scope for individual expression within the framework of team organization. Thus, players like Cantona, Giggs, Rooney, Ronaldo, Scholes, Sharpe, Yorke, Cole, Beckham, Anderson and others have developed into artists who could stretch the imagination of those lucky enough to watch them while they still played winning football. These skills have been paraded through four successful United teams built by Ferguson. If the first (1990-2) was something of a transitional side, the other three - 1993-4, 1999-2001 and 2006-8 - have all been great ones. The treble in 1999 must rank that side as the greatest of them, indeed as the greatest in English club history, not only for the magnitude of the success but also for the flair and style with which it was done. It exemplified what all Ferguson's teams are about - skill and flair embedded in a high level of organization and a ferocious team spirit.
All this marks out Ferguson as something more than a successful coach and places him in the ranks of those great managers who can 'build a club', as the saying goes, men like Michels, Stein, Shankly, Clough, Nicholson, Wenger. In this company, Busby stands supreme: we cannot begin to imagine what it took to turn a bankrupt, provincial club without a stadium into one renowned throughout the world, to change the ethos of football in favour of youth and flair, to drag English football into Europe, to resurrect the club after the Munich air crash (by contrast, Torino have never recovered fully after losing their great team in a 1949 air crash) and to win the European Cup just a decade after Munich. Yet Ferguson, too, belongs here, adapting the Busby legacy to new realities and taking the club to new heights.
It is only in his relations with the media that Ferguson can be considered less than successful. If it is true he has had to deal with a more unscrupulous and contemptible press than any that Busby, Shankly or Stein faced, it is also true that his constant conflicts with them have done neither himself nor his club any favours. It has encouraged a sustained campaign against the club by the London media so that United's enormous contribution to the community and to Unicef and other charities gets a Chinese-government type media blackout. And it has led to a media caricature of Ferguson with little basis in reality but with a life of its own. The ranting bully terrorizing his players does not square with their fierce loyalty to him or with their unshakeable will to win games from seemingly hopeless positions or with the flair and joy they so often bring to their play. Nor does it square with the esteem in which he is held throughout football, or with the appreciation by other managers of the support and generosity he accords them or, for that matter, with the help and friendship he has extended to individual journalists facing crises in their lives. The wealth and fame he has achieved in football, and the political and business circles to which he has access as a result, have not altered his friendships, most of which go back to his youth, or his focus on family ties or his social values. Perhaps that is a truer reflection of the nature of the beast than the media picture, and perhaps once he's retired and no longer threatens them, they will finally give him his full due. (Morris Sheftel)