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May 12, 2013

United gives fitting send-off to Ferguson

MANCHESTER, England -- As red-and-white ticker tape flew into the rainy sky above Old Trafford, a beaming Alex Ferguson hoisted up the Premier League trophy for a 13th and final time.

Behind Britain's most successful soccer manager stood his jubilant squad of players, dancing to a soundtrack of "Champions, Champions" being belted out by more than 76,000 fans.

It was the end of an era at Manchester United on Sunday as Ferguson coached his final home match for a club he has led for nearly 27 years. And he had a 38th piece of major silverware to celebrate.

There were no tears from Ferguson, although he came close at times during an emotional five-minute speech to the crowd. Instead, just pure happiness and satisfaction. The smile never left his face.

"You have been the most fantastic experience of my life," Ferguson told the fans as he spoke on the field. "Thank you.

"My retirement doesn't mean the end of my life with the club. I will be able to enjoy watching them rather than suffering with them."

Sunday's game against Swansea was more a party and a tribute to Ferguson's achievements than simply a soccerl match. That United won 2-1 on Rio Ferdinand's 87th-minute goal -- his first in the Premier League in five years -- barely registered.

From the moment he emerged from the tunnel before kickoff to a guard of honor from both teams, to the moment he took the microphone and addressed his adoring supporters for one final time, this was one long celebration..

"I just want to say thank you once again from all the Ferguson family," he said, pointing to his wife Cathy and grandkids. "Thank you. Thank you."

Ferguson made the stunningannouncement Wednesday that he will be bringing his managerial career to a close at the end of the season. And he finally gave the reasons behind his decision, which he said he made at Christmas.

"Things changed when Cathy's sister died," Ferguson said in a TV interview. "She is isolated a lot now. I owe (Cathy) a lot of my own time. For 47 years, she has been the leader of the family, looked after our three sons, sacrificed herself for me. Now she has all her grandchildren.

"She lost her best friend, her sister Bridget, so that was important. Also, I wanted to go out a winner. That's the most important thing I've wanted to be."

Ferguson will always be a winner -- 13 league titles, two Champions League titles, five FA Cups and four League Cups is testament to that.

Before his 1,499th game as United manager, Ferguson posed for pictures with ball boys at Old Trafford, his place of work since November 1986.

Then came his first appearance in front of the crowd, striding through the guard of honor and applauding fans, with a sea of red flags and a mosaic with the words "Champions 2013" providing an eye-catching backdrop.

"Fergie Rules," read one banner. "Sir Alex -- Immortal," read another in the Stretford End.

He had almost reached the center of the field before he turned to make his way to the dugout, stopping briefly to sign autographs and to wave.

During the match, Ferguson was his usual self, furiously chewing gum, leaping to his feet to contest a refereeing decision, checking his watch.

After the final whistle, he slowly made his way to the center circle as his players and coaching staff left the spotlight to the man everyone had come to see.

"I have absolutely no script in my mind. I am just going to ramble on and hope I get to the core of what this football club has meant to me," Ferguson said.

He paused throughout his speech as fans sang his name. Assistant coach Mike Phelan wiped tears from his eyes.

"If you think about it, those last-minute goals, the comebacks, even the defeats, are all part of this great football club of ours," Ferguson said. "It's been an unbelievable experience for all of us. So thank you for that. And also, I'd like to remind you that when we had bad times here, the club stood by me, all my staff stood by me, the players stood by me. Your job now is to stand by our new manager."

That man, David Moyes, was about 30 miles away taking charge of his last home game as Everton manager before taking over at United on July 1. He has a near impossible task, replacing the irreplaceable.

Ferguson left the field to more applause and chants, only to return minutes later for the trophy celebration. The Premier League trophy, bedecked in black, white and red ribbons, was handed to Patrice Evra and Nemanja Vidic, who immediately turned to Ferguson and placed it in his hands.

For one final time, Ferguson lifted it high.

The perfect afternoon. A perfect 27 years.

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