Fergie - a man without equal
No one in the modern era has had as much success as the Manchester United supremo, even though he enjoyed many favours
I am genetically disinclined to honour honorifics. Depending which side of the Atlantic you grew up on, you might be as well. And I don't mean the common, courteous honorifics like miss and mister either. I am talking about the royal honorifics, the notion that someone is anointed "Sir" while you are not.
It's a timely topic because this past week perhaps the most accomplished manager in the history of sports, Manchester United supremo Alex Ferguson, has finally called it a day. Back in 1999 after arguably his greatest triumph and certainly his most hallowed moment in European football, a come-from-behind victory over Bayern Munich in the Champions League final, Ferguson became Sir Alex.
Already an OBE (Officer of the British Empire) and a CBE (Commander of the British Empire), he was made a Knight Bachelor by Her Majesty the Queen and Knight Bachelor's are of course styled "Sir". It is important to remember all these designations, particularly from a media standpoint. Both The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal referred to him as Alex in reports on his resignation, while the British media routinely call him Sir Alex and are duty bound to honour royal honorifics because if they don't, who will?
I respect royal designations without necessarily embracing them and when it comes to the legacy of Ferguson, I feel the same way. I can respect his achievements without completely embracing them. I am not a fool for footy. I like the game but profess little rooting allegiance and that is why I can be dispassionate about Manchester Untied and Ferguson.
Regardless of how you feel about the man, and there is no lack of Ferguson animosity in the UK and beyond, what he has achieved is remarkable and indisputable. Since the English Premier League's (EPL) inception in 1992, Ferguson has won 13 of its 21 championships. Names like Phil Jackson, coach of 11 NBA championship teams, and John Wooden, who led UCLA to 10 collegiate basketball titles, as well as the NHL's Scotty Bowman with nine Stanley Cups have been invoked in comparisons to Ferguson.
But if there is a perfectly apt model in both achievement and style in North American sports to Ferguson, it would have to be the late Boston Celtics patriarch Red Auerbach. As a coach, Auerbach led the Celtics to nine titles and added another six as general manager. Like Ferguson, he was involved in every detail of his team's success both as a coach and GM. And like Ferguson, he was also routinely accused of bullying and gamesmanship on his way to the top.
However, there are very few subtle strokes in building a dynasty. You have to be bold and remorseless and one other thing that Ferguson and Auerbach had in common was that they were both very much men of their time. So much of their success was predicated by their eras. From 1957-66, Auerbach's Celtics won nine of 10 league championships. And while it is a stellar achievement, in 1956 there were only eight teams in the league and only three who were any good. In 1966, it was a 10-team league and again with only a few good ones.
When the EPL was formed in the early 1990s it was not at a particularly high moment in English football. The remnants of hooliganism still lingered and antiquated stadiums were in desperate need of an overhaul, particularly on the heels of the 1989 Hillsborough tragedy that left 96 dead.
Despite all that, the 20-team EPL would quickly become the most popular professional sports league in the world and much of that success was on the back of Manchester United's dominance.
But at a time when professional sports in North America were becoming more equitable with salary caps helping to provide a level playing field, the EPL was moving in the opposite direction.
No team could touch the revenue Manchester United generated and still can't. Thanks to Middle East and Russian oil money, clubs like Manchester City and Chelsea have managed to compete. But for most of the EPL it is merely a matter of survival and avoiding relegation.
Still it's one thing to have the money, it's another thing to know how to spend it and Ferguson, through both astute player purchases and highly regarded youth development programmes, was a master of the genre. His successor David Moyes will be reminded of it at every turn. But for now, is there any debate whether Ferguson is the greatest sporting manager of the modern era? No, sir.