SIR Alex Ferguson is to Britain’s football community what the Queen is to the population at large. Only a very small minority can remember a time when he was not on the throne.
As he demonstrated with a typically headline-making flourish yesterday, however, the septuagenarian king of Old Trafford has an edge on the octogenarian head of the House of Windsor in the matter of knowing when to abdicate.
Given his longevity and one or two previous false alarms, the retirement of the most decorated manager in the history of the game was a possibility that seemed to have been relegated to the bottom drawer of the public consciousness, there to remain undisturbed for the foreseeable future.
In such circumstances, the realisation of the event was always certain to feel as sudden and surprising as an eruption that had not been preceded by an ominous rumbling. That, though, does not mean there were not apparently minor occurrences in the great Scot’s recent experiences which would prove to be of enormous significance.
There were obvious physical portents such as the pacemaker he had fitted a few years ago and the latest revelation that he is soon to have a hip replacement operation. At 71, he has also dwelled often enough on the diminishing effects of the ageing process, emphasising that “none of us is immune to getting older and the changes you feel when, say, you get into your seventies”.
But there have been more private changes, known to family and friends of long standing, and these, added to the physical wear and tear, seem very likely to have had the kind of cumulative impact that could assist even the relentless, endlessly energetic force of nature that is Ferguson to reach the conclusion that this would be an appropriate time to take his leave.
For example, it has seemed to this observer for some time that the acquisition of a luxury apartment on the upper east side of Manhattan has given the manager a previously improbable zest for recreation, perhaps a deeply satisfying (and hitherto unconsidered) insight into the joys of smelling the flowers in Central Park.
It has been impossible in the last couple of years not to be struck by the readiness with which he and his wife, Cathy, have flown to New York on the slightest excuse. Every week on the calendar reserved for international football, when Manchester United’s training ground at Carrington becomes a ghost town as the players of a veritable commonwealth of nations depart to represent their countries, the Fergusons head across the Atlantic.
The latest slot, involving World Cup double-headers, allowed them to go for a full nine days, possibly an unparalleled absence at the height of the football season. There is special import in Cathy’s relish for the trip, as she has always preferred her own home to travelling. When Alex was offered the manager’s job at Aberdeen in 1978, she hated the very idea of leaving Glasgow.
By the time United called eight years later, she was extremely reluctant to leave the north-east for Manchester. Now, of course, she and Alex are part of the fabric of their adopted city, with three grown sons and ten grandchildren and the idea of moving anywhere else quite preposterous.
The second home in New York also chimes with a wish list Ferguson confided a number of years ago, when we first discussed the possibility of his retirement. “I would like to visit a lot of places I’ve already been to, but haven’t actually seen,” he said. “You know how it is on football trips. We see the inside of a hotel, a training ground and a stadium, then home. I would especially like to visit the southern United States, to get a feel of the history, especially the Civil War. I’ve long been fascinated by that.”
Ferguson is also entranced by American political history and New York would be a feasible base from which to launch some expeditions. Washington DC and Virginia, for instance, are only a short flight away.
That he has finally become comfortable with the idea of a less demanding and stressful lifestyle is understandable when you consider the range of his recreational interests, which include the aforementioned travel and exploration, an ever-expanding string of racehorses, extensive time with grandchildren and, of course, the continuing connection with Manchester United as a director and ambassador of the club.
That last-named duty will allow him to see the benefits of his legacy, a long-time tried and tested foundation on which the clubs he has managed, from St Mirren and Aberdeen to United (he was not long enough at East Stirlingshire) have been rewardingly built. Ferguson has always paid attention to the sub-structure of his clubs, establishing a sound base of scouting and youth development which leads almost automatically to a richly endowed first team.
It should also allow him to function at Old Trafford without the jousting with recalcitrant players and offending media representatives that have been a feature for so much of his 39 years as a manager.
He was still on mischievous form yesterday, when I sent him a text (his phone was, unsurprisingly, switched to voicemail) which informed him that I was to be brought out of virtual retirement for the day to write the “definitive” piece on his retirement. “Can you suggest an intro?” the message ended. Back came the reply: “Yes. I once banned you!”
I retorted that there was nothing remarkable about that. To modify Andrew Carnegie’s famous observation that “the man who dies rich dies disgraced”, the football writer who consorts with Alex Ferguson for more than 40 years without being banned retires in shame.