Football Burp columnist and Manchester United fan Bharat Azad pays tribute to old whatsisname…
Sometime in the early spring of 1999, when the treble had come to look like a real possibility for Manchester United, my grandmother came to visit us in London. Being Indian, she’d never watched a football match but with an irritatingly passionate – and passionately irritating – grandson, she watched the second half of Manchester United’s most glorious season in a comfortable, if occasionally bemused, silence. On one windy evening during dinner, she remarked, unprompted, that it seemed there were only two people in the entire country that looked happy when United scored: her grandson and “that man with the glasses chewing gum”.
This is perhaps Sir Alex Ferguson’s greatest legacy and, arguably, the well from which much of his success has drawn, that implicit mantra etched into the skin of United fans and players: Everyone Hates Us, We Don’t Care.
It is not only what led him to sign players as determined as Roy Keane, Eric Cantona and, to a lesser extent, Nemanja Vidic and Wayne Rooney, but to develop less certain personalities such as David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo into sporting heroes.
Beckham, in particular, became a better player than he had any right to be: a largely one-footed winger without the pace and skill of a Giggs or a Kanchelskis but with a sublime cross. After his sending off against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup for an act of petulance, a national myth was born: England’s brave warriors battled on and lost with honour on penalties. But Beckham was cast as a black sheep, the effeminate, media-courting, pop star-dating prima donna whose rashness had cost England the World Cup – and, judging by the violence of hatred towards him, the Ark of the Covenant and the Second World War.
Effigies were burnt and Beckham was hounded and abused as never before. Could Ferguson deal with this new breed of half footballer half underwear model, demonised by an angry country that used Beckham as a proxy for their hatred of United? Beckham’s career afterwards showed the sheer power of Ferguson’s determination in making him one of the best midfielders of his generation. The same happened for Ronaldo, with even more spectacular results, after the ordure heaped on the winger for his involvement in Rooney’s red card in the 2006 World Cup.
The aura around Ferguson – the reverent silence and carefully posed questions during press conferences, the trepidation of the post-match interviewer, the United player’s look of fear darting towards the bench when he has given the ball away or missed a sitter – is not so much the careful orchestration of a savvy PR team as reflections of the Scot’s seemingly unshakeable self-belief, his sheer omnipotence. Even the Glazers, rapacious American freemarketeers with no consideration for anything beyond the balance sheet, dare not interrupt him, it is said.
It is often forgotten that before the Old Man’s reign, there was a relative amount of goodwill towards Manchester United that stemmed not just from their illustrious history but from the darker side of their past. The tragic news of the Munich Air Crash ripped through Manchester and beyond. Older Liverpool fans remember the tears their compatriots shed when the news broke of Duncan Edward’s death.
Of course, the appalling reactions of football fans these days on all sides is not down to Ferguson’s siege mentality but the shift of animosity towards United is nevertheless audible. Will his successor, whom the clichés have as a “dour” or “fiery” Scot, continue this legacy or quietly dispose of it? Despite the similarities between the two managers, the difference in demeanour could prove interesting for Manchester United’s future character.
David Moyes is more like George Foreman to Ferguson’s Ali – quieter, more clinical looking. As Norman Mailer described Foreman, “his hands were separate from him…they were his instrument, and he kept them in his pockets the way a hunter lays his rifle back into its velvet case”. Perhaps Moyes’s temperament is the quality that marks him out as Ferguson’s true successor. United, after all, felt they had unfinished business after Sir Matt Busby’s reign and the quick ignominy of relegation and a quarter of a century without the league.
Ferguson’s volcanic personality was just what was needed to revive the club. Moyes’s quieter embers may be the right thing for United now, after the departure of that great football monolith, that colossus who has so triumphantly bestrode the footballing world, that Old Man with the glasses and chewing gum, who looked so vulnerable on the microphone yesterday.