On New Year’s Eve, with no less than seventy-five thousand fans watching on, including one legendary fan in the form of Sir Alex Ferguson, who was celebrating his 75th birthday, Manchester United found themselves 1-0 down with five minutes to go against a relatively weak side in Middlesbrough. It has been the usual story for the 20-time English champions recently – dominate possession, but lose 1-0 to a mid-table side.
But something miraculous happened. The Red Devils eventually scored. Twice. In a span of two minutes. Late drama. Many pundits commented on how the performance was like the Manchester United of old. There’s the key word right there: “of old.”
Under Sir Alex Ferguson’s 26-year reign at Old Trafford, such late wins during “Fergie Time” was just another day in the office – the most popular of which was United’s dramatic victory over Bayern Munich in the 1999 Champions League final, when United’s Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer scored in two minutes at extra time to win the coveted European crown, prompting Sir Alex to coin the now-popular phrase, “Football, bloody hell.”
But all of that is gone now. Gone is the gritty perseverance that saw Manchester United win title after title under the Scotsman. Gone is the will to go on despite the clock ticking on towards a close. It was Ferguson who provided that edge, that fighting spirit. He alone had that kind of charisma.
That Manchester United swagger is definitely gone now. Because the source of that swagger, Sir Alex, is gone now. Teams no longer fear the Red Devils as much as before. Teams are now looking forward to gritty 1-0 wins against United because they know it’s now possible.
Sure he was a tough act to follow, but those who say that only view Ferguson as important to the club. The thing is, Ferguson wasn’t just important to the club – he was the club. He was Manchester United. Liverpool icon Jamie Carragher once said that Ferguson was United’s 12th man, that “Sir Alex alone was worth a minimum of 10 points a season to United, with his ability to intimidate and inspire.”
That much was obvious when United grinded out the 2-1 over Middlesbrough. It wasn’t the manager, Jose Mourinho who egged United on. It wasn’t the fans. Sure they played their parts, but it was Ferguson, who was there in the director’s box, celebrating his birthday, his face flashed on the numerous big screens across the stadium every ten minutes or so, that ultimately clinched that poetic victory.
Where does one find that charisma? Where does one find that aura that begets such respect? If only the answer to these questions were that easy, then the United hierarchy wouldn’t have bothered with splashing the cash for the likes of Juan Mata, Anthony Martial, Memphis Depay, and Paul Pogba, who are individually stellar athletes, but lack the cohesiveness that is brought about by the keen sense of tactics Sir Alex possesses.
But now, glimpses of Sir Alex’s methods are being seen to be in employ at Old Trafford this season. After all, Mourinho and Ferguson are good friends, having found a mutual respect for each other as rivals in the Premier League. The Portuguese tactician, one could say, is a fan of Ferguson and his managerial approach. Mourinho even invited Ferguson to training sessions at Carrington, saying in an interview: “He had not been back since he left, but I brought him back to be with his people. I wanted the players to see the big man and for me and him to share some minutes and have lunch together.”
It seems Mourinho has understood that Ferguson is still part and parcel of the club. Perhaps Ferguson’s return, albeit ceremonial, has steeled the players. That may explain United’s good form as of late. Perhaps Mourinho has finally found Sir Alex’s secret.
Sure, all of this sounds surreal, because it is. But none can argue against the legacy that Sir Alex has left behind, and the pressure it brings to the club and his successors. David Moyes, Louis Van Gaal, Jose Mourinho – they are good managers in their own rights, but to bring success after success, title after title, time and time again? Only Sir Alex has been able to do that.
And with the club not even able to finish second in the league in the seasons after Ferguson left, United clearly miss him.