“The more things change, the more they remain the same.” – French proverb
Football fans treasure one thing which is superior even to trophies, and that is memory. The new kid on the block has to be the next legend-who-was. United for their part, are still looking for the next Roy Keane. Comparisons are our way of remembering the golden men and their days, the magic they weaved and what the new comer has to live up to. So, we aren’t comparing to find a winner, but to remind ourselves that there once was someone and hopefully, someday another great will come by who will etch his name into history and our hearts. Every once in a while there comes a man who isn’t the next someone, but the first himself. So, for all the history at Manchester United, Sir Alex Ferguson has made a place for himself in the pantheon of the greatest managers, right beside Sir Matt Busby, and though many do see him as the next Busby, he is essentially his own man. If it wasn’t for him, United probably would still be looking for the next Sir Matt Busby, but sadly, people like him come just once in an era, if at all.
People say football has changed. I request them to kindly explain, how? There are 22 men, 1 round ball and a Scot managing the best club in the world.
Sir Alexander Matthew Busby, famously known by his middle name as Sir Matt Busby, is undisputedly the father of Manchester United. His rightful heir, his namesake, Sir Alexander Chapman Ferguson, fondly known as Sir Alex or Fergie took over the club some 15 years after his second stint as manager. He went on to instil into the very foundations of the club, the ideologies of Sir Matt Busby. By his own admission, it has been relatively easy for him since all he had to do was follow the former’s footsteps. The respect though is mutual as Sir Matt famously proclaimed, ‘He’s the one. We’ve finally got the right man for this club’. However, there often exists a debate, who is the better manager, Sir Matt Busby or Sir Alex Ferguson? Has the student overshadowed the master?
Statistics say yes. He is not only the longest serving United manager in the history of the club (overtaking Busby’s record of 24 years, one month and 13 days), but also the most successful. Sir Matt Busby has to his credit 5 first division titles, 2 FA cups, 5 Charity Shields and 1 European Cup whereas, Sir Alex Ferguson has a staggering 12 Premier League titles, 5 FA cups, 4 League Cups, 10 Community Shields, 2 Champions League trophies, 1 UEFA Cup Winners’ cup, 1 UEFA Super Cup, 1 Intercontinental cup and 1 FIFA Club World Cup (Whew!). Under Fergie, Manchester United has become the highest valued club, if not the richest. However, if that was all there was to it, football wouldn’t have been such a beautiful game. Would he have reached these heights if Sir Matt wasn’t there to guide him and support him? Sir Alex has many attributes; humility though isn’t one of them, unless we talk about Sir Matt Busby. He has nothing but the highest of respect for him and rightly so. Time and again he has praised Sir Matt for his guidance and patience when the fans were getting impatient. Would Sir Alex be who he is today without the foundations of Busby? Would Busby be remembered as the coach of the most famous young lads to play the game if United were not successful today? Would Manchester United be another Liverpool with just history and no future? Could one be spoken of without the other? Would we care about Busby babes if they weren’t compared to Fergie’s fledglings?
The similarities between them don’t end with the shared first names or knighthoods. Their achievements don’t correctly underline the comparisons and it is often easy to get swayed by the number of years or trophies or any other piece of statistic. They both inherited a team on the decline, underachievers going through a barren period. And inevitably they left their mark on not just the club, but the era as a whole. Yet, they hammered their philosophies into the very soul of the club, every blade of grass at Old Trafford can bear testament to that.
While both of them are very similar, they also bear compelling distinctions, the most obvious of which is that Sir Matt Busby achieved success instantly (Manchester United were runners-up in the league in 1947, 1948, 1949 and 1951, and won the FA Cup in 1948, before winning the league championship in 1952), while Sir Alex Ferguson had to bide time for his moment under the sun. His time at The Theatre of Dreams hasn’t been one without criticism. There have been many occasions when he has been written-off saying his time’s up, but he has always hit back with a trophy or three. Many still believe that the 1990 FA Cup win saved his job. But once he ended the 26 year old title drought, there was just no stopping the wily Scot.
When Sir Matt accepted the offer to manage the club, it was his first time as a manager, having earlier played for the nemesis, Manchester City and arch-rivals Liverpool (whose own coaching offer he rejected, opting to manage United instead) before war broke out; whereas Sir Alex had previously managed (quite successfully) East Stirlingshire, St. Mirren, Aberdeen and also had a brief spell as the national manager of Scotland. But they both were similar in the approach to playing free flowing, entertaining football which thrilled the fans no end. A little known fact is that Sir Alex Ferguson has in fact made a solitary appearance for the Manchester United first team after he became the manager! 1988/89 season vs the Somerset County Cricket Club.
The way they went about building teams from scratch is something that every United fan is proud of even today. Instead of buying instant success through big signings, they went about nurturing talent, producing some great football on the way. Sir Matt Busby created the Busby Babes and Sir Alex Ferguson produced Fergie’s Fledglings. After seeing his Babes being ripped apart in the most tragic air crash in Munich, Busby rebuilt the team, the same team that was so far ahead of their time that they won the European trophy (that European trophy which today is the holy grail of football) despite serious opposition from FA. Who could have imagined that Sir Alex would go on to pay Busby the highest of tributes by winning the Champions League on his 90th birthday in the most thrilling finale to any competition ever? An interesting footnote in the history of that night, and something which is reminiscent of Sir Matt’s style of replacing ageing teams is that the match was the last one that one of United’s most legendary goalkeepers, Peter Schmeichel played for them.
