An early exit after 27 years: Sir Alex steps down in his own style
The numbers pop out of his resume like eyes out of a cartoon character: he won 27 major trophies with United over the same number of years; he outlasted 116 managers on seven major European clubs; and he’s won 75% of his home games at Old Trafford. Nothing satisfied his hunger for success, and his diet never consisted of anything but winning. He’s always the first man at Carrington, the team’s training facility in Greater Manchester, there before staff and players as early as 5 a.m. He’s said over and over that he has trouble envisioning life without football. Retirement was something he wasn’t exactly ready for. “Nobody’s getting rid of me,” Sir Alex Ferguson told The Guardian in March.
Nobody – not the media, not the club, not his body – but himself did.
Fans as family, not customers, and the rise of Dortmund
They’re made of steely stuff, these people, and a few stories in the tabloids and the press didn’t do much to break their nerves. After all, Dortmund almost went bankrupt in 2005, and even when they lost so much – millions of dollars, sponsorships and players – the fans never died down. That’s not their way. No fewer than 70,000 attended the matches following that close encounter with the death penalty, and now, sometimes for as little as €11 per ticket, they can watch a team that’s looking destined for Wembley and has a chance to win a second Champions League title.
The stats didn’t give Barcelona much of a chance. The oddsmakers turned on them. The people criticized the club, virtually preparing for their burial. No team had managed to overturn a two-goal deficit in the Champions League without the benefit of an away goal. Barcelona had never capsized a 2-0 deficit in Europe. And Lionel Messi had never scored against an Italian club from open play. Not often do Barca, and Messi, need a game to silence critics, but if there ever was one, it happened Tuesday night.
Presumably, only Barca could’ve played so confidently with all that racket. They’re so strong-willed. They didn’t want any negative energy: come support us or go home, Gerard Pique insisted. And just when some were starting to believe they were losing their lustre — they had lost, before the second leg against AC Milan, three of five games — the Catalans put on a performance to remind the world they are still capable of greatness.
This was not just a case of Barca being Barca. Jordi Roura said so. “Beating Milan 4-0 is not normal for anyone, not even Barcelona. They are a great team and made life very difficult for us,” the club’s assistant manager told reporters. The match was much more than a blowout. It was a game of stark conclusions, one in which we saw true reflections of both clubs: that Barcelona can still play, and that Milan still have much work to do.
They didn’t like being called the favourite. Barcelona almost always are these days, but something about AC Milan frightened them. Not so much the team, or its players, but the very thought of playing against Milan. Barcelona’s people spoke of their opponents in the round of 16 in the Champions League as if they were patron saints of the tournament. (And to some they are.)
But they came into Milan’s San Siro revering a familiar foe to such great extents. Milan’s history, their seven European titles, and their past performances against Barcelona — despite winning none of the seven previous games — intimidated them. Barca’s president, Sandro Rosell, didn’t feel relaxed. Xavi, too, speaking like a historian of the game, felt uneasy. “They have always made things difficult for us,” he told Sport.es before the game.
If Milan’s new team — only four of the team’s starters remained the same since the last time the two sides met — didn’t intimidate them, this idea of history did. Not what Milan are, but what they represent: a club demanding respect. Now, Bojan Krkic, the former Barcelona player, had at least said so: “Barca has the best in the world,” he told reporters, “but the San Siro commands respect.” So the visitors gave them every bit of it, maybe even too much. After all, it is Barcelona’s opponents who so often give too much respect. So often those opponents give up possession for the sake of defending.
No matter what, they always returned to one another. The quarrels, the disbelief, the losses in composure never once compromised this enduring relationship, ruined it beyond repair. Roberto Mancini, the coach of Manchester City, couldn’t stop loving Mario Balotelli. And even though the two will part again, for the second time in five years, they do so only in person, not in spirit, not forever.
Mancini, before watching his side draw with lowly Queens Park Rangers, met with his 22-year-old pupil in a London hotel and most likely cried with him. “It was emotional,” Mancini later said. Like a parent, Mancini did what was best for Mario: he let him go. You could hear in the manager’s voice and in his words, as he tried to rationalize the player’s move to AC Milan with reporters after the match on Tuesday, a sense of regret, perhaps even a little disappointment in himself that he couldn’t raise his student any more.
Losing felt strange for Jonny Howson. For the first time since the 6th of October, Howson, a midfielder for Norwich City, and the rest of his mates left the field without a point, losers in a cruel 4-1 defeat to Aston Villa in the League Cup last week. But it is an odd feeling to have for someone on a club with one main goal in mind: survival. Losing is familiar, not so foreign, for teams fighting regularly against the ghastly spectre of relegation.
Not for Norwich — no longer, anyway. Plummeting into the basement of the Premier League early in the new season, conceding 17 goals in their first seven games, the Canaries spread their wings just before splattering on the ground. They beat Arsenal in October, then Manchester United, and have not lost a game in the league since. Unbeaten in 10 matches, they only trail Barcelona — who are off to the best start La Liga has ever seen — in form.
Sitting there in the dugout was hard enough. He’d rather be running with his players, doing anything but sitting. So Neil Lennon got up. But standing wasn’t helpful, either. “I was up and down and up and down,” he told reporters. “I was trying to stay calm, but inside my stomach was churning.”
He was living the final defining moments and seconds of his managerial career, and they were horrible. The type of minutes you want to hasten, not savour. Five minutes of stoppage time stood in the way of his Celtic — and it is increasingly becoming his, the imprint of his success becoming more and more indelible in this most historical year, its 125th, for the club, and the next round of the Champions League.
So Lennon chewed his gum. “It’s taking a pounding,” said one commentator. But he needn’t have worried. Georgios Samaras did such a good job possessing the ball – hording it, really, as he had all game, in the farthest corner of the field that time ticked off harmlessly. And then the whistle blew. Lennon threw his arms in the air, but, being one of the most effusive managers in the game, he did not bellow or run rampantly or bawl. He was stoic.