'Squeaky-bum time,' Sir Alex like no other

'Squeaky-bum time,' Sir Alex like no other
Darren Staples / Reuters
Manchester United's manager Alex Ferguson holds the English Premier League trophy following their English Premier League soccer match against Blackpool at Old Trafford. Ferguson will retire at the end of the season after more than 26 years in charge, bringing to a close the most glittering managerial career in British soccer.
May 9, 2013, 3:45 pm

Squeaky-bum time" (n). The tense final stages of a league competition, especially from the point of view of the leaders. Coined by Sir Alex Ferguson.

-- Oxford English Dictionary

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The tempting thing to do whenever some major sporting event happens in another country — especially when it’s something somewhat foreign to many of us — is to try and find an American equivalent that can put it all in perspective. Wednesday, Sir Alex Ferguson, the brilliant and tough soccer manager of Manchester United, announced that he will retire at the end of the season.

And so, it’s tempting to say that Alex Ferguson is … what … Phil Jackson meets Vince Lombardi meets Joe Torre meets Pat Summitt. It’s tempting to talk about his gruffness and also his kindness, his ferocity as well as his strategic brilliance, his maniacal work ethic and the level-headedness of his wife, who never even let him keep trophies in the house.*

*When the phone call came to the Ferguson house to alert him that he was to be knighted, Sir Alex’s wife Cathy reportedly said: “Do you not think he’s had enough rewards?”

It’s tempting to list Ferguson’s remarkable run of success with Manchester United — 13 Premier League titles, five FA Cups, winner of two doubles (In 1994 and 1996, his team won the Premier League and FA Cup) and the unprecedented treble (In 1999, his team won the Premier League, FA Cup and UEFA Champions League) — and allow that to tell the story of his success.

But the truth is that none of that quite tells Alex Ferguson’s story.  He’s 71 now, and when Ferguson took over as manager of Manchester United in 1986 (at 45), there was nothing special about that team. United had not won a league title in 19 years. They had a history, some great players in the 1960s — George Best, Bobby Charlton, Denis Law, etc. — but for almost two decades they were viewed as a chronic underachiever with a lot of high-priced talent and little success to show for it.

And the first few years of Ferguson’s tenure, nothing really changed. The team finished 11th in the league the first year, then after a runner-up finish, they were 11th again, then 13th. There have always been wonderful stories told about how close Ferguson was to being fired – the most stubborn of these being that if they lost an FA Cup match in 1990, Ferguson was done (Mark Robbins scored late, and in England it is still known as “the goal that saved Fergie”).

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Now? It’s only 23 years later, and now, you can argue that Manchester United is the most popular and successful club team in the world. Of course, there are the 13 league championships in 21 years. But the popularity is staggering, really. Manchester United recognizes fan clubs in more than 30 different countries, and one study suggests there may more than 300 million Red Devils fans around the world. Forbes says the club is worth about $3.5 billion.

This is not to say that Alex Ferguson is the reason for all this. But he certainly is at the heart of it all … for his voracious hunger to win, for his legendary work ethic, for his news-making clashes with players and other managers and referees, for his almost poetic grace with words and for his seemingly magical touch.

Maybe the closest American example would be Knute Rockne who, through sheer force of personality and innovation and will, turned Notre Dame from a small Midwestern college into the most famous college football school in America. Then again, maybe comparisons when talking about such unique people don’t do anyone justice.

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Ferguson grew up in a blue-collar Scottish town, in a blue collar Scottish family, and all his playing and coaching career he did not hold back his feelings. This made him beloved and despised in somewhat equal parts. When he announced his retirement, Twitter overflowed with “Greatest manager ever” tweets, naturally, but perhaps more compelling, there many begrudging “I despised him but …” compliments.

Well, five times he was banned and fined for abusing officials. The tabloids filled with clashes. He once kicked a football boot in anger, and it flew up and hit star David Beckham in the forehead. He became known for what the tabloids tended to call “Fergie Mind Games,” where he would try to unnerve opponents or motivate players in various ways.

He also was famous for his obsession with the sport and with greatness. Sir Bobby Charlton, one of the greatest players of them all, told the BBC, “He would get up in the middle of the night and drive 300 miles if he thought there was a school boy he could sign.”

Ferguson was a wordsmith of the first order. You already saw what is perhaps his most famous addition to the English language, “squeaky-bum time,” which is a much more descriptive phrase than “back against the wall” time. But listen to this description of the first time he saw Ryan Giggs play. Giggs, you should know, has been on all 13 of Ferguson’s league-title winning teams, but this was how he saw Giggs at 13 years old.

“He was 13 and just floated over the ground like a cocker spaniel chasing a piece of silver paper in the wind.”

Look at how beautiful that is.

Then there’s something harder to capture about Ferguson. When golfer Rory McIlroy — a big United fan — missed the cut at the Masters in 2010, he wanted to take some time off to get his mind straight. Ferguson texted him to say that he should get back out and play. It wasn’t a big thing — McIlroy does not know Ferguson well — but he listened, went to Charlotte and won his first event, shooting 62 on Sunday.

The next year, McIlroy was leading the Masters when he blew up in spectacular fashion on the back nine. Again, Ferguson texted him and reminded him that he was so young and that this loss would not hold him back from a brilliant career. McIlroy won the next major championship, the U.S. Open, by eight strokes.

“I think he’s been the most successful manager ever, I guess,” McIlroy says.

He has been that. It’s a funny thing — in England, there has been a lot of love for Ferguson  tributes, memories, all that. But such retrospectives never last long. Time moves on. David Moyes, the now former Everton manager who has built a reputation as a Moneyball disciple based on the way he has helped his team overachieve, will take over for Ferguson. Reports are that one of the five best players in the world, Cristiano Ronaldo, is considering returning to Manchester United. Everyone is already looking forward to a Manchester United without Sir Alex. Hey, the Yankees went on without Casey Stengel. UCLA went on without John Wooden. The Cleveland Browns went on without the guy they were named for, Paul Brown.

And the feeling seems to be that Manchester United is too established, too popular, too rich to fall off now. Maybe so. But you do wonder how they will play in squeaky-bum time without the man who came up with the name.

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