May 09, 2013

Horse 1478 - Putting Sir Alex Ferguson in Context

Sir Alex Ferguson has announced his retirement from management at Manchester United, leaving the club on 20 League titles and a personal tally of 13 League titles, 5 FA Cups, 4 League Cups, 10 Charity Shields, 2 Champions Leagues and assorted other silverware. Probably he is the single greatest club manager of all time but to understand why this was even possible, we need to delve into the past and even before he took over at Man United.
In the mid-1980s Liverpool were the club to beat in England. The line of succession starting at Bill Shankly saw manager train the next manager and from 1964 until 1990 they racked up 13 League titles, 3 FA Cups, 4 League Cups, 13 Charity Shields, 4 European Cups (the forerunner to the Champions League) and 2 UEFA Cups.
Sir Alex Ferguson has been at Manchester United over roughly the same time frame as the chain of Liverpool managers who emerged from "The Boot Room" and the results are pretty comparable. In fact when Sir Alex arrived at Manchester United on Nov 6, 1986, he announced that it was his mission to "Knock Liverpool off their f****ing perch" (those exact words). He's pretty well much done that, except that he had considerable help.

Football in 1985 in England was played in stadia which in many cases had been built before WW2, sometimes out of wood and for crowds that did not drive motor cars. When Ibrox stadium in Glasgow collapsed in 1971 killing 66 spectators it should have been a warning but as is usually the case, nothing was done.
Margaret Thatcher had successfully kicked the life out of British industry and by 1983 three million Britons were out of work. At times of mass unemployed, combined with racial tensions, English football was not a nice place to be in.
On 11th May 1985, a fire broke out at Bradford City's ground Valley Parade, killing 56 people and injuring a further 265. You really have to wonder about the state of mind of the morons who keep on singing even as their stadium quite literally burnt to the ground (video link here).
18 days later when Liverpool played Juventus in the 1985 European Cup Final, 35 Juventus fans were crushed to death and a further 600 injured when an terrace war broke out between "fans" and a wall collapsed in the aftermath. As a result, English clubs were banned for five years from all European competitions and Liverpool themselves were banned for 10 (though this was lifted after only 6).
With no European competions to play in, Liverpool won the League and FA Cup double in 1985/86, but darker days were to come. Liverpool would face another disaster with a crowd crush at Hillsborough in Sheffield, killing 96 fans.
Finally, something was to be done. The Taylor Report into stadium designs finally meant all seater stadiums would be compulsory and football would be brought into the modern world. Old Trafford in particular was the biggest club owned stadium in England and consequently suffered the least in terms of revenue loss during the conversion.

The formation of the Premier League, the flotation on Manchester United on the stock exchange and the redistribution of a massive influx of money from Murdoch's BSkyB pay TV service all came together just at the right point for Sir Alex Ferguson. Suddenly football was not being funded merely by ticket sales and club memberships but by mass sponsorship.
The creation of the Premier League, also saw a special privilege for Premier League clubs in the FA Cup. Rather than playing in the First Round proper as they had done since the inception of the competition, clubs from the top flight would be placed into the Third Round. This has had the result of creating six "double" winners in the 21 seasons of the Premier League as opposed to the five winners in the 122 seasons previous. It is quite telling that in the period before the formation of the Premier League when Sir Alex was manager at Manchester United, he'd only won two pieces of domestic silverware and no league titles at all.

There's no doubt that Sir Alex Ferguson is statistically the greatest manager in English football history; I don't doubt that. What I am suggesting is that he was uniquely placed at a point in history which enabled him to gain that honour; also unlike Liverpool whom he so desperately wanted to knock off the perch in 1986, didn't and as far as I know, never intended to have a succession plan. Unlike Shankly's Boot Room, Sir Alex basically followed himself; maybe when he does depart, the landscape of English football will change again.

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