Remember, Fergie is for football, not for life
The tributes to Sir Alex Ferguson from United fans were fitting. The outburst of Fergie-mania in the media and politics was fatuous.
As an old Red in football terms, I think that the flowery tributes and slightly hammy ceremonials surrounding Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure after 26 years and 38 trophies as Manchester United manager have been inevitable – and wholly fitting.
As on old Red in political terms, however, I think that the overblown wider media and political reaction to Fergie’s retirement is an unwanted sign of the times – and entirely fatuous.
Of course, we need pay no heed to those who complain about the attention paid to Ferguson using the hilarious old ‘it’s just 22 men chasing a pig’s bladder around a muddy field’ argument against football. (A bit like describing sex as ‘two people bouncing on a mattress’, this might be technically correct, but rather misses the essence of the thing.)
Football really matters to millions, a glorious irrelevance that can stir passions like little else today. And Ferguson has undeniably been the most extraordinary football man. In Scotland, as Aberdeen manager, he broke the duopoly of the Glasgow Old Firm, winning three championships, five cups and two European trophies. It is a measure of his achievement that, since Ferguson left Aberdeen for Manchester United in 1986, no club other than Celtic or Rangers has ever been crowned Scottish champions.
In England, Ferguson made history. After a shaky start, his United team eventually became champions in 1993, winning the first-ever English Premier League title and ending 26 years of hurt and humiliation for United fans like me, who had grown up in an era when the only table our team was likely to top was the laughing stock market. In the following 20 years, Ferguson won 12 more Premier League titles, two European Champions’ League trophies, and a lot more besides. He famously said that his task when he came south was to ‘knock Liverpool off their fucking perch’. In recent years, he managed to keep United clinging to their own perch despite the challenge of increasingly gaudy and expensively feathered opponents such as Chelsea and Manchester City. There were several seasons – including this one – when United won the league more by the force of the manager’s will than the team’s skill. How much longer our club can continue to teeter up there without him, and with his mini-me David Moyes in charge, remains to be seen.
It should come as little surprise, then, that United fans felt a genuine need to celebrate Ferguson’s achievements in some style this past week. Not that all of us shared the unadulterated infantile love for the old grouch expressed by those like the fan who told a radio phone-in his boss had sent him home because he could not stop crying at the news of Fergie’s retirement. The tired media wisdom is ‘Fergie – you either love him or you hate him’. But in truth, many Reds have always been quite capable of entertaining both of those sentiments at the same time, often switching from one to the other within the span of a single match.
A decade ago I was even writing newspaper articles calling for him to go, at a time when Ferguson had definitely lost his mojo and seemed less obsessed with winning football matches than fighting an unwinnable legal battle with Irish multi-millionaires. Within three years I was writing other articles confessing ‘Forgive me Fergie, for I have whinged’ after the apparently born-again Glaswegian wrested the title away from Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea. More recently still, in my column in the fanzine Red Issue, I have suggested that United should invest in whatever forms of medication, magic potions or cryogenics might be necessary to keep him in the dugout forever. So yes, it is a big deal to us that he’s gone.
Even other football fans might feel justified in seeing the end of Fergie as a significant event. Many will have rejoiced at the end of the ogre who has taunted and beaten them for years, a cue for the sort of 90-minute hate in which football specialises. On the other hand, you need not swallow the guff about ‘the football family’ to know that some non-United supporters also grudgingly respect Ferguson ‘the winner’ and even recognise the part he has played in the evolution of English football, through his combination of old-time hardline ‘youse-are-all-fkin eejits’ values and always-surprising adaptability. The difference between the grey last days of the old First Division and the glittery birth of the Premier League was not just about Sky’s money. It was also about the panache of Ferguson’s new Cantona-inspired United, the team that reinvented the English game. Love him, hate him, or both, we will all miss him when he’s gone.
