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Small thoughts about Sir Alex Ferguson and managers

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Ewan Murray, in yesterday's Guardian, wrote a piece in which Sir Alex Ferguson, 25-year manager of Arsenal's chief rival throughout the Premier League's history, Manchester United, revealed that he very nearly became the manager not of the Red Devils, but of the Gunners, way back in the summer of 1986 when he was managing Scotland at the World Cup.

"I was offered the Arsenal job and I wanted to take Walter [Smith] with me," Ferguson said. "I had got to know Walter well by that stage and when I took over the Scotland job in 1985 when Jock Stein sadly passed away I made Walter my assistant with the national team."

Depending on what kind of mood Arsenal supporters are in these days, some might tell you that this would have been a welcome appointment. Of course, many of them probably were toddlers when this near-thing went down, but no matter; it is hard to deny that Ferguson is one of the most successful--perhaps THE most successful--football managers ever to set foot on Earth.

Supporters of both clubs no doubt will love to argue all day long about the relative merits of Ferguson and Arsène Wenger, who have been contesting trophies since 1997. One had more money, one had better talent, one had better methods, one has no grasp of tactics or man management, they will say. What supporters often lose sight of in these discussions, though, is the fact that these men are, well, men. Being human, supporters are susceptible to synechdoche, seeing Ferguson and Wenger not as men of retirement age telling much younger men how to run around and kick a ball (or, in Gary Neville's case, another young man, sometimes), not as the man in charge, but as the club itself.

Often, of course, this leads to the manager taking on the bulk of abuse from opposition supporters, all feelings of rage, superiority, crass humor, and hyperpartisanship crystallized into the form of "Ol' Rednose" or "Whinger". The longevity of Ferguson and Wenger contributes to this, absolutely; it's hard to imagine anyone thinking "Chelsea" when they see a picture of Guus Hiddink, for instance.

One wonders how Ferguson would have handled a tenure at Arsenal, if he would still be with the club now, and what the club would be like. But in that wondering, the Sir Alex-as-United conflation falls away, and the thinker is confronted with a man, managing Scotland in 1986 to a first-round exit at the hands of Uruguay, wondering where his next check was going to come from, no loyalties built up, no legends built up (outside of Aberdeen), watching fellow Scot George Graham take the job in North London.