Sir Alex Ferguson: Manchester United icon is the greatest football manager Britain has ever known

The occasion was Arsene Wenger’s final visit to Manchester United as Arsenal manager when Fergie presented an inscribed silver vase to his fiercest managerial rival.

The great man was a picture of health last Sunday and many of us with affection for Wenger were wishing that the Frenchman could call it a day and enjoy the same sort of contented retirement his old foe seemed to be revelling in.

So the news which broke of Ferguson fighting for his life was even more difficult to believe because of that recent high-profile public appearance.

But even without that, it would have been jarring to be reminded of the vulnerability of a footballing immortal.

Ferguson is the greatest football manager Britain has ever known.

And given that the field includes Sir Matt Busby, Bill Shankly, Bob Paisley and Brian Clough, that is quite some accolade.

But Ferguson took over Manchester United when the club had not won a title in 19 years — then won 13 of them as well as two Champions League crowns.

FERGIE FIGHTS FOR LIFE Sir Alex Ferguson battling for life in intensive care after suffering brain haemorrhage

Since he left five years ago, United have not had a sniff of either trophy.

At the peak of his powers, Ferguson was feared, admired and respected in equal measure.

In public, he could be as awesome as an Old Testament God. In private, a man-manager of rare intuition and vast warmth.

Ferguson’s tribute to Wenger in last week’s match-day programme was gracious and glowing.

He declared that the rivalry between the two of them and their teams had “made the Premier League.” And it was no hyperbole.

Many of the tributes paid to Wenger since last month’s announcement that he would leave Arsenal at the end of the season concluded that even he paled into comparison with Ferguson.

The great Ayatollah Hogmanay, born on New Year’s Eve 1941, was defined by his sheer longevity — 27 years in charge of one of the world’s biggest, richest and demanding clubs.

And his longevity was assured by his ability to continually reinvent himself and re-build his teams.

The infamous ‘hairdryer treatment’ which would strip the Old Trafford dressing-room walls when he was displeased during his earlier years, had been replaced by a softer style in his later days.

But this was a man who won the Double in 1994 then swiftly ripped up his team and built it again around a clutch of home-grown players, including Ryan Giggs, David Beckham, Paul Scholes and the Neville brothers.

Two years later they did the Double again.

Then after the shock retirement of his great talisman Eric Cantona, came Ferguson’s first Champions League — United clinching a Treble unprecedented in English football thanks to goals from Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in the dying minutes of the 1999 final against Bayern Munich in the Nou Camp.

“Football, bloody hell,” said the victorious manager in one of his simplest but most famous quotes.

Those three words showed that behind all the fire-breathing, was a man enjoying a lifelong love affair with a beautiful game.

That great team’s defensive lynchpin Jaap Stam was out on his ear a couple of years later after crossing his boss in a revelatory book.

This was a hallmark of Fergie’s management — even the very best, such as Roy Keane, and the most famous, Beckham, were out on the ears once they had lost Ferguson’s trust.

The third and final great team Ferguson built at United sometimes included Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Carlos Tevez and Dimitar Berbatov.

This was typical of a manager who never forgot that football is part of the entertainment industry.

As a young pro he had marvelled on the terraces at Hampden Park as the mighty Real Madrid team of
Alfredo Di Stefano and Ferenc Puskas beat Eintracht Frankfurt 7-3 in a classic European Cup final.

That performance remained in his mind as a blueprint, an ideal. Ferguson nurtured, and cherished, wonderful talent with that in mind.

Sure, he could chuck the crockery, turn the air a deep blue and even kick a football boot at Beckham’s head.

But he could also indulge the likes of Cantona and Ronaldo something rotten.

That most recent great United side also won three titles in a row from 2007 to 2009 and added a second Champions League title against Chelsea in Moscow in 2008.

Not that there was ever any true decline. Ferguson retired at the top in 2013 after his 13th Premier League title.

It was 28th major trophy with United, 38 if you include Charity and Community Shields.

And even before he arrived at Old Trafford in 1986, Ferguson’s achievements at Aberdeen marked him out as something truly special — breaking up the Old Firm duopoly and defeating Real Madrid in the European Cup Winners’ Cup final with a backwater Scottish club.

Last night, all of football was hoping and praying that Fergson will be back at Old Trafford before long, just like he was last weekend.

The lord of the manor, the master of all he surveyed.

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