FARE THEE WELL, FERGIE!
Editor’s Note: This was written shortly after Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement late 2013. At the time, the piece appeared in Abuja’s Metropole Magazine. The writer republishes it verbatim.
The media has been full of Sir Alex Ferguson since he announced his retirement a fortnight ago. Even American publications which famously don’t care about football have given the man inches. The New Yorker magazine started its tribute by asking if the Financial Times and the New York Times had ever carried a soccer coach on their covers on the same day. It has never happened before. The American coverage was as perplexing and honorific as famed literary critic Michiko Kakutani, reviewing Jay-Z’s 2010 memoir. Apparently, Sir Alex Ferguson relevance transcends his sport.
As a football fan, it is heartening football crossing borders; as a follower of the English Premier League, I am not keen on the human embodiment of this honor. You see, I support Arsenal.
For those who don’t know, there was a time when that Arsenal-Manchester United matches were a big deal, when such matches were exciting and a great delight for the neutral. Those days are gone; these days the result is forgone. The Arsenal fan going to watch such a matchup goes there not with confidence but with hope— the club has made us optimists. A few seasons ago Samir Nasri, he of Man City, scored twice before a Rafael consolation gave Arsenal 3 points; it was surprise and relief that greeted the result not a cheer borne of a confirmation of superiority.
It wasn’t always like this. Before the 2008 Champions League semifinal Arsene Wenger edged the head-to-head with Sir Alex Ferguson. Then Arsenal travelled to Old Trafford and lost by a lone John O’Shea goal; Wenger would then promise a different Arsenal in the home match— alas, a promise, a threat that would end 10 minutes into the match with a fortuitous Kieran Gibbs slip and a wavering Ronaldo freekick, which Manuel Almunia, he of several calamities, would find a way to misjudge. Since then Arsenal has taken a beating at the hands of Ferguson’s team.
Ferguson himself has become a legend for his success on the pitch as much as for his brashness off the pitch and on the sidelines. His two Champions league wins are as famous as his finger jabbing antics, banning of reporters and his brash approach to taming football’s giant egos.
It is easy to forget at this time he had a barren first few seasons after his appointment in 1986, a luxury today’s coaches do not have. The staggering 38 trophies in his 27 years in charge has eclipsed the dim years. His success has been due to an eye for emerging talent and courage in buying accomplished players. The man is human and thus had a few purchases that have failed: Diego Forlan, Djemba Djemba, the goalkeeper Taibi who conceded 5 goals in a game against Chelsea and subsequently relocating to oblivion. His successes have been more remarkable: from the ebullient, kung fu -kicking Eric Cantona to the mercurial David Beckham to the goal-poaching Ruud van Nisterooy, who suffered a memorable heckling after missing a penalty kick at Arsenal to defensive stalwart Nemanja Vidic to even the discontent Carlos Tevez now of Manchester City to most-expensive-player-on-earth Cristiano Ronaldo, and to Robin Van Persie who should have gone to hell but not to Manchester.
There are people who suggest, darkly, his success in the league was due to forceful impunity and an oblique assistance by the English Football Association.
One way or the other, these are not issues of importance: it is on the football pitch that my grievances were borne, bred and established. Where to start? The 6-1 at Old Trafford? Giggs slaloming through a host of players, too unfocused to put a leg or the Welsh man out? Preventing Arsenal’s unbeaten run from stretching to 50 games? — ending at 49, a number that now has a strange symmetry. The 4-0 FA Cup win? The 2-0 FA Cup win with United fielding seven defenders? All of these, showing the gradual deterioration of Arsenal than the might of the other. Any Arsenal fan can add to these showings.
It is bad enough to have witnessed these, than to have to consider the instant immortality television coverage confers; the remote immediate recall of ESPN Classics where a match safely tucked away in your subconscious is brought onscreen to rouse old misgivings and sting your eyes.
There have been good times: winning the league at Old Trafford after a Sylvian Wiltord goal, the aforementioned heckling of a United player after missing a penalty, and the great Thierry Henry’s incredible raise-swivel-volley beauty of a goal. These days I receive third-party joy from watching another team harm Fergie: I doubt any City fan was as jubilant as I was watching the 6-1 demolition of Machester United at Old Trafford or Fernando Torres at Liverpool almost singlehandedly inflicting a 4-1 defeat at the same venue and the tricky feet of Suarez doing same recently. If you can’t beat them, enjoy watching them get beaten.
So, would I miss him?
I don’t know yet. But if it makes supporting Arsenal easier then perhaps I’d mail him a personal thank-you letter. I would miss his interviews: his replacement David Moyes— another Scot— is not nearly a character as the fiery gum-chewing man.
The other day, a friend and staunch Manchester United fan said he wasn’t sure Moyes was what his dear Manchester United needs. Taking Arsenal’s recent lack of success against Sir Alex Ferguson’s team, I responded: “I hope David Moyes is the coach Arsenal needs.”