It was the smile. He always had a unique smile. For someone who has been described as a dour Scot, a sort of curmudgeon apparently prone to volatile and unpredictable mood swings, Sir Alex Ferguson has been blessed with an infectious schoolboy grin that has been part of public life in this country since the 1980s. Almost like a way of life.
It is a trademark image that has been a leading emblem of British sport for over four decades. When you think of the salubrious Premier League, certainly since 1992 and the advent of satellite television, one immediately thinks of Fergie's smile adorning all those enlivening Manchester United moments. The scenes after the 2-1 win over Swansea were no different. Brand association is a powerful force.
When Ferguson takes charge of Manchester United for the final time at West Bromwich Albion next Sunday it will mark the end of the beginning for the Premier League.
Sky Sports seem to be aware of the cultural shift change Ferguson’s departure will have on their product. They have been wheeling out adverts thanking Ferguson for the memories after 38 trophies and 27 years at Old Trafford. Ferguson seems to have been the manager of English football since he won the first of 13 Premier League trophies in 1993. A Scotsman is the father figure of the modern English game.
United without Ferguson will take some time to get used to. He is an individual who seemed cocooned from old age at Old Trafford.
Whatever you made of Ferguson's childish histrionics when he was not getting his own way and some of his nonsensical behaviour as an adult male, it is difficult not to feel somewhat sad about his retirement.
His final speech yesterday was emotional in his distinctive Glaswegian patois, but will hardly remind United's fans of that W.H. Auden poem “Funeral Blues” given prominence in the film Four Weddings and a Funeral. Perhaps it should.
“He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.”
It feels like a part of one's childhood slowly drifting away because Fergie has always been there, in your face. Sometimes snarling. Sometimes smiling. Sometimes both at the same time.
Before United faced Rangers in a Champions League match a decade ago, I stood a few yards away as he publicly scalded one inquisitive reporter for allegedly writing rubbish about United. This was all standard practice, of course. The metaphorical corpses of banned journalists are never dredged up when it is tribute time.
'Sir Furious' was laughing seconds later when asked about Celtic or Rangers joining the Premier League.
“With their resources, history, tradition and support, they would do well. Mind you, they probably could not go straight into the Premier League. They'd have to start in the Conference or the Rymans League.”
Kenny Dalglish seemed to sport a similar glorious smile, perhaps best enjoyed when scoring the winning goal as Liverpool’s player/manager at Chelsea in 1986 on the way to a league and FA Cup double.
Like Fergie, Dalglish employed the belief that everybody was out to get his football club, mostly Liverpool. Dalglish had his differences with Ferguson.
"He’s got a temper, but, when I think of his character, I’d say he is respectful and courteous,” said Dalglish. “I am surprised he has decided to retire now, but I am not surprised he has gone out on a high."
The problem with highs is that they do not last forever. Nothing in life does. Like junkies hankering after another a fix of whatever gives them a buzz, Ferguson will wake up next Monday morning knowing things will never be the same again.
"Retirement's for young people, not for older people. Because young people can go do something else. If I get off this treadmill, where do you think I'm going? Down there?," said Ferguson, pointedly pointing to the earth during a trip to Qatar in 2010. "Trust me. Retirement's for young people."
Ferguson, a proud son of Govan, whose success has contributed immensely to Scotland's traditional heritage in football, could yet face his biggest challenge in life.
Adapting to a new lifestyle is as significant as moving houses. No matter the £2m he will apparently trouser in his new role as director and ambassador, the feeling of being a manager and getting out on the training ground will no longer belong to him. From July 1, that role belongs to somebody else.
Getting the hip fixed should help him enjoy his retirement, while watching his racehorses and taking holidays with his wife Cathy will partly fill the void. His decision to spend more time with her after the death of his sister-in-law says a lot about the man, but there will surely remain that longing for football. Unlike his old miserable chum Jim McLean at Dundee United, hoovering is not going to do it for him.
A sprightly 71, walking away from his opus could not have been easy. Millions in the bank are nothing compared to the currency of contentment. You cannot just rinse your mind of such golden memories, not when you have been the greatest manager to pin a team sheet on a dressing room wall.
Like his mentors in the form of Jock Stein and Sir Matt Busby, the good and the bad of the past accompanies you. In anybody's life, incident tends to define one's character.
Ferguson has been used to this life since he managed part-time East Stirling at the age of 32 in 1974.
As a kid growing up in the west of Scotland, I remember a retired policeman used to take great delight in maintaining regular correspondence with Ferguson when he was running Aberdeen.
Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and Porto were Fergie's natural enemies on the continent, engagements that helped him at United. The retired copper would unfurl his latest letter from Fergie with some relish, missives proudly adorned with the badge of Aberdeen FC.
Most of the letters were opinions on football, but he was hellbent on his club being portrayed properly in the Scottish media.
A fierce socialist, his outlook in football was inflamed by a perceived sense of injustice at Aberdeen that never left him in Manchester. It is a sense of purpose that is suddenly gone.
United are going through a massive sea change with David Moyes assuming control. But there is also Ferguson's life change.
Old age does not come alone. If we don’t depart the scene prematurely, advancing years are coming to us all. Yet we live in an ageist society.
Some of the literature written about Ferguson this week has almost felt like obituaries. Despite what has been penned, he is not dead.
Before the veteran Scottish sports presenter Arthur Montford - a figure Ferguson knows well from his Aberdeen era - plunged into the dubious delights of retirement at the age of 72 in 2001, a friend told him: "Arthur, when you wake up in the morning, put your shoes on, not your slippers."
Fergie may well be engulfed by the unrelenting mist of the autumn years, but at least the smile remains untainted by the passage of time.
One of world sport's great constants has shuffled off into folklore. But the timing of his departure only enhances the legend, because Ferguson unwittingly mastered the oldest trick in show business at Old Trafford yesterday: always leave them wanting more.
- Sports & Recreation
- Sir Alex Ferguson
- Premier League
- Manchester United