When you never get tired of winning
Sir Alex Ferguson is many things to many people. Some see him as the ultimate strategist, a football manager who will change the slightest detail in tactics to secure a result or bewilder opposition with his team selections. Others hate him and think of him as an arrogant megalomaniac who uses his influence to help Manchester United - and only Manchester United. Some football fans even think of him as a lovable granddad (after all he is 71!) and a father figure to some of the youngsters at the club.
He has many endearing qualities and is perceived to have as many 'negative' personality traits. One thing is undeniable - he is one of the greatest managers to have worked in the English Premier League. Across the globe his achievements are recognised as remarkable and legendary. Ferguson, who retired on Wednesday, has won 13 league titles, 5 FA Cups, 4 League Cups and 2 European Cups with Manchester United since joining as manager in 1986. How did he achieve such sustained success?
Firstly, he commanded respect. Big stars or promising youngsters; everyone learned that Ferguson was the boss. Most recently even the great Wayne Rooney warmed the bench and played out of position - a big call from the manager affectionately known as Fergie - but a move that helped United secure a 20th league title. Down the years there have been a number of famous instances where it was made clear Ferguson would never allow a player to dictate how he runs the club.
His differences with David Beckham are probably most remembered and so will the story about how he allegedly scarred Becks' eyebrow when he kicked a boot in anger across the dressing room after a defeat. That and the infamous 'hairdryer' treatment, where he would get so close to players' faces when launching into a raging reprimand that their hair would blow back, are examples of Fergie's bad temper. No-one gave Ferguson an ultimatum as a manager and even when players left the club he made sure it was on his terms.
Another reason why Ferguson was so successful as a manager was the freedom with which his teams played. To me 'playing the United way' always meant a very direct style, which favoured wing play and one touch passing. Ferguson's teams always moved the ball quickly and always seemed focused on getting goals. I believe that besides the success and legacy at the club, it is this positive playing philosophy under Ferguson that has made United one of the most popular clubs in the world. It must have everything to do with the fact that Fergie himself was a striker and goal machine in his playing days in Scotland. Neutral football supporters and even opposition must concede Fergie's United was always positive and entertaining.
Ferguson's glittering managerial career is littered with great signings, but also tells the story of how a youth academy team emerged as one of the best teams in Europe. David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and Gary and Phil Neville are just some of the players developed at the youth academy and went on to feature for United during some of their most successful years. They were dubbed Fergie's Fledglings and showed an important side of Ferguson's management prowess - the ability to mould young players into better footballers. Even the great Christiano Ronaldo benefitted from his years under Ferguson at Old Trafford.
Not even Ferguson could comprehend his most memorable result as a manager - the 1999 Champions League Final against Bayern Munich, which United won with 2 goals in injury time. His words immediately afterwards: "I can't believe it. I can't believe it. Football. Bloody hell." The treble in 1999 will be remembered as one of the greatest feats by a manager in England. It saw Fergie knighted that same year and the European Cup injury time turnaround will go down as one of football's most memorable moments.
Ferguson's retirement has been met with some shock as he gave no indication of it recently, but it's not a big surprise to football fans who have been following the great man's career. In fact his retirement has been talked about for over a decade! In 2002, he decided against giving up management and even then he was only expected to stay on for maybe a few more years.
Why did it take him this long? Of course it is continued success. It is the one thing Ferguson is all about: winning. That's the only thing that matters in football and sport for that matter. It's why we compete and it's why Ferguson the football manager is so good at what he does. He hates losing. His temper is reserved for dodgy calls from referees and players who can't meet his high standards. If you're on his side he'll fight for you, but turn against him and you don't stand much chance.
I believe he's calling it a day because what he does, he can only do rigorously. There can be no tired Mondays or lazy Fridays. Despite his age, he cannot afford to show players a soft side or lose any enthusiasm. Watch football week in, week out and you'll notice, Fergie has not lost an ounce of passion and one of my best pictures in football is still when he 'heads in' on the touchline as if he's one of the players on the pitch. Ferguson may have realised he can longer offer the high level of involvement at the relentless pace he demands, but I say there is one thing he had as a manager that made him great for so long - he has never grown tired of winning.
Wesley Petersen is EWN's Cape Town Sports Editor.