That’s a response to Fergie, football legend, and fair enough. The rest of it, however, the outburst of Fergie-mania, has been bullshit, a pseudo-political fantasy projecting Ferguson’s importance outside Planet Football. He has been lauded in the serious media as a national leader on a par with Margaret Thatcher (who he hated of course); as a business guru whose ‘managerial lessons stretch far beyond football’; as a ‘philosopher, historian and fighter’ with the ‘motivational, mythmaking skills to liberate suppressed energy, manipulate destiny’ and reinvent an entire city; as a monolithic cultural figure whose retirement is on a par with the fall of the Berlin Wall.
There have been gushing tributes to Ferguson across the front pages as well as the back, as MPs rush to try to get him fast-tracked to the House of Lords, if not to Heaven. On the day of the Queen’s Speech, when the government laid out its policies for running the country, Channel 4 News – self-styled home of serious, liberal-minded reportage – sent its star anchor (I said anchor) Jon Snow scuttling up to the Chester races in the vain hope of finding Fergie for a quick chat. Never mind Her Majesty the Queen reading out her government’s plans for us all, the big story was apparently the abdication of the Queen Mother of football.
In some corners, this reaction took on that particularly unappealing facet of contemporary culture – the imposition of compulsory grief even before the object of the veneration is dead. As one observer remarked, the only thing missing from this display of pseudo-grief was for the cranes on Ferguson’s native Clydeside to dip in respect, as the London dock cranes did when Winston Churchill’s coffin made its way down the Thames.
This outburst of non-footballing nonsense says little about Fergie himself, but far more about the overnight Fergie-philes. The elevation of Sir Alex Ferguson into the pope of football (even if he is a blue-nosed Glasgow Protestant) is merely a reflection of the relegation and degradation of political and public life. Maybe Channel 4’s Snow – not anybody’s idea of a football man – could justify his Fergie-chasing on the grounds that there truly was more interest in who would be the next United manager than which faceless fool might be the next UK prime minister.
All of which looks like the latest manifestation of a modern phenomenon we have discussed on spiked before: the rise of ‘Soccerism’. This is the attempt to over-inflate the importance of football, to fill the gap where our public and political life should be. The new Soccerist elite now sees football in much the same way that Homer Simpson describes alcohol – as the cause of, and the solution to, all of life’s problems; in this case, from racism and homophobia to war and inequality.
It is only with the Soccerist goggles on that the retirement of the manager of a football club in north-west England could seriously be mentioned in the same breath as the fall of the Berlin Wall. Such equations only emphasise the bizarre state of public debate today, informed by an even worse loss of perspective than that demonstrated by a 71-year-old football manager in need of a hip operation prancing around the pitch with the youth after receiving another trophy.
All such discussion of the values of football, then and now, almost inevitably brings us back to the words of another great Scottish manager, Bill Shankly of Liverpool FC. As Shankly famously observed, football is not a matter of life and death – ‘it’s much more important than that’. Many have since misunderstood that this was an ironic joke. But like much of Shanks’ barbed wit, there was also a serious point at the heart of it. It was a recognition of how much football means to many people. When I was young, Manchester United used to be called ‘the religion’ by some. If that comparison means anything today, it is perhaps in the sense that some find football, in Marx’s words, ‘the soul of a soulless world’, the thing in which they retain some faith. As I recall one diehard Red explaining his commitment to fans’ protests a few years ago, ‘United is why we get up in the morning’. A little sad, perhaps, but true. Even so, Shankly’s remark was still ultimately a joke. It is only in the current age of Soccerism that many in the media and politics could sometimes appear to act as if football, a game of which most of them know little, really was more important than life, death and politics.
So it’s farewell Fergie, and thanks, from United fans; and fuck off Fergie and good riddance from fans of many other clubs. But either way, nobody died, and Ferguson avoided the fate that befell his hero Jock Stein, who had a fatal heart attack sitting next to him in the Scotland dugout. Many of us can share the passion so perfectly expressed by Fergie in his finest moment, after United beat Bayern Munich in the last seconds of the 1999 Champions’ League final: ‘Football. Bloody hell.’ But we also know that, bloody hell, it’s only football.
Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large. His book There is No Such Thing as a Free Press… And We Need One More Than Ever is published by Societas and is now available in print and Kindle editions. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit his website here.