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Sir Alex in 13 Paradoxes

The contradictions — one for each of his championships — that defined the Premier League's greatest manager

Last week, after a 27-year run as manager of Manchester United, Alex Ferguson announced his retirement. His teams dominated the Premier League from the moment of its founding as a breakaway competition in 1992 (he won the first-ever title) to the moment of his retirement (he won the title this year), and he’ll hand off a strong squad to his replacement, David Moyes, next season. But more than the wins, what made him the essential coach of the modern soccer era was the way he embodied all its contradictions. Take any theme in contemporary world football — the global vs. the local, commerce vs. community, liking David Beckham vs. wanting to kick something spiky at David Beckham’s head — and chances are he somehow represents both sides of it, often fiercely and at the same time.

In honor of his 13 league titles as Manchester United manager, here are 13 of his most characteristic paradoxes.

1. Demon Alcohol

We could start anywhere, so why not start at the beginning: The first thing Ferguson did after joining Manchester United in 1986 was to take on the club’s ingrained culture of drinking. That was next-level man management in mid-’80s England — just noticing that heavy alcohol abuse and athletic success might not go hand in hand. Ferguson controversially sold boozy fan favorites like Norman Whiteside and Paul McGrath, sending the signal that no player was above the manager’s authority, especially one whose blood was a solution of Boodles Gin and furniture polish. But not long after Ferguson cleaned up Manchester United, the perception that he himself was a high-functioning alcoholic took root among rival clubs’ fans. And fair or not, that perception became a major component of his public identity, from the “Ol’ Red Nose” nickname to his own jokes about the quality of Jose Mourinho’s post-match wine.1

2. 667 Govan Road

Or why not go back before that, to the tenement where he grew up in the lower-class Govan district of southwest Glasgow. His father worked as a plater’s helper in the shipyard; Ferguson became an apprentice toolmaker and eventually a union steward. His background informed his politics (his coffee mug at Manchester United’s Carrington training complex reportedly read “AhcumfaeGovan“). He’s been a lifelong advocate for the working class. He’s also had no apparent difficulty working for the Glazer family, the predatory billionaires who own Manchester United and whose sole interest in the club, which Forbes values at over $3 billion, appears to be to squeeze as much money as possible out of its (substantially working-class) fan base.

3. The Sir Conundrum

We could put that even more sharply: He is a committed socialist who accepted a knighthood from the queen.

4. “Fashion fades, only style remains the same.” —Coco Chanel

Or consider this: For sheer longevity, he’s the most stable fixture in the game, a manager so associated with one club and one league that it’s hard to imagine either of them without him. And yet he’s produced nothing that could be considered a distinctive style of soccer or a lasting tactical innovation. Not a WM formation, not Total Football, not tiki-taka. He adapted his tactics brilliantly to changing circumstances over time, but he leaves behind nothing like a singular vision of football. He had no signature on the pitch. His signature was the scoreboard.

5. Poetry and the Killer Instinct

There are soccer managers who conceive of themselves as intellectuals; Ferguson was never like that. He was as brusque and vulgar as anyone in the game, and as likely to use language as a tool of intimidation. The media spent so much time fantasizing about the “hairdryer treatment” he’d give his players partly because the media was always being subjected to acid harangues like:

i. “On you go. I’m no fucking talking to you. He’s a fucking great player. Youse are fucking idiots.”

Which he said to the press in defense of Juan Sebastián Verón, one of his worst signings, a signing so legendarily terrible that it’s become a metonym for all terrible signings. A signing, in other words, that you did not have to be a fucking idiot to question. But the legitimacy of your doubts was never what Ferguson concerned himself with; his concern was with your daring to doubt him.

But when he switched off the rotating knives, he’d reveal himself as one of the most secretly thoughtful managers in the game, and one of the most well-spoken. Exhibits:

ii. Of the young Ryan Giggs: “I remember the first time I saw him. He was 13 and just floated over the ground like a cocker spaniel chasing a piece of silver paper in the wind.”2

iii. Concerning the title chase: “If Chelsea drop points, the cat’s out in the open. And you know what cats are like — sometimes they don’t come home.”

iv. When Wayne Rooney wanted a transfer: “Sometimes you look in a field and you see a cow and you think it’s a better cow than the one you’ve got in your own field. It’s a fact. Right? And it never really works out that way.”

He had a kind of innate poetry that coexisted uneasily with his habitual use of language as a weapon.

6. Shattered Glass

Sometimes even in the same moment. Check the italics-mine swerve at the end here: “Myths grow all the time. If I was to listen to the number of times I’ve thrown teacups then we’ve gone through some crockery in this place. It’s completely exaggerated, but I don’t like people arguing back with me.

7. Loyalty Is a Street

Loyalty was always the major virtue he recognized. He wanted to build a team of players who would die for the club, who would die for him, who would die for each other. As long as he believed in their loyalty, he would defend them with his last breath (cf. that quote about Verón above). But if he felt their loyalty wavering, he would euthanize them on the spot. “Ether” is an overrated song and not remotely adequate as a metaphor for what he’d do. “If anyone steps out of my control, that’s them dead,” he once said. He dispatched Beckham, Keane, van Nistelrooy, any star who tried to cross him.

