With news of Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement breaking yesterday, many people began to look back on a career that has made the Premier League era what it was, for good and bad. A dedicated, strong-willed, no-nonsense manager of people and the press, Ferguson will loom large over the almost thirty years he managed Manchester United from 1986-2013. Given the vogue for short-termism in élite football, unless someone delivers results like Ferguson did at the height of his powers in the 1990s from the get-go, it is unlikely any manager will ever serve one club so long in English football ever again.
Given that he has been managing Manchester United since before I was born, it is extremely difficult to imagine another person on the touchline for Manchester United. Rooney may stay, but what of Ryan Giggs? It must surely be earth-shattering for him to imagine anyone, even David Moyes – just about 10 years older – issuing instruction from the touchline. For someone like Giggs, this will perhaps be the most surreal of experiences if he continues playing next season.
Alex Fergusons tenure at Manchester United in some ways reminds me of Fianna Fáil’s tenure in Irish government. Since I was born in 1988, and certainly since I was even vaguely politically conscious, a Fianna Fáil government was as ever-present a fixture of my childhood and adolescence as the incorrigible Scot was for the red half of Manchester (and increasingly the red half of the rest of the world!). With their decline in 2011, it seems almost fitting now that the other permanent fixture, Ferguson, should be on the way out too.
Like many, many Irish people I grew up following Manchester United. The links between Ireland and the club are strong (to say nothing between the city and the Irish generally), from players in the early twentieth century – a namesake, but no relation so far as I can tell William ‘Billy’ Toms from the Curragh, Co. Kildare played for them after the end of the First World War – to the mid-90s pairing of Keane and Irwin and in the 2000s, Waterford man John O’Shea and numerous others in the decades between. Indeed there have been two – very similarly named – books written on the links between Ireland and Manchester United: Mary Hannigan’s Green Devils and John White’s The Irish Devils: The Official Story of Manchester United and the Irish.
One of the first books I can remember buying was a Manchester United annual in Dunnes Stores looking back on their 1993/94 double-winning season. I loved Manchester United. The best day of my then rather short life was still a little ways away. In 1997 on my ninth birthday, I was in my family’s living room and given a present. It was a Manchester United pencil case. Now, I like school, but even this felt like a bit of let down. I was encouraged to open it. Upon opening the pencil case I discovered a folded A4 sheet of paper telling me that I was going to see Manchester United playing at home in Old Trafford and on top of that, because I was travelling with an under-17 squad from Ferrybank FC, we would be getting to attend a Q&A session in our hotel with Alex Ferguson and to meet him. My brother, John, in preparation for this had printed out a certificate stating that because I was attending this match I was officially a real Manchester United supporter (I’ve taken official looking documents far too seriously ever since!) and also providing me with a handy sheet of paper on which to get Alex Ferguson’s autograph.
The trip to Manchester was brilliant and as well as the Ferrybank team, my dad, my brothers-in-law Don and Pat, and Pat’s dad Jimmy also came. When we’d had the Q&A session with Ferguson I, fairly sheepishly, went up for his autograph – he shook my hand, signed my autograph and said a few words, “y’arigh eh, Tiger?” so far as I can recall and then me, my Dad, my brothers-in-law, and Pat’s dad Jimmy stood, each in turn for photographs with the best of managers, still years from achieving his most enduring triumphs in 1999. When we got home, we realised, there was no roll of film in the camera. Still, the day I met Alex Ferguson remains vivid and colourful.