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Ferguson the greatest? That depends

Consider the achievements of a certain footballing superpower. There are 12 English league titles, six behind Liverpool and only one adrift of Arsenal; two European Cups, as many as Juventus and Benfica and more than every French club combined; five FA Cups, almost as many as Liverpool and Chelsea, and four League Cups, equalling the total of Arsenal and Manchester City if they pooled their victories.

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This, it might be concluded, is a particularly distinguished and decorated club. Except, of course, but this is not a club but the personal haul of Sir Alex Ferguson. Insert him in the roll of honour and, without even including his feats in Scotland, he would figure higher than many a historic force, including the pre-Ferguson Manchester United. Whereas others have had a century and more to accumulate their honours, his have come in 25 years. His greatness both cemented and coated in silverware.

But the celebrations of Ferguson's quarter-century at Old Trafford invite a question: where does he stand in the pantheon of managerial legends? Comparisons across countries and generations are inherently inexact, because of the changing context. Right and wrong answers are thus impossible, possibly to the frustration of a man such as Ferguson who likes to win any argument.

Nevertheless, it is to his credit that, both at United and Aberdeen, he ended lengthy waits to win the league. Success was engineered rather than inherited, which is infinitely harder. It is another feather in Ferguson's cap that he has proved far-sighted: management is a profession where short-term pursuit of glory can outweigh all other concerns, but he has patiently built clubs. His record of youth development ranks extremely highly.

More than most, he has identified talent and allowed potential to be fulfilled. Many of his finest signings were either recruited at a particularly early age, like Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney, or plucked from smaller clubs, as Roy Keane, Denis Irwin, Peter Schmeichel, Steve Bruce and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer were. He has moulded their characters, in turn accounting for United's famous inability to accept defeat.

The Scot has been a bold decision-maker, whether selling established talents to advance 'Fergie's Fledglings' and winning the Double, or in his recruitment and handling of Eric Cantona. One who believes in absolute power for managers has shown a surprisingly deft touch in his dealings with complex personalities when he wants to.

Unlike many a manager, Ferguson has never become a man out of time. He has been both ageless and up to date, winning in very different eras and in hugely different circumstances. He has triumphed with youth and experience, by spending heavily and by making a profit, by ending a drought and by turning trophies into an annual event. He has done so with the 4-4-2 (with split strikers, he often says) that has become his trademark, and by being flexible enough to adapt to 4-3-3, as a manager whose side selected itself and as the arch-exponent of squad rotation. He has generally won as a purveyor of attacking, entertaining football.

And yet, by the very highest standards, Ferguson might not class as either a visionary or a revolutionary. Others have had a greater influence on the style of football played: Herbert Chapman, Rinus Michels, Valeri Lobanovsky, Bela Guttmann, Arrigo Sacchi, Johan Cruyff, perhaps even Arsene Wenger. They have looked further into the future of the game, rather than just one club.

Others, such as Jose Mourinho, Fabio Capello, Giovanni Trapattoni, Ernst Happel and Helenio Herrera, have tested themselves in more environments, requiring linguistic and cultural skills Ferguson has never had to display. They have regularly faced challenges the 69-year-old has not experienced for decades, inheriting star players or meddling presidents. They have often had to buy big, an area where Ferguson's record - see Dimitar Berbatov and Juan Sebastian Veron - is mixed.

That Ferguson has achieved excellence is beyond dispute. Perfection is impossible, but the treble winners of 1999 deserve to feature on the shortlist for the best side of modern times. They wouldn't top it, however: not with competition from Sacchi's AC Milan and Pep Guardiola's Barcelona, who play a brand of football Ferguson can only aspire to emulate and appears powerless to halt.

Indeed, winning 'only' two European Cups counts against him. While Bob Paisley is alone in faring better, Ferguson himself has admitted United should have won more in his tenure. His dominance has been domestic, rather than continental. If 1999 was possibly the most remarkable conclusion to a European Cup final, it was not the most improbable triumph: Jock Stein's Celtic have a geographical claim but Brian Clough's achievement in taking a provincial club from the lower half of Division 2, in Nottingham Forest, to conquer Europe in back-to-back seasons stands apart.

What Ferguson is, however, is the ultimate empire builder. Since his flirtation with retirement in 2002, he has shown a marked reluctance to abandon his post. Even Stein, at Celtic, and Bill Shankly, at Liverpool, walked away from their beloved clubs. Even Sir Matt Busby initially decided 24 years in charge was enough.

The older Scot provides the perspective. His compatriot has won more, but Busby, who was bequeathed a bomb site of a ground and developed three great teams, confronted adversity in a way Ferguson has thankfully never had to. He, to many, will always be Manchester United's greatest manager.

The world's finest, for FIFA, when they named a coach of the century in 1999, was Michels, the architect of 'Total Football', a man with an extraordinary record for club and country and with an influence that is felt to this day, not least at the Nou Camp. Had the millennium ended a dozen years later, however, there might have been Mancunian calls for a recount.

Because Ferguson's astonishing renaissance as a pensioner sums him up. His longevity is extraordinary, his capacity to respond to setbacks almost endless, his will to win utterly unremitting. For all his other accomplishments, his intense competitiveness is his defining characteristic. It is why the eventual verdict may be that he was not football's greatest manager, but its greatest winner.


• From Monday 31st October - Friday 4th November at 10.00pm, ESPN Classic will air their brand new five-part series, 25 Years United: Sir Alex Ferguson, in the lead-up to Sir Alex Ferguson's 25 year anniversary in charge at Old Trafford on Saturday 6th November. For details visit: www.espnclassic.com

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