Yesterday, the greatest chapter yet in the best story of my life came to an end. The legendary Sir. Alex Ferguson walked into a football tunnel never to come out again as the manager of Manchester United United Football Club. His was a chapter in the United story that is unlikely to be matched in longevity and success and he’s been rightly lauded to the high heavens over the past fortnight for his achievements.
My tribute to the old man who gave us most of our lives’ best moments won’t focus on his incredible achievements but rather how he managed the club so successfully. In many ways, Sir Alex managed United with the ruthless efficiency a Don would run a mafia organization. (If we put aside our prejudices, we’ll realize that accomplished mobsters are just like leaders in any other industry in life, be it business or sports).
In particular, the story of Sir Alex shared many similarities with the greatest mafia story ever told and its central character, Don Vito Corleone, better known by his reverential moniker ‘The Godfather’. For starters, both men demanded unquestionable loyalty. Considering the many competitors seeking to usurp their ‘organizations’ at the top of their respective games, both leaders considered loyalty a must if they were to maintain their status at the summit.
Sir Alex and The Godfather also shared the same cruelty to adversaries, real or perceived. The media, the F.A, opposing managers, referees and even our own players and fans have faced the wrath of the boss throughout his tenure if he felt they were out to undermine his team. This compares with how the Don would go after enemies and foes who posed a threat including his own lieutenants and capos.
At the same time, both men are also famed for their kindness and generosity, going out of their way to ensure they are there for those who need them. The Godfather by Mario Puzo starts off with incidences where people come to Don Corleone to seek favors of all kinds. The Don didn’t discriminate, helping anyone who came to him regardless of social standing. This kind streak was also exhibited by the Don of the football world Sir Alex Ferguson, helping managers across the different leagues in football and offering his support during difficult moments. He’s written hundreds of letters of support and gratitude to United fans over the years while also attending weddings, funerals and other social events of importance in the lives of United fans. Don Corleone in much the same way attended as many funerals, weddings and baptisms as he could. Such gestures of friendship and loyalty gave a human touch to these larger than life characters and endeared them more to those who loved them.
The outreach that so characterized these two men contrasted sharply with their code of silence that was vigorously enforced during their respective tenures. The mafia is famed for its code of silence, Omerta, that forbids leaking of information to outsiders. Omerta is so central a pillar in the mob that those who break it pay the ultimate price for their betrayal. At United, there is an unwritten rule that club business should strictly remain as such with no info leaked out at any cost. In my fifteen years of supporting United, never have I seen newspaper articles or exclusives generated on the back of dressing room snitches or moles as happens with other clubs. In the one instance where Jaap Stam alluded to Fergie tapping him up when he was at PSV, the boss got rid in no time despite Stam being one of our best players at the time. With many people seeking to chip away at their position at the top of the game, the two leaders ensured they didn’t give them any extra ammo to help bring them down.
Family meant everything to both men and they did everything they could to protect them. Sir Alex infamously boycotted the BBC for eight years due to a 2004 documentary that portrayed his son in bad light. He also treated his players like family and was viciously protective of them. The media got a mouthful when they constantly questioned Veron’s worth to the team. “On you go. I’m no fucking talking to you. He’s a fucking great player. You are all fucking idiots,” said Sir Alex to the media gathered that day.
The characters in ‘The Godfather’ also share a resemblance with characters in Fergie’s United story. Sir Alex being the Don has got his own consiglieri, Ryan Giggs. Like the adopted son Tom Hagen, Giggs has been by Fergie’s side for the better part of his reign. Giggs has grown into a wise and respected figure within the team and was increasingly consulted by the boss on team affairs. It is telling that the new manager met Sir Alex and Giggs together last week presumably to plan for the future. Giggs will be central in the new regime, maintaining the culture and traditions of the club and ensuring the winning mentality is sustained.
David Moyes plays the role of Michael Corleone, the unfancied heir who most resembles the master in character and ends up taking over from him eventually. Moyes, like Michael takes over from the boss ahead of more fancied and flamboyant if abrasive characters. Many expected Mourinho to take over at United much like Sonny was expected to take over from the Don but their abrasive, combative nature proved their undoing and both men suffered as a result. The deceptively ruthless, obsessive Moyes assumes the leadership post and is likely to maintain the traditions and culture of prioritizing youth and attacking football that is ingrained in the club’s DNA.
Both Ferguson and the Don were visionary men who planned for life long after they are gone. The need to maintain their legacy and success saw both men planning for the next phase. Fergie built a youthful team that has its best days ahead and scouted for the best successor in his mould to sustain his empire. The Don, sensing turmoil in New York, built up his enterprise in Las Vegas as he planned for withdrawal. He also had a successor in his mould installed and when the time was right, the New York empire was abandoned with vanquished opponents in its wake and the empire shifted to Vegas with its new head.
In the end, both the stories of Sir Alex and Don Corleone are legendary narratives in their own rights. Where Fergie trumps his counterpart is that his is a real story of epic achievements while ‘The Godfather’ is a fictional account of a successful mob boss. Considering how surreal Sir Alex’s achievements at United are, his story could as well be fictional given how incredible it has been. The story will be barely believable to those who weren’t lucky enough to witness it unfold.
The great Scot has also done it for a longer time and has maintained his empire’s position at the top for the better part of three decades. And that is not the end of it. The stability, mentality and aura that Fergie has instilled at the club will long outlast him ensuring that the great story goes on.
Manchester United is an endless book that forever keeps giving. It has given us many tales of the master doing his thing, inducing the full spectrum of human emotions from frequent joy, madness, hysteria, nostalgia and the odd incidences of sadness and bile. And there is more yet to come. No sooner had Fergie time come to an end than we started anticipating the David Moyes chapter. We are already speculating on its main characters, the plot twists that lie ahead and the inevitable success. Will Rooney stay? Will we re-sign Ronaldo? Bale? How many trophies will we win over the next few years?
Sir Alex, the strong, brave and principled character stood tall against adversaries and challenges, defying critics and succeeding in a way that no one has or likely will in football history. In short, he is the kind of man we all wish to be in whatever industry we are in.
So for all the memories, joy, inspiration and the wonderful story that we’ll all tell our kids and grandkids, we thank you Sir Alex. Here’s us collectively kissing your pinky ring and wishing you the best in your retirement. So long, Godfather.