Imagine soccer like a campfire in the wilderness. Perennially, the top teams are seated around the fire enjoying the meat of success. Beyond them in the flickering light are teams trying to force themselves into the circle, some surviving on the occasional scraps falling from the winning pot cooking on the flames. Further away are the sides that survive on nothing but wits, nostalgia or sheer bloody luck. Beyond them is the shadow of the soccer wilderness, where the howling wolves wait to claim their prey.
Sir Alex Ferguson is the fire keeper at Manchester United. The Scotsman's fiery burn has fanned the flames of success for two decades, both on and off the field. No one messes with Fergie. At the first hint of criticism, he snuffs it out. Aggression is his fix. Fear his rule. But as Manchester United finds itself thrown out from the elite circle of this year's Champions League, having failed to make it out of the group stages of the tournament, coming out of the shadow is the question that many have been afraid to ask -- when should the Alex Ferguson era come to an end at Manchester United?
Ferguson must decide himself; he has earned it, he is supreme. So say his followers. They point to the Premier League titles, the Champions League victories of 1999 and 2008. Winner takes all, winners write the history books, but Ferguson's detractors point to the considerable luck in those European victories. In 1999, United scored twice in the dying seconds to snatch the game; in 2008, had Chelsea's John Terry converted his penalty in the shoot out, blue and not red would have been the color on the trophy. When United came up against Barcelona in last year's Champions League final, they were disassembled by the dominating ball possession, the fulcrum of the Catalan side. Fergie had no answer. To even have a chance at beating Barcelona, tactics have to be adaptable, sometimes nullifying and profoundly negative. But Ferguson has no tactical flexibility, say his critics. He learned his game decades ago in Scotland -- have a go at them, play out of your skins, and throw everything forward. That will not cut it in this new age of tactical wit. Ferguson's style is an anachronism in modern soccer.
So if Fergie is allowed to choose his date of departure, when will he decide? After one more Premier League title, one more European Cup? Nothing could be worse for United if the silverware dries up and Fergie, heading into his seventies, begins to look like some old dictator holding on to power. How ugly it would be to imagine some kind of whispering campaign. And then proceed to the howling wolves sniffing weakness, coming out of the wilderness to drag Sir Alex into the history books, leaving world soccer as the greatest British soccer manager. Let's hope he retires to the shadows with that accolade, on his own terms.
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