You may not have associated Sir Alex Ferguson with Sisyphus before. Yet there is a resemblance between the Greek mythological figure and the ever-striving Ferguson. Whilst Sisyphus was forever pushing the boulder back up the mountain, over the last 25 or so years Ferguson has constantly reinvented Manchester United’s team, won countless cups and league titles, and relentlessly chewed gum. Albert Camus said “il faut imaginer sisyphe heureux”. Ferguson seems most content when in the thick of fights and challenges.
Ferguson’s time at the helm of Manchester United can be viewed as a series of battles for supremacy over other clubs and managers. It is the mind games, the spats and the big games more than the trophies which has caused so much intrigue over the years. The overriding battle has been against Liverpool. Statistically and mentally he has succeeded in knocking Liverpool off their perch – when he arrived, Liverpool had won 16 Premier titles to United’s 7; since, united have won 12 and Liverpool have won two. Somehow it seems fitting that Liverpool’s manager is now Kenny Daglish, who previous managerial job was over ten years ago, a reminder of Liverpool’s glory days.
Ferguson’s biggest battle with a current manager has been with Wenger. Arsenal’s three titles between 1998 and 2004 suggested Ferguson had met his match; since then Arsenal have won just the FA Cup and the Community Shield (both in the subsequent season) and, from Thierry Henry and Ashley Cole to Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri, lost their best players. Ferguson has even praised his foe, a sure sign of victory. A bigger challenge seemed to present itself after Roman Abramovitch took over Chelsea and invested heavily in the team. José Mourinho won the title in 2005 and 2006 – marking the longest period United have gone in the Premier League era without a title. United then won three titles in a row with the help of new signings Patrice Evra, Nemanja Vidic, Ji-Sung Park, Edwin Van der Sar and Michael Carrick; Chelsea are still remarkably dependent on the likes of John Terry, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba, who had their heyday when Mourinho was around. To these victories we can add Ferguson’s ‘victories’ in the early Premier League seasons: outlasting Jack Walker’s Blackburn Rovers and confounding Kevin Keegan at Newcastle United.
When Man City were taken over in summer 2008, reaching the summit of the league looked more difficult than it had been for Chelsea. City came from a worse base position (Chelsea were already in the Champions League when bought by Abramovitch) and the top four were far above the rest: United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea had monopolised the Champions League places since 2006, and in the season ending in 2008 Liverpool in fourth were 11 points ahead of fifth placed Everton. Yet constant squad improvement has meant City are now in a position to win the league next weekend. In a week where politically in France and the UK the Reds have defeated the Blues, in Manchester (and Newcastle) the nouveaux riches got ahead of the Glaswegian socialist Ferguson. As a side note, it is strange that in a season where it is regarded that they have not played at their best, Manchester United could get 89 points with a win next weekend, which is would have been enough to win the league in any of the last four seasons.
This means City, as well, have amassed an impressive number of points. Are we witnessing the start of an era of City dominance? The Premier League rarely works in such a linear way. There are more than two teams in the league, and it seems remarkable to me how quickly long-term structural defects in teams disappear and how supposedly poor managerial decisions are forgotten as the pundits attempt to explain the success of teams they were writing off not long ago. As for United, only a fool would write off their youthful squad, which next season will have one more year of experience under their collective belt.
However, barring seismic changes in the summer transfer window, City look certain to go into next season as favourites to win the Premier League. Concerns about Financial Fair Play aside, Roberto Mancini will presumably have the means to improve the squad once more, whilst at Old Trafford the return of Paul Scholes may have been a masterstroke by Ferguson, but relying on a 37 year-old is worrying and symptomatic of a club with less spending power than before. As this article in the Observer pointed out, Man United are struggling to compete financially with other clubs.
So, with Ferguson surely getting closer to retirement, the question really is whether he can make City’s success short-lived and stay at Old Trafford to see the other side of it, as has been the case with so many other clubs in the Premier League era. I get the impression that Ferguson has been reluctant to retire after a setback, yet loves the high points too much to retire while they last. Unlike Sisyphus, condemned to do the same thing for eternity, time might just run out for Ferguson.