Mirror mirror on the wall, who is the greatest soccer manager of them all? What, him? I’m not giving Tramore Hinterland €1.50 for that . . .
The events of last weekend brought the race for the English Premier League to an end, with Manchester United about to come out on top again. Those of us not prone to the curse of wishful thinking would have known that they were on the way with the return from retirement of Paul Scholes, a man who manages to be rated by everybody and still be under-rated. And the moment when even this ever-hopefulLiverpoolsupporter groaned with realisation was a couple of weeks back when Alex Ferguson admitted that they were lucky not to concede a penalty against Fulham. When the most one-eyed man in sport is being magnanimous, you know he’s in total control.
Eamon Dunphy put it very well when he said of Alex Ferguson that he was a great manager but a bad ambassador for the sport. It’s possible that the mists of time have obscured the more unpleasant aspects of great Scottish managers like Matt Busby, Bill Shankly or Jock Stein. Maybe they routinely harangued referees, feuded with most of the media , and accused the authorities of conspiring against them, but that’s been obscured by the more routine stories of their bonhomie and generosity of spirit. When Alex Ferguson’s final biography is written, ‘bonhomie’ and ‘generosity of spirit’ are not likely to trouble the spell-checkers.
If anything, history has been kinder to Alex Ferguson’s antics than he deserves. Kevin Keegan’s “I will LOVE it if we beat them!” meltdown in the tail-end of the 1994/5 season is a staple of clip shows where assorted talking heads have a good old snigger at Kev’s loss of control. Consider the circumstances though.Fergusonhad suggested thatNottinghamForestplayers were likely to give Newcastle United an easy time when they played in the run-in becauseNewcastlehad agreed to play in Stuart Pearce’s testimonial. It was a comment bordering on the slanderous and a proper media corps would have labelled it as such, but Keegan’s comedy routine was pure gold that just wrote itself, and it took me a good twenty minutes of Googling to confirm that my mind hadn’t been playing tricks on me or that I wasn’t engaging in some more of that wishful thinking.
However, I come here not to bury Alex Ferguson but to praise him. The bully is intrinsic to Alex Ferguson’s success because it is by the power of his immense will that Manchester United are on the verge of winning their 20th title. Countless times over the years you could look at the squad of an opponent and say it was superior to that of Manchester United, and this year is no exception withManchesterCity’s team looking much better on paper. Some real mediocrities have picked up medals at Old Trafford over the years. Who else could get away with the vanity project that was picking up Michael Owen from the wreckage of his bad career choices and turning him into a title winner just so it would antagoniseLiverpool fans? And if you think that sounds bitter, it isn’t. Owen’s hilarious prancing around the ground with the Premier League trophy may have delighted the Stretford End flush with the joys of victory, but no Liverpool fan could feel annoyed at seeing a bit-part player trying to big up his non-existent contribution.Ferguson did get away with it, and he’ll continue to get away with it because he inspires his players and demoralises his opponents. The man is a force of nature.
How great is he? His record as Manchester United manager speaks for itself (translation: I don’t want to dwell on it). Busby and Shankly are the legends they are based on far fewer trophies. Bob Paisley’s six title in nine years stands up well toFerguson’s avalanche of trophies, but he took a team that had gone all of three years without the title and made the winners again. Compare that with the psychological mountainFergusonscaled by ending their 26-year wait for the title andFergusonhas to come out on top. I still carry a flag for Paisley’s record as the only manager to win three European Cups – it’s remarkable statistic that Real Madrid five-in-a-row team went through four different managers in the time – but the change in the format of the competition has made it even more difficult than usual to compare across generations so it’s probably best to leave it out.
Note that I didn’t mention Jock Stein in the paragraph above. It’s easy to dismiss his achievements with Celtic against those of Alex Ferguson with Manchester United and that’s what I’ll do. The pair of 800-pound gorillas that are Celtic and Rangers mean any achievements those clubs must be weighted accordingly. And it is the status of the Old Firm that is enough to decisively assessFerguson’s greatness as a manager.Kilmarnockwon the Scottish championship in 1965. In the 47 years since the title has eluded the Old Firm on four occasions, and on three of those occasions it was won by theAberdeenteam managed by Alex Ferguson. It’d be likeWaterfordwinning a clutch of McCarthy Cups. Now that I think about it, if you get bored winning Premier Leagues inEngland, Alex . . . it’s just like shinty, you should have no problem adjusting.
Now excuse me while I take a long, vigorous shower.
We here at Tramore Hinterland are acutely aware of the difficulty of starting an article. So as a service to other hacks, please find attached the first paragraph of the match report for the Waterford-Clare Munster semi-final on June 17th.
If Waterford win: Waterford, fresh from a ten-week break after the rigours of an intense National League campaign, emerged victorious over Clare in yesterday’s Munster hurling semi-final. Still carrying the bruises from their progress through the knockout stages of the NHL, it was obvious to all right-thinking people in advance of the game that Clare would be the victims of the GAA’s crazy fixture list which left them beaten before the first ball was thrown in Thurles.
If Waterford lose: Clare, battle-hardened from their efforts in the knockout stages of the National League, emerged victorious overWaterford in yesterday’sMunster hurling semi-final. Still trying to shake off the lethargy brought on by ten weeks of inactivity, it was obvious to all right-thinking people in advance of the game that Waterford would be the victims of the GAA’s crazy fixture list which left them beaten before the first ball was thrown in Thurles.
Whatever you do, please do not make any firm predictions about the game beforehand that might come back to haunt you. We find phrases like ‘depending on the hop of the ball on the day’ and ‘hard to know whether <insert debutant Minor or Under-21 player of your choice> will make the step-up to Championship hurling’ to be suitably vague. Should the match be a draw you must fall back on your own resources, although you should have no difficulty finding a previous effort about how the referee played for a draw to fill the coffers of the Grab All Association.