Patience and perseverance the lesson of 25 years of Sir Alex Ferguson

Three years and it’s still crap. Ta ra Fergie”. As Manchester United slumped to a 2-1 loss to Crystal Palace 22 years ago, a banner revealing the immortal message was unravelled by United supporter Pete Molyneux. Earlier that season, the Red News fanzine ran a crisis issue whose message was insistent: Alex Ferguson must resign as manager of the Red Devils. By the time the FA Cup fourth round was drawn, an away trip to Nottingham Forest, it seemed his position at the club was untenable.

As history writes it, Mark Robins stooped to head the winner and Ferguson held on to his post – a position he retains to this day. Saturday’s 1-0 defeat of Sunderland marked his 25th anniversary in the United job with a customary win. Nothing else would have been fitting.

The dynasty that this once beleaguered manager has built at Old Trafford, overseeing not so much the creation of a dominant football force but the production of a global brand, is at odds with his reputation during those tortuous, pessimistic early years at Old Trafford. Ferguson strode into a dressing room soaked in booze and riddled with problems of body and mind. His authority and integrity repeatedly came into question as he attempted to rebuild. The wonderful Norman Whiteside and Paul McGrath were sold as their personal problems infected the dressing room.

In the short-term, the results were awful. Since returning to the top-flight in 1975, they had never finished below 10th. In three of Ferguson’s first four seasons, they finished in the bottom half. Worse still, the football was hopelessly dour. For a club infused with the ethos of Matt Busby’s swashbuckling Busby Babes and 1968 European Cup winners, and used to the devil-may-care insouciance of Ron Atkinson’s more recent cavalier side, the dirge could not be tolerated. Patience had snapped. The fans’ message was unanimous: Ferguson must go.

Football fans are many things: passionate, hopeful, fervent, loyal. By their very nature, therefore, they are driven by their emotions. They are short-termist and reactionary. This does not translate into wisdom. A 12-time Premier League winner, and twice victorious in the Champions League – a man who has built, dismantled and reconstructed four era-defining teams – was once derided as not up to the task. With this in mind, the recent protests which have blighted Premier League clubs, concerted and spontaneous alike, need not be taken seriously.

Halfway through the first-half of Blackburn’s 1-0 defeat to Chelsea, eyes were averted from the home team’s adventurous forays into their wealthier opponent’s penalty area. A plane flew above the stadium carrying the message “Steve Kean Out.” With Wolves 2-0 down to an impressive Swansea, Mick McCarthy’s double substitution was met with cries of: “You don’t know what you’re doing.

Even at the stadiums of the Premier League’s more salubrious clubs, half-time stalemates have been met with derisive dismissals of the team’s performance. Arsenal, efficiently gathering momentum towards the top four, would have been better off without the revolutionary Arsene Wenger following their early season teething troubles, some decided. At the merest sign of a problem, where there is the slightest hint of imperfection, a loud but vocal minority demands change.

Of course, not every manager is Sir Alex Ferguson. Steve Kean will not build a lasting legacy of glory at Blackburn Rovers. Mick McCarthy will not revolutionise the way football is played in this country with Wolves. Yet neither is it certain that succumbing to fan pressure and dismissing them will radically improve the team’s style of play and chances of avoiding relegation. The example set by Ferguson confounds the demands of fans so quick to criticise and clamour for change. Sometimes patience and a little optimism is required for long term rewards to be reaped.

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