Snow Hill railway station, Birmingham: that’s where you felt it first. There were glimpses of red, there was a buzz in the air and there was a serious urgency to get on the next train, or any train, that alighted at The Hawthorns.
It was the sunny morning of May 19th, 2013; it was the afternoon we would all say goodnight to Alex Ferguson’s long, broad, brilliant career.
There was one game left — West Bromwich Albion versus Manchester United. You got there early, just to soak it in. There were queues for the 144-page celebratory match programme West Brom produced — with 40 pages on Ferguson.
There was a phrase Ferguson often heard and said and liked: “Just another day in the history of Manchester United”; but all knew this would be an exceptional one even in this club’s story. And it was.
The Premier League had been won again by United for a 13th time under Ferguson — 13th — and although there had been a narrow and controversial exit to Real Madrid in the Champions League, Ferguson was going out as he wished: a winner.
The previous season, 2011-12, United had lost out on the league title on goal difference due to that unforgettable drama across Manchester when Sergio Aguero scored so, so late for City. Now, 12 months on, United finished 11 points clear of their increasingly noisy neighbours and it would have been more had United chosen to enforce their superiority at The Hawthorns.
But part of another kaleidoscopic afternoon in Ferguson’s football life was a 5-2 lead becoming a 5-5 draw. It was the kind of scoreline associated with Ferguson’s early period as a player in Scotland in the late 1950s and early 60s and it was a first for the Premier League. On any other day Ferguson would have fumed, but here in the sunshine of the English Midlands, he was a beaming ray.
Sporting a limp, at the end he moved forward to acknowledge the travelling fans who had been singing “C’mon, David Moyes; Play like Fergie’s boys” all game (to the tune of Slade). Ferguson was a happy man; United looked a happy bunch; Moyes was the anointed, appointed successor.
Ferguson did not speak to us afterwards but wrote in his next book: “It was one of those days that unfold like a dream.”
And it did seem incredible. This game was his number 1,500 at United. John Sivebaek had been Ferguson’s first goalscorer, way back in 1986, Javier Hernandez would be his last. Determined always to bring through youth and maintain the Busby tradition, on the teamsheet was 18-year-old Adnan Januzaj.
But many of the others were household names — Scholes, Giggs, Vidic, Carrick, Ferdinand, Evra, and Robin van Persie. What an assembly of players (when you think of what came next).
The last of them, Van Persie, had been Ferguson’s final major signing. That Van Persie came from Ferguson’s great managerial foe, Arsene Wenger at Arsenal, probably provided an extra degree of satisfaction. Van Persie delivered 35 goals that season.
His arrival bolstered an opinion of Bryan Robson in the programme tributes. Of Ferguson, Robson said: “One of his strengths has been his imagination.”
It was an observation that differed from the usual analysis of Ferguson as the supreme man-motivator: “He has an ability to spring surprises on people, whether it was buying Eric Cantona, drafting in four or five kids at once, things like that.”
Imagination. Ten years on to the day, imagination is an even more intriguing compliment than it was when Robson said it. There have been many ways to assess and criticise the Glazers’ running of Manchester United post-Ferguson but not many have settled on imagination.
And yet a lack of it, a lack of vision, is all part of the decade of sideways failure. While City regrouped, waited for Pep Guardiola and invested (state money, admittedly) in players and infrastructure; and Real Madrid repointed their team with young South American talent to add to eternal players such as Ramos, Modric, Kroos and Benzema, then revamped the Bernabeu; while clubs such as Brentford and Brighton mined new methods of recruitment and smart-selling, United’s owners went for the one-man solution as the dividends rolled in.
Moyes was followed by Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Ralf Rangnick and Erik ten Hag. Fortunes have been spent — £94 million (€113 million) on Paul Pogba, £80 million on Harry Maguire, £67 million on Angel Di Maria. Those are just three of the extortionate fees paid out.
And here we are in May 2023 with United about to go to Bournemouth, with home games against Chelsea and Fulham to follow, to try to finish in the top four once more; this in a season when United have lost 4-0 at Brentford, 6-3 at City, 7-0 at Liverpool and home and away to Brighton.
As it was sixth place last season, though, 2022-23 can be marketed as progress. Ten Hag has impressed in his dealings with Cristiano Ronaldo and Marcus Rashford and the Dutch man has his first trophy — the League Cup. There may be another given the first all-Manchester FA Cup final in a fortnight, although that has the potential to go wrong.
But, still, the club feels as if there is a hole where Ferguson used to be — or where his imagination, energy and direction used to be. It’s 10 years and leaky, tired Old Trafford is symbolic of stasis.
Today when the figure 5.5 appears, it relates to United’s sterling value in billions according to this sale saga. It has been a six-month process, though process may be a generous description.
And as each day passes, Anfield gets bigger, Arsenal and City edge their recruitment forward and United pay yet more interest on their £535 million Glazer debt pile. Ferguson’s United, once characterised by urgency, stand and watch as Europe’s most coveted players talk to clubs who know their business plan.
United’s misfortune has been their owners’ inertia combined with City’s vast, numbing wealth and a generational manager in Guardiola. No one is saying it is easy to confront City’s monopolistic approach to sport; Liverpool did so three years ago and it exhausted them.
But when Ferguson was in charge there was Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea and he fought them with talent and inspiration as well as United’s own significant cash reserves.
Losing any character of the scale and ability of Ferguson was going to bring a period of potentially awkward transition. Ten years afford a professional organisation plenty of time to adapt, however. Season 2023-24 is on the horizon: Manchester United once again require a flash of Fergusonian ambition. Imagine.