Sir Alex will leave a void
Considering he said he had thought a great deal about his decision to retire, Sir Alex Ferguson certainly caught plenty of people – his own colleagues included – on the hop with his announcement.
There were definitely no signs he was slowing down the last time our professional paths crossed. Shortly before his team took to the Old Trafford pitch last month and beat Aston Villa to seal the Barclays Premier League title, I interviewed Sir Alex and discovered he was in vintage form.
His body language bristled with purpose, the blue eyes fixed me with that familiar Fergie challenge (they always seem to say, “come on then, make it quick and make it good”) but he was also relishing it as usual.
In fact, after the expected comments about professionalism, commitment and not taking Villa lightly, his eyes lit up when I asked a question about the visitors’ pace and his own defensive resources. Just the sort of thing he loved -- an opportunity to talk about the thing he enjoys most, the football, the tactics, the challenge of sending a team out on to the pitch.
I certainly left Old Trafford with the impression Sir Alex’s appetite for the game remained undiminished and also with that sense of relief that a successful encounter with the United boss always leaves someone in my line of work.
Whether it comes at a press conference, in a one-on-one interview or in a live TV environment (where indeed you do get three questions, you’d better make them good, and you don’t get a second chance), any encounter with Sir Alex is one that requires a deep breath and plenty of nerve. Simply put, you have to raise your game to make sure you come away with your professional reputation intact from an encounter with United’s boss.
That frame of reference – as a broadcaster covering his club - is the most obvious way in which I can offer any assessment of Sir Alex, having not been a player or a fellow manager. Plenty of others who don’t know him will try and evaluate his personality and skills, there will be professional contrarians who will try and diminish his contribution, just as there will be sniping comments from news organisations who fell foul of him over the years.
However, anyone who has even the most fleeting association with football will recognise that the man has been extraordinarily, perhaps uniquely, good at his job. Like the parent, teacher or boss who intimidates and inspires in equal measure, Sir Alex possesses that extraordinary drive and appetite for success that sets the truly special ones apart.
Richard Scudamore, the Premier League’s chief executive, said of Sir Alex today: “No one has made as great a contribution to the Premier League.” Richard also described Sir Alex and his club as standard-bearers for the league, given that amazing record of 13 titles in 21 seasons.
Standard-bearer and standard-setter as well, you might say. Simplistic as it may seem, the key to Sir Alex’s success may lie in his refusal to accept anything other than the highest possible standards in every aspect of life: from his players and staff to those with whom he comes into contact, no matter how peripheral.
He applied those strict criteria to himself and once said, “Always persevere with what you believe in -- don’t change because if you do you’re letting yourself down. I would never do that.”
Like the strict schoolteacher or boss I mentioned earlier, Sir Alex has always been intolerant of incompetence and insubordination, to the extent that many mistakenly feel he rules by fear alone.
I have been fortunate enough to have worked with Fergie’s former captains, players and adversaries and the picture they paint of the man is at odds with that of the brusque, tyrannical image preferred by others.
Steve Bruce, an inspirational player under Sir Alex and one of many managers to lose to him, spoke of his former boss’s ability to treat the most junior member of staff with the same humanity he would show to the star striker.
He added: “We have all had the hairdryer, be it as a player, reporter or whatever but it was all down to his fierce desire to win.”
My colleague, Alan Curbishley, who has developed a warm friendship with Sir Alex over the years, constantly tells me the man he knows is very different from the manager many think they know. He speaks of Sir Alex’s kindness to people who he may only have met fleetingly, of his hunger for knowledge and new skills (be they languages or learning to play the piano).
Where Alan’s version of the man agrees with the common public perception is in terms of Sir Alex’s thoroughness when it comes to preparation. Of course there were shareholders’ concerns to address but the process by which he has retired will not have been one that was dreamed up on the spur of the moment.
Plans for succession will have been laid down well in advance and Sir Alex’s ability to dominate this league (especially through his ability to attract star players such as Robin van Persie) will not suddenly go away.
Manchester United press conferences may now become more relaxed and relaxing affairs for journalists, the FA Disciplinary Committee may find its workload reduced but Sir Alex’s retirement will leave a gaping void in the club and the league.
His legacy will, however, live on and it is absolutely certain we will never again see the likes of Sir Alex Ferguson again.