There are some soccer fans amongst my regular readers, so that gives me freedom to write about the massive news from Manchester: Sir Alex Ferguson is retiring as manager of Manchester United.
I hate ManU, and by association, I hate Sir Alex. I came by my hate honestly. When I was first discovering European soccer in 1994-5, ManU star Eric Cantona took his infamous flying kick at a. That’s all I needed to put the Red Devils in the hate column and they’ve been there ever since. I have learned to grudgingly respect Sir Alex and ManU. But as I became more interested in English soccer and adopted Arsenal as my club1 there was never a chance I would hop on the ManU bandwagon like so many other Americans have done.
But good grief! Twenty-six years, 13 league titles, two European titles. He stayed and imposed his will on the entire organization in a way that rarely happens any more anywhere. ALl while speaking in his impenetrable Glasgow accent. Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs is the most similar American example. But as central Popovich is to the Spurs’ success, I don’t think he is a Mt. Rushmore coach the way Ferguson was. Great coach, absolutely. Under-appreciated, for sure. But I don’t think he’s in the discussion as the greatest ever the way Sir Alex is.
The manager/coach tends to be the most expendable element of an organization’s success. If things are going poorly, often the simple, obvious way of fixing things is sacking the manager, to use a British term. ManU had very few lean years, but Alex navigated Arsenal’s run of success, the emergence of Chelsea and Manchester City, and countless egos on ManU’s roster to always kept them in the running for the league title and playing deep into the Champions League tournament.
Manchester United was, until a few weeks ago, the biggest and most valuable soccer club in the world.2 Their money went a long way towards building and sustaining their success over the past 26 years. But even with all that money and talent, I don’t think they would have been nearly as successful without Sir Alex chomping his gum on the sidelines.