Sir Alex Ferguson celebrates yet another title win after beating Aston Villa 3-0
Author: Herzog’s Child
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“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places.”
~ Ernest Hemingway
For a brief few moments last May, Manchester United’s supporters, players, manager and staff dared to believe that they, against all the odds, had somehow won a 20th league title. A routine win against a Sunderland side craving the season’s end had taken place and back in Manchester it seemed as though City were going to machine-gun themselves in the foot by failing to beat QPR. Back in Sunderland, the match had already ended. United’s players awkwardly waited on the pitch. Sir Alex Ferguson for once willed that old wristwatch of his to speed up. In the away section, trembling reds reached for phones, pocket radios and towards unresponsive Gods. Then things started to change. It only takes a second to kill something. If you’ve ever been in a crowd when a major event occurs, you’ll meet the frailties of the human condition. There is the initial perplexity, the dropping hearts, the rushed jab to the gut. Then there is the silence. The getting used to it. The complete awfulness of a situation that promises everything but ultimately leaves you with nothing. At the Stadium of Light, a giddy and topless Phil Jones felt the awful cold pang of false hope. One moment he was an unlikely young champion, the next a cruelly slain loser. Wayne Rooney and Rio Ferdinand trudged off slowly, refusing to give into the moment – but shoulders dropped low and inside they will have burned. Antonio Valencia thundered towards the tunnel with all the menace of a killer who was leaving a town whose entire populace he had seen off. David de Gea pulled his shirt to his face, presumably to try and suffocate himself in it. Rafael had the heart-wrenching look of an unfortunate child who had stepped on and smashed their favourite toy. Amongst the circle of psychologically wounded troops, a wily old lieutenant general attempted to resuscitate his men. Strict orders were issued. Players’ lost attentions were alerted and found once more. The message was clear: show the supporters your appreciation and let’s go again. The ending had finished but Act 1 was about to commence.
In the summer months we learned more of the hurt. A tipsy Fergie, already eagerly awaiting the next war, spoke at the Player of the Year awards about wreaking revenge on Sunderland. In the stands that day their supporters got in on the act, taunting United and their felled fans. Fergie’s war-cry was clear: they wouldn’t forget about that. If the message was directed towards Sunderland, the subtext was a provocative promise to a wider audience: the rest of the teams in the league, the many critics, the media, all the doubters – they would see. In a newspaper interview weeks later, Danny Welbeck spoke about the bus-trip home that day. The younger players, the ones who looked most aggrieved, were told to relish the moment and not hide from it. Hurt is a valuable tool as long as you don’t let it consume you. At Manchester United, there is an expectancy not to just win every game, but to win them in a way befitting the rich philosophy of the club. Similarly, there’s an expectation that in the rare moments where a loss occurs, you need to lose in the right way. Those who withdraw as a result of failure don’t tend to be around when success returns. To the young players, the message was clear: soak in the terror of snatched victory and make sure the gnawing hurt is something you don’t experience again. Failure is a reality for every football team, but at the top clubs it is about the response. With the right attitude drilled in to those who would return after summer, it was left to the manager to right what was wrong on the field. Once again, the lingering midfield issue was bewilderingly unattended to. Instead, a little gem from Japan, who would take time to settle, was secured. In August, the craved big name arrived. It wasn’t in midfield, but pulses soared anyway. With Robin van Persie’s signature, a statement was made. United may not have filled the gaps located elsewhere, but they were going to prove that a stockpile of ammo would ultimately be enough. The move was a bold one. Questions still remain. But somehow it worked, very well.
