Why it's time for Alex Ferguson to leave Manchester United on a high

When is this going to end? Never mind the Margaret Thatcher generation, indelibly marked by her looming presence in their youth. She was only at the top for eleven years. Sir Alex Ferguson has been at Manchester United for almost 27 years, and 22 of them have been spent challenging for, and usually winning, league titles. 

Ferguson, of course, would react violently if he knew he had been mentioned in the same breath as ‘that woman’, but even he would surely appreciate the fact that, in terms of longevity, he makes her look like a Chelsea manager. But how long can he continue to do this?

Ferguson has been an almost-permanent fixture in my life. He arrived in English football when I was eight, just as I was beginning to understand the interconnectedness of the game, the way the cast of characters ebb and flow through time. Or at least, the way they are supposed to ebb and flow. He replaced Ron Atkinson, which I thought was sad because I liked Atkinson. He was always laughing and he seemed nice. Ferguson didn’t seem very nice at all.

This terrifying Scotsman, staring up at me out of the pages of ‘Match’ and ‘Shoot’, looked like the last supply teacher that you would ever want to see walk into your classroom, the one that the bigger boys tell that story about. The story that your parents insist was all a misunderstanding, but you can see in their eyes that they don’t really believe it. 

Three years down the line, it seemed that his cold, authoritarian empire had failed. United were walloped 5-1 by City. A banner was held aloft at Old Trafford that read, “Three years of excuses and it’s still crap…ta-ra Fergie.”. And yet somehow he survived to lift the FA Cup. Then he beat Barcelona to win the Cup Winners’ Cup. Then he just missed out on the league after a gruelling run-in that included four games in seven days. It was slowly falling into place. 

I was 15 when he won his first league title, shaking off the challenge of Aston Villa, led by his cheerful predecessor Atkinson, and Norwich, powered by a perpetual stream of Jeremy Goss thunderbastards. 

He had built an excellent team with firm foundations, unstoppable on the counter-attacking and unrelenting when the pressure intensified. But there was no clue that he would still be winning the league 20 years later. Even Brian Clough, who tipsily bowed out of football that summer, only managed 18 years with Nottingham Forest.

And Clough’s face is the one that keeps popping into my head now. Broken-veined and broken-hearted, his legacy destroyed by steady decline. The spate of recent films and books have, to a certain extent, rescued his reputation, but for years after his retirement, it was very hard to reconcile the image of the thrusting young man who took Europe by storm with the image of the red-faced shambles bowing out with relegation. 

There is nothing to suggest that Ferguson will end up like Clough. After all, the Scotsman is still one of the first at Carrington in the morning and the last to leave, as opposed to Clough who used the training ground primarily as a place to walk his dog. But decline comes in many forms and they are not all necessarily self-inflicted. And I feel like this every time Ferguson wins something now.

The worst thing would be for Ferguson’s work to be tarnished by one disastrous year. The second worst thing would be for him to damage his legacy by taking one more job, like Guy Roux arriving at Lens for four matches without a win after over forty years at Auxerre. 

At some point, Ferguson is going to have to sit back and say, “My work here is done.” 

He is the manager of a club I do not support, and he makes my job more difficult by refusing to turn up to post-match press conferences, but even I don’t want him to end like Thatcher or Clough. Maybe this summer, it’s time for him to preserve his legacy forever.

Read more from the marvellous Iain Macintosh