The eyes of the football world will be on Old Trafford on Sunday when Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson oversees his final home game before retirement after 26 years in charge of the English champions.
Further proof that an extraordinary era was coming to an end arrived late Saturday when long-serving United midfielder Paul Scholes, a one-club man who came up through an Old Trafford youth system revitalised under Ferguson’s guidance, announced he too was retiring.
Ferguson’s retirement announcement on Wednesday stunned the sporting world and relegated the Queen’s Speech — the formal declaration of the UK government’s legislative programme for the forthcoming Parliamentary session — to second place on British television news programmes.
Swansea are the opponents for Ferguson’s Old Trafford farewell, which fittingly will include the official presentation of the Premier League trophy to United — almost three weeks after they secured what has turned out to be the Scot’s final piece of silverware in a remarkable career.
Ferguson, 71, guided United to 13 Premier League titles and two European Champions League crowns in 26 years that yielded an astounding 38 major trophies in total for the north-west side.
Arguably the highlight of his career was the unprecedented Treble of 1999, which included the Premier League, FA Cup and a thrilling come-from-behind win against Bayern Munich in the Champions League final.
What made his achievement all the more impressive was that United were the ‘sleeping giants’ of English football when Ferguson arrived at Old Trafford in November 1986.
The first Premier League title of his reign ended the club’s 26-year wait to be crowed English champions since United’s glory days of the late 1960s under another Scottish manager in Matt Busby.
In an era where ‘hire and fire’ became standard managerial policy among many top English clubs, Ferguson’s United career has been as remarkable for its longevity as its success.
Equally in an age of rapidly rising player wages, Ferguson was one of the last true old-school managers capable of blistering the walls with his infamous ‘hairdryer’ rants at under-performing millionaires, who might have ignored such criticism from lesser men.
Rumours of his retirement only began circulating late on Tuesday, but Ferguson said it was a decision he had been considering for some time.
“The decision to retire is one that I have thought a great deal about and one that I have not taken lightly. It is the right time,” Ferguson said.
“It was important to me to leave an organisation in the strongest possible shape and I believe I have done so,” added Ferguson, who will remain at United as a director and ambassador.
He is expected to take to the microphone following the Swansea game to say his goodbyes and there will be barely a dry eye among the packed house at Old Trafford, a stadium which has grown in size considerably during the his tenure and now has a stand named after Ferguson and a statue of the manager outside the ground.
The final game of his United reign will be against West Bromwich Albion the following week at the Hawthorns before Everton boss David Moyes, who signed a six-year deal on Thursday and who has long had the seal of approval from his fellow Scot, takes charge on July 1.
Moyes too faces an emotional day on Sunday, with Everton’s Goodison Park fixture against West Ham marking the final home match of his 11 years in charge of the Liverpool side.
The history of English football is littered with examples of clubs who thrived under one manager only to falter under his successor, with United’s rapid decline after Busby’s retirement culminating in relegation to the second tier of English football in 1974 a case in point.
The scale of the task confronting Moyes, and the worldwide reputation of Ferguson, was emphasised Saturday by the South African African cricket team’s new coach, Russell Domingo.
“I know what David Moyes is feeling,” said Domingo, brought into succeed Gary Kirsten.
But how could he? Kirsten was only in charge of South Africa for two years and took them to the top of cricket’s Test standings just the once.
Ferguson, by contrast, built and rebuilt several trophy-winning teams during his United reign. And therein lies the challenge for Moyes