United haven’t always been convincing this year. Step away from the terrific form table, the gap at the top and the pleasingly early league win, and you’ll see a team who haven’t arrived here the easy way. Rudderless on the wings, United have had to get by being gritty, efficient and consistent in doing what needs to be done: winning, no matter how well you play. Football flowed free at times, particularly in the early stages of the season, but the last hurdles were leapt over with the lethargy of a side that just want to receive what they deserve and be done with it. Much credit, however, is unquestionably due. It’s not easy to run your rivals so close and have a title stolen from you in the closing moments of a match, only to gather once more and finish the next campaign off with a significant number of games to spare. While some players, for numerous reasons, disappointed, the growth of others ensured the cracks were sufficiently sealed. The broken child in the Stadium of Light has blossomed into a wondrous right back. In his strides up field, all the determination of one who has hurt and flat out refuses to feel it all over again is there. The young man who tried to escape into his own shirt, who through the harsh learning process was subjected to ridicule and mockery in the media, will be in the team of the season. Criticism centred not only on a purported lack of ability, but also towards his character. He not only couldn’t deal with the harsh environs of the league – he was also too feeble to adjust. The future, however, makes fools of premature judges. David de Gea has done very little wrong throughout the season. Balls are regularly and confidently punched clear now. Goal-bound shots are tipped high and wide and out. The shy face is now unafraid to contort in a twist of anger. Danny Welbeck’s season may not read well in a statistician’s spreadsheet, but numbers do not catalogue industry. There has been no surer sign of United’s willingness to succeed than in the ceaseless drive and passion of its local maestro. He will only get better again. The passing of time has once more proved that young players just need faith placed in them. Alex Ferguson is not faultless, but few are able to understand the young so well. The fallen of last May have risen this May. The hurt had done its job.
We’ll never know, of course, but it’s interesting to wonder what a different outcome last season would have inspired this year. It is not absurd fantasia to suggest the emotional impact of losing your title at such a late stage provoked in United an almighty terror, a wound that looked fatal but in fact brought with it a new lease of life. Many United supporters greeted the new season with a grimace. Revenge was desired but there existed a reasonable fear that the top rung would be City’s again. However, while doubts may have lingered, United were going into the new campaign led by a man who thrived on challenges. There are few more terrifying prospects in football than a hurt Alex Ferguson about to embark on his next battle. For all his pragmatism and glaring into the future with hungry eyes, City’s title success would have hit Fergie as hard as anyone else. Yet you also get the sense that failures in his eyes are only seen as opportunities to be relished. The initial stabs are put aside and there is only one way to heal your wounds – by returning better and stronger. Lows may be experienced and things may need to be changed, but there is always another punch ready to be thrown. At Stoke, he greeted his oncoming striker with the type of wholesome hug a father would offer his son after returning from a war. In his now customary celebration – the awkward arm-raise, the disbelieving face – there is the youthfulness that has defined his genius. Years have passed and on paper he’s an old man now, but the exuberance, the indefatigable hunger and constant want for more remains ceaseless. Bobby Charlton recently said that it’s likely Ferguson would remain as United manager forever, as if his surreal achievements in football can be carried into life itself. He won’t remain forever, of course, and in the not so distant future, the club will be a lesser beast without him. He is imperfect, as all men are, but he is of a rarefied type. Football, with all its change, won’t see the like again.
It was in 1988, not long into his new job, that a fresh-faced Scot proclaimed: “This isn’t just a job. It’s a mission. We will get there, believe me. And when it happens, life will change for Liverpool and everybody else…dramatically.” The prediction was bold and to most impossible, but some men have a clearer vision of the future than others. While the success that was to follow would have even surprised the man who predicted it, the stated mission can now be reflected upon with awe. It’s difficult to pin down precisely how he’s done so well. In the insatiable attitude ingrained in him and fed to the teams he has constructed, there is a continuous feeling that while things can be good, they can always be better. There is the rebuilding process, a tiring task that involves a conveyor belt of players, a litany of risks and the need to lecture newcomers about the ways of the club. Many will label Ferguson a bully and in a sense it is a correct assertion. A manipulator of the media when it suits, there is almost a sociopathic edge to the way he functions. He may not always be nice, but everything is carefully orchestrated to maximise the team’s chances of victory. Sore losers are frowned upon, but what often goes unrecognised is that the greatest of winners hurt the most when things do not work out their way. Ferguson is a sore loser. It is one of the many reasons why he wins and wins so often: prolonged failure is not an option. It is why he brooded in the dressing-room instead of facing the media post-Madrid. The officiating error would have angered him but the cold regret at having lost out on another European Cup, as his career edges towards its end-zone, would have hurt the most. But his mission, the one he referred to 24 years ago now, is still in motion. He will have enjoyed this title victory, but leaving the pitch he will have his mind already set on what’s to come.