On this day of his 70th birthday, the Manchester United manager appears to have as much in common with the traditional image of a geriatric as a poster boy.
If, as Tennyson wrote, the onset of spring ensures that “a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love,” it seems logical to assume that, in the autumn years, a senior citizen’s fancy will mournfully turn to thoughts of retirement. Ferguson appears to be on a mission to make a nonsense of such convention.
To have kept his company on two auspicious recent occasions was to have been exposed once again to the actions, utterances and ambitions that are, unmistakably, the characteristics of a man in whose mind the concept of voluntary unemployment is not much different from the idea of leaping in front of a high-speed train.
At the dinner in Manchester last month to mark his 25 years at Old Trafford and, just 10 days later, the annual Scottish Football Hall of Fame induction, at which he was the guest of honour, the most striking impression was of Ferguson’s undimmed enthusiasm and seeming resistance to growing old, either physically or mentally. If a complete stranger had been told the Scot was in his early-to-mid-fifties, he would see no reason for scepticism.
What made this apparent illusion the more remarkable was that United were in the middle of a disappointing run of form, with reversals that would see them eliminated from the Champions League and setbacks in the domestic championship – including the 6-1 home defeat by Manchester City – that would leave them trailing their neighbours by five points.
Contrary to popular belief, such jarring experiences do not leave Ferguson in even a short-term rage, far less smouldering for days. His attitude to falling short is encapsulated in his stock reply to the question of what advice he would give to aspiring managers.
“To any young manager at the start of his career, the first thing I would always say is that you have to be prepared for failure, because it is inevitable,” he says. “You have to learn how to handle it, because it’s as much a part of the job as picking the team.”
Nobody in the history of the game has been so successful in meeting “those two impostors”, triumph and disaster, and treating them just the same. It is at least part of the reason why, at the age of 50, when many football managers are starting what may be called the last lap of a notoriously short course, Ferguson was just warming up. Having won his first honour with St Mirren at the age of 35, the Scottish Football League First Division championship in 1977, Sir Alex on this day 20 years ago still had 36 of his record 48 trophies ahead of him. It is as inevitable as the occasional failure that those successes will have been achieved by various teams of wide-ranging abilities.
But it is this ability to get by with moderate sides and emerge victorious during a period of decline as well as at a time of generally high standards, that has distinguished his work for an astonishing four decades.
It was in this context that Alan Hansen made an astute observation during his deliberations on the Ferguson phenomenon this week. Reflecting on last season’s mainly mediocre Premier League championship, the former Liverpool and Scotland defender insisted that “if Alex Ferguson had been in charge of any one of the teams in contention for the title, they would have won it. Championships are usually down to players, but in this case, he was the difference.”
He has been making a telling difference for considerably more than half his life and the resurgence of the past few weeks that has restored United to parity with City at the top of the Premier League should be evidence enough for anyone of Sir Alex Ferguson’s plans for a busy future.
OFFERING the view that Ally McCoist may have begun his managerial career at a disadvantage will probably appear ridiculous to anyone familiar with the former golden boy who seems throughout his career to have been blessed with impossible good fortune. Events of the past few months, however, amount to persuasive evidence that McCoist’s very celebrity could prove to be an insurmountable handicap.
A naturally exuberant, gregarious and garrulous personality, the Rangers manager was, from the start, likely to encounter difficulties in achieving the gravitas appropriate to the office vacated by Walter Smith. That burden would not be eased by the kind of decline in team performances that culminated in the midweek defeat by Celtic and the 17-point turnover that took the latter to the top of the league.
In addition, the deterioration has occurred in tandem with a succession of ill-judged reactions to issues raised by his players’ indiscipline and their punishment under the Scottish FA’s new fast-track system of conviction and sentencing.
Irresistibly likeable, McCoist has, in the course of more than 30 years in the game, enjoyed predictably and deservedly easy relations with anyone who has come into his sphere of influence, including media representatives. It seems legitimate to wonder if, as a result, he feels obliged to comment when pressed, rather than take the more prudent option of saying little or nothing until he has had time for proper reflection, or even to take advice.
More worryingly for Rangers fans – and for McCoist himself – is the possibility that his difficulty in achieving credibility as a serious leader after decades as a free spirit extends to the dressing-room and the training field.