Sir Matt created new teams repeatedly. When he joined as the manager, again when he saw that unit ageing and value in bringing in youth, yet again when the Babes were destroyed. Sir Alex, for his part, has a knack of replacing players at the peak of their prowess. It is his way to stay ahead of the cycle of life (football) I guess. Think Andrei Kanchelkis and Paul Ince (1995), Alan Smith, David Beckham (2003 Yes, alright. Condemn me all you like. But I still believe it was good that we got rid of him when we did. Ditto for Ronaldo), Ruud van Nistelrooy (2006), Carlos Tevez and Cristiano Ronaldo (2009) all of it is just sheer brilliance. For all of you who are worried about United’s capability to compete in the transfer market, a look at history should put your fears to rest. United have always been harangued by the lack of financial clout when it comes to transfers. We make up for it where it matters, out there on the pitch.
Sir Alex hasn’t always taken a leaf out of Sir Matt’s book. While Sir Matt was the epitome of sportsmanship, Sir Alex takes mind games to an entirely different level. If Busby gave us gamesmanship, Fergie gave us rivalry. When City won the title in 1968, Sir Matt Busby congratulated them whole-heartedly; Sir Alex would have preferred putting a knife through the Manchester blues in May, 2012. (Interestingly during the post-World War years, when Old Trafford was bombed ad United were playing at City’s ground. Maine Road; we still ended up attracting more crowd than them over the course of the season!). When Bill Shankly (Liverpool’s legendary manager) was offered the Liverpool job, the director had asked him “How would you like to manage the best club in the country?” His reply was, “Why, is Sir Matt Busby packing it in?” That was the kind of respect Busby commanded from his peers.
Busby had the best squad in the English game, in fact, the Busby Babes were probably the best team to ever grace football. But Sir Alex has been successful in warding off competition from Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City (in chronological order). His audacity can be lauded when one recalls those famous words, “My greatest challenge is not what’s happening at the moment, my greatest challenge was knocking Liverpool right off their fucking perch. And you can print that.” And knock them off he bloody did. But then, who would have believed it then? Sir Alex has given us squeaky bum time, and which modern day fan can forget the light-headedness when Manchester United wins yet again in “Fergie time”. You never write United off. Not a second before the final whistle, because they invariably find a goal, somehow, from somewhere. It is perhaps this never-say –die attitude that has United sitting at the top of the tree with more Premier League trophies than all their opponents put together!
Busby and Ferguson both were excellent man managers. Busby’s first signing, assistant manager Jimmy Murphy, was his most exceptional one. And he could certainly handle all the personalities that came to Old Trafford. Fergie himself knows when to dosh out the hairdryer treatment and which players need molly coddling. Sir Matt Busby in 1952-53 signed Tommy Taylor for £29,999 (a record fee for Manchester United) because he didn’t think there was a player worth 30,000 pounds (He also didn’t want to burden the player with a 30,000 price tag). This season (2012/13), Sir Alex Ferguson paid 24 million pounds for a 29 year old in the last year of his contract. This shows their adaptability to the circumstances. Busby could never be arm-twisted into hiking wages and Fergie knows that the club is greater than anybody else. Only one ego can prevail, the manager’s!
Whether it is building a team, or seeing it get torn apart tragically, rebuilding it, having the foresight to enter a continental competition despite opposition and winning it, selling players at their peak, winning an unprecedented Treble, dominating the domestic league like no other and let’s just not forget getting knighted during the course of achieving all of this, between the two of them, they have done it all. To Fergie’s credit, even today rumours of his retirement are put to bed every day and his hunger for the game keeps growing. Every season there is talk of repeating the Treble or matching Arsenal’s invincibles, because people believe that he is the one who can do it all, has done it all and wants to do it all over again. Sir Matt was associated with the club right until the end and would probably have hung around until he found the right person to run his club. I don’t believe that Sir Alex Ferguson is going to retire; Manchester United are getting a new manager only when Fergie is six feet under. Even then he is going to come back and haunt opposition managers and officials. Very fittingly, Sir Matt Busby and Sir Alex Ferguson are the only permanent statues outside Old Trafford (apart from the Holy Trinity). And the Sir Matt Busby Way and the Sir Alex Ferguson Stand are the tributes which shall not fade, even when time does.
Comparisons between the two have been innumerable and quite frankly, inevitable. But when one compares, he is in essence comparing the Busby Babes (Duncan Edwards, Bent, Jones, Pegg) with Fergie’s Fledglings (Giggs, Scholes, Beckham, the Neville brothers), the 1968 European glory with the 1999 treble, the holy Trinity of Best, Charlton and Law with Solskjaer, King Cantona and Roy Keane, I could keep going on and on. The only clear winner in this debate is Manchester United, who have reached dizzying heights of greatness on the shoulders of the two most able managers ever.
If I am asked, gun to my head, who is the better manager; my reply would be “Shoot me.”
But whom would you choose as the greatest manager? The man who has served United the longest and won the most or his inspiration; the man who gave you squeaky bum time or the man whose team rose from the ashes like a phoenix; the man who has won the Champions League twice or the man who had the foresight to won it; the one who gave you great rivalries or the man who taught you the spirit of sportsmanship; the lord king of extra time or the orchestrator of free-flowing football; the man who reclaimed the club’s dominance or the one who made us dominant in the first place? Will you choose the master or the student?