Every single one of us does indeed love Sir Alex Ferguson, but here's my tribute to the great man
“You'll neever wiin the leeague! You'll neever wiin the leeague!” The taunts rang out around the schoolyard, their gleeful faces pressed close to mine. Some of the bigger lads responded with a swift kick to the bollocks but I just lay down and took it too dejected to respond. And anyway they were right; we wouldn't ever win the league, that's what Liverpool did, what Arsenal did, and what even Leeds did now. It had just been another false dawn, another bitter failure, we were stupid for even thinking it could end any other way. Eventually, mercifully, the final bell rang and I scampered home before another wave of insults could begin. Once inside I knew I was safe, they understood I was in mourning and would leave me be.
May 2nd 1993, Aston Villa 0 Oldham Athletic 1 – Manchester United are English Premier League Champions. It was over. No more schoolyard taunts. No more 26 years and counting. We were Champions, the best team in England. A year earlier I'd sat, crumpled, by the radio, as the Kop revelled in our misery, now I danced a merry jig of delight as that same radio brought news of Nick Henry's winning goal. As great as it was this wasn't how I envisaged it. What do I do now, I thought, where are all those schoolyard bullies when you need them? I strode out my front door into that hot summer's day and the world just felt different. Birds sang louder, the ground felt soft beneath my feet, my senses were sharpened, this was what being a Champion felt like.
Twelve months on and that feeling remained, and this time we had an FA Cup to accompany it, a Double. We had done it in a style unlike anything seen before, with panache, daring and swagger, the United way. A team which could outplay you or outfight you whichever you preferred, led by a mercurial Frenchman we had defended our title with ease putting to rest any fears that it had been a once-off never to be repeated. We were an established force, the paranoia was slowly receding, helped no end by the continued demise of our friends up the M6. What next, we thought, dare we turn our eyes to Europe? Is it really possible?
He said it was and we had no reason not to believe him. Our faith in him was now absolute. Forget about the banners bidding him goodbye or the game against Forest which could have been his last, he was our oracle and we hung on his every word. But we were still getting used to being Champions of England, both us and the team. Humiliating nights in Barcelona, Gothenburg and Turin followed, and once again we were cast in the role of nearly men, once again the schoolyard rang out with songs of our failure. We're not good enough, I said to myself, but I couldn't complain, he's brought us more than I ever dreamed possible. Maybe it's time for someone else to have a go? He is pushing on after all.
26th May 1999, the greatest night of my life. But it's just a football match I hear you say, how can it be the greatest night of your life, you weren't even there?! Well it was and it will remain so until something like perhaps the birth of a child surpasses it. And even then the kid is going to have to be pretty special. I watched it at home on my own; the same way I watched all the big games. Not a drop of alcohol passed my lips, I had waited all my life for this and I wasn't about to let it pass me by in a haze of booze. This is the one. The Holy Grail. The Promised Land. He had brought us there now it was time to fulfil our destiny. But the Germans hadn't read the script, for 89 minutes they held us at bay, repelling the efforts of Manchester's finest with ease.
The next three minutes were a blur. At some point, I don't know when, I came to a halt. The scene was one of devastation, armchairs were missing cushions, photos sat lopsided on the wall, bulbs shuddered in their sockets and a very scared Red Setter lay cowering in the kitchen. I found myself sat, cross-legged, on the floor, just inches from the television. Tears streamed down my face, I wept shamelessly like I'd never wept before. My boys had done it, his boys had done it. He'd delivered on the grandest stage of all. I sat like that for a long time watching the celebrations, scarcely believing what was happening. And then, as if rebelling against the occasion, my body went into meltdown. A pounding headache, ringing in my ears, pains from head to toe, I was forced to go to bed. But it mattered not because when I awoke Manchester United would be European Champions. Football, bloody hell.
And still the success came, we became inured to it. Complacent even. League titles were summarily dismissed as par for the course, our goals were greater now. More trebles, more European Cups, the best players in the world, we want them and we want them now! We were a global force, a brand recognisable throughout the world. And all thanks to him. But then he said he'd had enough, retiring and leaving a void in our hearts. How could he do this we're only getting started? But of course he could never go and his decision was duly reversed. Why go when there's still so much to fight for? So many enemies to vanquish? And they all fell at his sword, the studious Frenchman, the Special One, the Fat Spanish Waiter, each succumbed to the great man and we rejoiced once more.
He brought us to the pinnacle again in 2008 with a team headed by one of the greatest we'd ever seen. A young floppy-haired kid plucked from Madeira and turned into the finest footballer on the planet. Only he could do that, only he could navigate these precocious talents through their formative years bringing them out the other side as men. Two times he'd captured the big one, but you sensed it wasn't enough. To be truly great you had to win it more times he said. We watched as he progressed through his seventh decade and wondered where he got his energy from. No longer just a football manager he was now an institution in his own right, He was Manchester United. Without him we were nothing.
Another domestic rival rose, this time our most domestic of rivals – our noisy neighbours. And just like previous foes it had seemed impossible to topple them, funded by Arabs with bottomless pockets we feared the worst. Our club strangled by it's penny-pinching owners would now play second fiddle. There was no overcoming this one. But somehow he did it. How could we ever have doubted him? We romped home putting those cocky upstarts in their place, yet another glowing achievement to add to his already frightening resumé. However the one he coveted most eluded him yet again. One flourish of a referee's red saw to that. Too devastated to speak we wondered if this was a sign? Had he known it was his last tilt at the biggest prize of all?
And so it was. He bade us goodbye, a twentieth title his parting gift: we'd had seven when he'd arrived. I was seven when he'd arrived. He has given us so much, all those trophies, all those magnificent teams, but for me his legacy lies elsewhere. Often when new players arrive at United one of the first things they note is the family atmosphere at the club. Everyone from the groundsman to the tea ladies to the bloke who washes Giggsy's dirty gruds are made to feel important. Manchester United may be one of the biggest sporting establishments on the entire planet but it retains an almost homely ambience. This all stems from him, his desire to make sure everyone is looked after, if United are indeed a family then he is it's father.
But father time has caught up with our father, he's seventy-one years old now and even he can't go on forever. We may mourn his passing but it's not as if he's died. I'm sure he'll still pop up every now and again delivering diatribes in that unmistakable Govan brogue. Setting the world to rights. Fighting United's corner. Those who deal in hyperbole will say we'll never see his like again, and for once they'll be right. People like him come around once in a lifetime, I'm just glad he came during mine. Thank you Sir Alexander Chapman Ferguson. Thank you. And goodbye.