If you can’t earn a statue after 26 years of managerial service to a football club, then when can you? Indeed, as Manchester United immortalized the achievements of Sir Alex Ferguson’s reign this past week, it’s offered English football a timely reminder, if one possible even needed it, of the Scot’s unworldly achievements over the past quarter century and counting.
12 league titles, five FA Cups, two Champions League victory’s, one Cup Winner’s Cup, three doubles and a treble. It is a trophy haul that needs no words and his legacy upon the game is one that needs no introduction. Ferguson earned his place amongst the pantheon of greats long ago and with every passing season; he is seemingly only galvanizing himself as one of the greatest managers of all time.
Although as the 70-year-old enters what must surely now be the autumn of his long, distinguished and glorious managerial career, is there one last dragon yet to be slayed?
It might seem macabre to start talking about epitaphs, but if you were to conjure one up for Fergie, the knocking of Liverpool off their perch, would be amongst the hot picks. Having masterminded 12 of United’s 19 league triumph’s, the Scot has done his part in overhauling the 18 that the old enemy in Liverpool bestow.
But although Ferguson has certainly done all he could and so much more, to knock the Liver Bird off its domestic perch, it’s still crowing loud and proud upon it’s European one. Manchester United have of course won the European Cup three times, compared to the five triumphs of Liverpool in the continent.
It’s an emotive statistic that will never fail to catalyze the most fervent of debate. Some will suggest that winning in Europe was an easier feat in the 1970’s than it was within today’s footballing climate.
Others will retort that under the old European Cup regulations, United wouldn’t have been playing in Europe the year they famously beat Bayern Munich 2-1 to lift it in Barcelona (they finished runners up in the league the season previous – not enough to grant you European competition in the 1970’s).
But regardless of how both sets of supporters frame it, for Ferguson, it is something that eats away at him.
Speaking after United’s 3-1 away win at Braga earlier this month, Ferguson suggested that the club’s stature demanded more European titles:
“I think in terms of history of our clubs, we should have one more and I want to win it again and get into the bracket of winners like Liverpool, our biggest rivals, Bayern Munich and Ajax,” he said.
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Although it was his personal sentiments, which felt even more poignant, when reflecting upon United’s fortuned in Europe under his tenure.
“That definitely drives me on a bit [winning another European Cup].
“I get really frustrated when I think about the opportunities we have had to win it, but you can’t be greedy you look at my career and I have won two European Cup and Cup Winners’ Cup and I am proud of that.”
Perhaps it is testament to his staggering achievements within the game, that we should be talking about Ferguson ‘only’ lifting two European Cup’s. Furthermore, if anything, you can make a case that the gap between his 1999 and 2008 triumph, does in fact strengthen his legacy. Rebuilding and cultivating a new team, only to take them to the pinnacle of European club glory as he did with his 1999 set of players, is a remarkable feat.
Although you can’t escape the feeling that, as Ferguson said himself, given the opportunities both he and his team have had to lift the trophy, his European Cup tally still stands at just the two.
Manchester United did of course rack up three Champions League final appearances in four seasons within recent times and let’s not forget how close that team was to entering the real pantheon of greats.
Following their 2008 triumph in Moscow, had they come out on top in Rome against Barcelona, they would have become the first team of the Champions League era to rack up back to back titles – a feat achieved by a very select few, including the great Real Madrid team of the 50’s, the Ajax team of the early 70’s and of course, Liverpool, in ’77 and ’78, amongst others. But they didn’t. Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona dismantled Ferguson’s side not once, but twice in recent European finals, extending the Scot’s search for a third continental triumph.
Because while Ferguson is already one of the managerial greats, that elusive third European Cup, would potentially propel him into the realms of indisputability.
Would a third win arguably make Ferguson peerless within managerial history? Symbolically, it would place him alongside Liverpool’s Bob Paisley within the European trophy list, not behind him. There is nowhere else to go past there.
No manager would have won more European Cups or reached as many European finals as Ferguson. He’s already the most successful British manager in history with 48 titles. Winning a third European title wouldn’t take a question mark away from his legacy; such a thing doesn’t exist. But it would add a hell of a lot more than just a bit of added gloss. It would make him untouchable.
Some may suggest that Ferguson’s failure to produce a back-to-back European Cup winning side, a la Paisley and Brian Clough, may put a slight dent in his continental standing. But no team has done that since Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan side over 22 years ago. It’s a feat that’s evaded a Barcelona team described as one of the greatest club sides of all time. While you shouldn’t compare eras, should Ferguson win a third European Cup, it would in no way be superseded by Paisley’s trio on the basis of timing.
That is of course an argument that for the moment, remains purely hypothetical. Sir Alex Ferguson’s achievements within the game may never be matched and even if he doesn’t win another European Cup, his legacy remains as powerful as anything we have ever seen. Yet if he did, that legacy suddenly takes on a whole life of its own.