Sir Alex Ferguson is the greatest manager ever – and only Mourinho can catch him

The Manchester United boss announced his retirement on Wednesday as the single most successful man in the history of football

By Carlo Garganese

If anything in this life is certain – if history has taught us anything – it’s that Sir Alex Ferguson is the greatest football manager of all time.

This is not Pele, Maradona or Messi, and it’s not Brazil 1970, Milan 1989 or Barcelona 2011 – it’s just Fergie.

There have been coaches and managers, hands-on and hands-off, legacy-builders and pure trophy winners – and they have worked for underdogs and super teams, clubs and countries, around the world or just at home – but there is simply no track record of silverware, consistency, longevity and legacy that stands up to that of Sir Alex. His managerial career personifies greatness in a way that we may never see again.

First and foremost come trophies, and no one can compare to Ferguson’s 49 in his 39-year career – featuring, among others, 16 English and Scottish Premier Leagues, two Champions Leagues, two Cup Winners’ Cups and 14 domestic cups.

Giovanni Trapattoni is the next in line in terms of truly elite titles, his 23 trophies since 1974 won across five countries stack up formidably – on paper, in some senses, even more impressively than Sir Alex’s – but even his legacy, despite the all-conquering Juventus team of the 70s and 80s, doesn’t compare to that of Ferguson.

The unforgettable treble of 1999, the unbridled influence on a youth system that produced a generation of stars like Beckham, Scholes and Giggs, the ‘Fergie time’ comebacks, the mind games with Wenger, Keegan and Benitez, the ‘hairdryer’ treatment of seasoned professionals, the reconstruction of at least three great United teams – these are just a selection of the things that the 71-year-old will be remembered for.


Sir Alex Ferguson
Valeriy Lobanovskyi
Jock Stein
Ottmar Hitzfeld
Giovanni Trapattoni
Walter Smith
Jose Mourinho
Bob Paisley
Louis van Gaal
Ernst Happel

Ferguson may have less of a pure footballing legacy than other successful coaches from the past. Valeriy Lobanovskyi brought science into the beautiful game, Celtic’s Jock Stein won the European Cup with a team born within 10 miles of Glasgow, Rinus Michels – following on from Hungary in the 1950s – took pressing, passing and possession to new levels with Total Football in the ’70s, Helenio Herrera changed defending forever with Catenaccio in the 60s, Marcello Lippi became the first trainer to marry Champions League success with World Cup glory.

They are great and, in some cases, relatively forgotten men in football history, and their innovations have inspired the very best and shaped football at the highest level in a way that Ferguson will not – he has never been considered the greatest tactical mind – and yet over time, he has adapted his teams and the players, from the superstars to those in squad rotation, to win with as much tactical flexibility and capability as anybody ever has and perhaps ever will.

But that’s not to say he has ever reached a pinnacle to match Arrigo Sacchi’s invincible Milan or Pep Guardiola’s scintillating Barcelona.

But Sacchi’s time at the top was far too brief, as he could not adapt like Ferguson has. And greatness took its toll on Guardiola, who resigned a year ago from Barcelona, but admittedly still has years ahead of him to prove he can match a great like Ferguson for the long haul.

Then there is Vicente del Bosque, who has hit the very highest level even more than Sacchi, Guardiola or anyone, ever. He has a World Cup – and could yet retire with another next year – a European Championship and two Champions Leagues as his headlines, but still cannot stand up to Ferguson’s as the very best.

And much of that comes back to time. Barring Trapattoni, no one has lasted at the top as long as Ferguson – and that is testament to his unparalleled appetite for constant, record-breaking success and the expertise to make that happen.

The early trophyless years at United would perhaps not be tolerated now and were barely tolerated then, but given the sorry state in which he inherited the club – without a league title since 1967 and seemingly without a future – it cannot be underestimated that his conviction, charisma, track record and management of the people and the situation around him are what got him the time, freedom and resources to build this empire. Would anyone else have been given as long as he got to turn it around?

Staying at United and ‘not challenging himself’ elsewhere is to overlook the challenges presented simply by staying at the highest level for so long – whether at one club in one country, or several. Managing through the Glazers’ takeover was only as easy as he made it look – it could have signalled the falling of a lesser institution, forged by a lesser man.

He has overcome several fantastic bosses and teams in the Premier League and enjoys a formidable record in Europe against the good and great sides of the last 20 years. Only Bob Paisley has won more European Cups than Fergie, while only Lippi and Miguel Munoz have contested as many finals. While boasting numerous great players and spending big in the transfer market, Ferguson’s United teams were not necessarily regarded as the best on paper – one only needs to look at the modest squad who won the Premier League this season for proof – which is further testament to the fact that it was him who so often made the difference.

His largely uncompromising and at-times menacing management style ultimately kept superstars grounded and squad players motivated, got him through transition after transition, and rubbished Bela Guttmann’s theory that after three years a manager loses his power over his players. While some great coaches tainted their legacies as they aged, Ferguson has remained a winner at the very highest level until his final day in the job. He also moves upstairs with United well set up for future dominance.

A coach is like a lion tamer. He dominates the animals as long as he shows self-confidence and has no fear. But when the first hint of fear appears in his eyes, he is lost

– Ex-Benfica coach Bela Guttmann

And it can’t be forgotten just what Ferguson achieved prior to joining United in 1986. At Aberdeen he broke a 15-year Old Firm duopoly by winning three Scottish league titles, and miraculously led The Dons to European glory in the 1983 Cup Winners’ Cup – defeating the mighty Bayern Munich and Real Madrid along the way. This is indicative that, like a Trapattoni or Ernst Happel, Ferguson would have been a success had he spread his wings outside of his comfort zone.

And yet, there is Jose.

It may be doing Guardiola in particular a disservice to mention Mourinho on his own, but only the Special One has shown that same hunger as Sir Alex to break every record and win every title – as well as the Midas touch to make it happen – to suggest he may actually go and do it.

His record – 20 titles and two Champions Leagues by the age of 50, and the only coach in history to win the three major leagues of England, Italy and Spain – is even more prolific than Fabio Capello, who before Jose was of a very similar breed and legacy. And his record will stretch far further than that of Del Bosque. If his two years together with Guardiola in Spain are anything to go by, his determination to come out on top – by any means necessary – give him the competitive edge there as well.

Mourinho and Ferguson began as rivals, first fleetingly at Porto and then at Chelsea, but became and have remained friends, and there had long been speculation that it would be Jose who would succeed Sir Alex.

“In terms of the period of time Ferguson has done it, he has been the greatest. A lot of managers – the Mourinhos of the world – are making their play for it, but they need to do it for as long as Fergie has.”

Chelsea midfielder Frank Lampard

The controversy surrounding Mourinho – especially in the midst of the war he has started in Madrid this season – is a large part of what deterred some of the United board from wanting him at the club. Ferguson is no angel himself – the very best never are, and his nasty streak has unquestionably been an asset – but Mourinho’s self-interest and sinister tactics have driven him to the point of creating enemies just so he could have people to blame in the event of a failure.

If he is to surpass Ferguson in more senses than the purely statistical and superficial, he will have to learn that a manager’s autonomy is not compromised by compromise, and that without knowing where and when to make concessions, he is destined to be a self-destructive second-best.

And I think Fergie would take that.

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