'I am not afraid of an army of lions led by a sheep; I am afraid of an army of sheep led by a lion'. With a look at the parallels between Alexander the Great & Manchester United's own great Sir Alex Ferguson, welcome to IBWM Dan Leydon.
As the sunlight settled on the bodies of soldiers and beasts fallen in battle, a wanderer stopped to take in the scene. Celebration was taking place on the brow of a nearby hill, singing carried on the breeze with the heat of the evening still thick. Roving between the corpses was a plunderer; lifting hands to examine rings, letting them fall limply down when the loot was taken. What happened here, asked the wanderer. Hunkered down, the plunderer raised his eyes. A mighty General made his might known, he said, breathing heavily from the weight of his load. What General, asked the wanderer. The plunderer laughed. A tactical mind so renowned you should already know, he said. What is his name, asked the wanderer. The plunderer stopped absentmindedly examining a ring and fixed the wanderer a stare. Alexander the Great, he said.
A slight drizzle played on the wind, a dull glow held the graying sky as darkness entertained the evening. On the horizon, throngs of people wearing a uniform of red were being herded away from a magnificent football arena. Stragglers populated the concourse, vying for position with fluttering food wrappings, abject newspapers and pristine puddles. Shuffling from one pile of litter to the next was a council worker sweeping with a brush. A tourist held up their camera and took a snap of the scene. What happened here, they asked the council worker. Manchester United won again, he replied, not looking up from his work. Who is Uniteds manager these days, queried the tourist. The council worker looked up and laughed. A tactical mind so renowned you should already know, he said. What is his name, ventured the tourist. The council worker stopped sweeping. Alexander the Great, he said.
If there is a child who likes football and is interested in the Barclays Premier League then it is near certain that Alex Ferguson occupies a place of importance in their mind. His status as Manchester United manager allows him to become the reason many kids who support the red half of Manchester get to gloat while in school. For the kids who support other teams he is the figurehead of their inability to revel in their sporting choice, a gum chewing face for the force that inspires such a sentiment as ‘Anyone But United’.
I remember the first time I became aware of that gum-chewing gait of a certain Glaswegian jaw as Liverpool took on United in the FA Cup Final back in 1996. Cantona popped up with a volley that day to take the trophy away from the Anfield cabinet. That was the first Liverpool match I had ever watched on television, my knowledge of the club, and football as a sport, was a blank slate. The authority of the position of manager was lost on my eight-year-old mind and I would not have been surprised to see a different man in the dugout for Manchester United the next time I chanced upon a match. How bloody wrong I was.
Sir Alex Ferguson's resemblance to Alexander the Great goes beyond a shallow comparison for the title of this article and the fact that they both share a name. Both men ruled their dominion absolutely and share a propensity for winning great tactical battles. In the decades Ferguson has been managing he has achieved many feats. From sating a twenty six year hunger for the title, victory in the Nou Camp one glorious spring night back in the dregs of the last century to continuing to shrewdly upholster his squads to keep them competitive, but his most note worthy may just be around the corner.
“I am not afraid of an army of lions led by a sheep; I am afraid of an army of sheep led by a lion.” – Alexander the Great
More apt a quote there is not to describe this current crop of United players. A team of sheep led by the lion in Ferguson, and if he wins the league with them, that is his greatest achievement. Fantastic Manchester United squads have graced the game in the past but this one is sorely lacking. If a team can be measured on the strength of its back ups, what replacements can you make to change a game when you’re irreversibly stuck in a nil all rut of a match with Gibson, Obertan, Bebe and Owen on the bench?
The team is still home to the iconic talents of Giggs and Scholes, while Nani is turning into a genuinely inventive footballer that can take a match by the scruff of the neck. That is where the positives end. If Rooney was not English he would have been pilloried in the press by now for playing well only when the national media was not discussing a horrendous revelation about his personal life. Berbatov is a footballer talented in the finer sides of the game, bereft however of the battling scrappy tendencies that makes a title challenge more palatable.
Fergusons task of steering his team to the title is definitely made easier by the running pack. Adversaries pop up and then back down just as fast. Tottenham are ignoring a title attempt in favour of consolidating their top four status. Manchester City seem to have the basis for a concerted effort on the league but are still ironing out the kinks and will properly make their assault next year. Chelsea, so robust, rigorous and routine at the seasons start, are like ice, flourishing in Winter but melting away with the first signs of Summer. Wengers Arsenal are proving to be the only solid challengers, but even they seem to be missing the essential ruthless streak that every title winning team need.
If Ferguson does achieve league success this year he will have ‘knocked Liverpool off their fucking perch’ as he so eloquently put it when asked what his main aim was upon taking the job. To put that in context, if United win they will finally surpass Liverpools record of eighteen league titles. To do it with such a paltry array of playing talent speaks volumes of the power of personality in the sport of football.
Ferguson has become Manchester United. For so many years the club has been home to a great deal of players, it has provided employment for many physiotherapists, assistant coaches, tea ladies, accountants, groundskeepers, stewards, security men, drivers, cleaners, kit men and countless other workers in differing positions. Ferguson has remained. Personifying the club appears to be his second nature. Synonymous with success he is now the driving force for the squad. It has reached the point where the first team could consist of players plucked from an obscure league and they would still get results purely because of Fergusons presence. Ironically I feel the weight of expectation is not upon them because they blindly expect to win and this attitude allows situations regularly to fall into place for that to happen. Just like everything else winning is a habit and Ferguson knows the ins and outs of it off by heart backwards. Happily for Manchester United supporters he knows how to transmit this knowledge to the players.
The question remains, what happens when he moves on, when the gruff Scot relaxes his grip upon the reins and some new force in football takes them? I believe it will be the most thankless job in world football, past even the weight of expectation that comes with the England post. As long as Ferguson is alive the next manager of United will not be allowed any peace. Some acts are hard to follow, and some, well some are just impossible. I will round off with a quote I think will epitomise Fergusons attitude to the situation when he steps down...
“Après moi le deluge (after me the flood)”
– Louis XV of France
You can read more from Dan at 'Footynews'.