Just this past week, Rooney talked about leaving, so Ferguson sat him for the final home game of the season — Ferguson’s last match at Old Trafford. Such a small move, but do you think Manchester United fans will forget that, on the last day, the old man wrote Rooney out of his legacy? It was a quietly devastating decision, and an unnecessary one, in the sense that, with the Premier League title already won, the match could have been approached as a celebration.3 Ferguson valued loyalty so highly that he was always ready to destroy the people he was loyal to.

8. Golden Generation

There’s another way to look at that, too. He’s famous for shedding players, for keeping his stars’ tenures short so that no one can threaten his preeminence at the club. But this seemingly fickle coach stood by some of his best players for decades — Giggs, who’s 39 years old, has been starting for Manchester United for 23 years. Paul Scholes and Gary Neville made more than 1,300 appearances between them.

9. “The Scottish beast is on his way.”

If many of his contradictions suggest a kind of absolute pragmatism, a curious ability to suspend judgment about anything except what contributes to Manchester United’s losses and wins, this is something else. Many of the career eulogies that appeared after Ferguson announced his retirement last week discussed the difficult tension between Ferguson’s vindictiveness and what could be his extreme, warmhearted generosity. Daniel Taylor, one of many writers whom Ferguson banned from his press conferences,4 tells the following story in his Guardian retrospective:

David Meek, the former Manchester Evening News correspondent, always remembers the incredible kindness Ferguson showed him when he was diagnosed with cancer in 2003. Meek’s phone rang one day and the message at the other end simply growled: “The Scottish beast is on his way.” Ferguson was at Meek’s front door 20 minutes later. Meek, who has been Ferguson’s ghostwriter of choice for many years, remembers how Ferguson looked him in the eye and told him exactly what he had wanted to hear: “You can handle it.”

I guess visiting a sick friend doesn’t seem especially radical as an act of kindness, but there are so many others — when a 20-year-old United fan was killed on vacation in Australia, Ferguson, of his own accord, reached out to the grieving parents. When he learned that a 14-year-old United fan had died in a car crash last year, he wrote the family a letter.

Well, everyone is both cruel and not, and it’s perfectly common for highly successful narcissists to be remembered fondly on the basis of a few surprising gestures of kindness. The difference with Ferguson is that, for all his rage and ambition and paranoia, he doesn’t seem particularly dark; he seems like he views his spiteful side as an exception that just has to come out every once in a while.5 You occasionally get the impression that the hospital-visiting Ferguson is nearer to his own self-image than the ruthless chieftain figure on which his entire career and public persona are based.

10. Unfleet Street

But then: Was anyone ever so hostile to the media, so a priori contemptuous of the whole idea of covering soccer for a living, so seemingly eager to annihilate the press as a body, while simultaneously appearing to manipulate the media for his own purposes more or less every second he spent in their presence?

11. Injustice League

And furthermore: Did anyone ever spend so much time talking about abstract standards of officiating, what was and wasn’t a disgrace to the game, how other teams’ players mistreated referees, every tiny perceived deviation from an ideal of perfect fairness — all while giving such an overwhelming impression that he was doing it solely for his own team’s benefit? Yes, every manager does this — does anyone do it that much?

12. Be the Change

It’s a strange fact, but it’s often the case that the soccer managers who most seem to represent a connection to the past — to some older, simpler state of the game — are also the ones who’ve done the most to move soccer away from that past and into its modern form. Harry Redknapp’s cheesy yarns about his dad and pickle rolls are an escape from the world of crooked agents and backstage corruption embodied by … Harry Redknapp. In the same way, Alex Ferguson is the Premier League: He won his first title in the first year of the league, went on to win 13 of 21 championships overall, and did more than anyone else — even more than overtly revolutionary managers like Arsene Wenger — to exploit the new frontier of satellites and global marketing and international player transfers. But he reads in many respects as a comfortingly old-fashioned figure, Jock Stein’s straight-backed heir,6 a stern, all-knowing patriarch forcing his millionaire players to show some damned respect. Forty years from now, when today’s kids are old enough to be nostalgic soccer writers, the manager of the world’s most positronic android football team will be celebrated for preserving the tried-and-true values of the Internet.

13. Containing Multitudes

Well, we’re all full of contradictions, pretty much. We all suspend judgment on ourselves in trivial and non-trivial ways. I don’t think Alex Ferguson is a hypocrite. I think his career overlapped with an enormously chaotic period in the history of soccer, and that he was driven by a goal so huge and consuming that it blotted out every other consideration, and that because things were so chaotic, and so much got blotted out, a lot of contrary possibilities could sort of cluster around him without needing to be resolved. He was a working-class socialist who furthered the aims of billionaires. He was a traditionalist with deep local roots who facilitated the commercial globalization of the game. He was a loyalist who destroyed his own allies. He was a bully and a thug, at times, with what seemed, at times, like a strangely beautiful way of looking at the world. He won 49 major trophies.

Rather than exposing him as a fake, the paradoxes his career contained somehow made him seem realer — larger, more complicated, more capacious. Which, in the end, may be his essential paradox — that he could be so much bigger than life while remaining a human being.

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Brian Phillips is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ runofplay