A statue of Sir Alex Ferguson is set to be unveiled later this month outside Old Trafford, commemorating the unparalleled achievements of his time at the club. Rumours it will be furiously chewing and pointing at its watch remain unconfirmed.
It is a fitting tribute, and a fine testament to his managerial prowess. We may never see his like again. Referees certainly hope so. Maybe a few rival managers share the sentiment. But Ferguson, for all of his focus, energy and ability, has always maintained the same mantra throughout his tenure. It’s about the players. You can’t win anything without good players.
People will argue long and hard about Ferguson’s most important men on the field. David Beckham may bridle at his exclusion from that list. Roy Keane might kick a small cat across the room. Eric Cantona would most probably shrug and have another cigar. Steve Bruce will be too busy wondering how the hell he ended up in Hull to even care.
Everyone will have their favourites. That’s football. Naturally, so does Ferguson, and few will argue that those three players have played a crucial role in his success. He once suggested he hopes he leaves the club before they do, saying it was hard to imagine being there without them.
Of course, Gary Neville ultimately discovered his legs could no longer run and his body could barely move, certainly not to the exacting speed demanded by top flight football. After one particularly harrowing afternoon at West Brom when he appeared to have invented super slow-motion even before Sky possessed the technology, he waited until he got his breath back and then immediately quit the game. It was only a surprise to anyone who didn’t know him. He knew it was time. If only all footballers shared his level of self-awareness. I’m looking at you John Terry.
One down, two to go. Fergie’s triumvirate had abruptly lost a leg, and his remaining double act was soon to slip off the bill too, when Paul Scholes – another player who must have been off sick that day when they handed round the oversized egos sometime around 1996 – called it a day, citing, amongst other reasons, a desire to spend more time with his family. Like many things in life, that would have left a puzzled Mario Balotelli scratching his head.
Incredibly, Scholes returned. Six months later and without fanfare, he was back, stroking a ball around the pitch to surprised team-mates, with all the fuss of a boy having a kick-about before tea. Though Scholes expressed at a later date how much he had missed the everyday life of a footballer and asked to come back, Ferguson had snapped up the opportunity with all the eagerness with which you and I would snap up Roman Abramovich’s wallet.
Scholes played well last season. He was a huge asset and without him it is likely we would have been more than just an Aguero away from winning the league. The summer, though, provided ample time for reflection. Maybe it was time to be bold. Maybe the presence (and wages) of Scholes and Giggs prevented the midfield additions that could elevate United to a level where they could compete more evenly in the higher echelons of the Champions League. However, if it was a thought for Ferguson, it was a fleeting one.
Both Scholes and Giggs have played their part this season and it would be foolish to suggest they can no longer contribute. Even discounting their legendary status, they can, crucially, offer something on the pitch. But was it Ferguson’s reluctance in the summer to view them in more minor roles that prevented him forcefully chasing new leading men? Was it the much-touted “no value in the market” line that prevented the pursuit of a new midfield driving force – Schweinsteiger, Modric et al – or was it the idealised notion Giggs and Scholes are “still good enough”?
We can only speculate, and maybe now I should point out that Paul Scholes is my favourite footballer of all time. But all good things must come to an end. Even great things. We have to trust Ferguson’s affection for his two footballing sons doesn’t create a blind spot and it is him, rather then them, that dictates the timing of their departure. I hope so. Because I love Paul Scholes. I love Ryan Giggs. But I love Manchester United more.
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