~ Posted by Tim de Lisle, May 8th 2013

Alex Ferguson added one more achievement to his vast collection today: a snap retirement. After botching his first attempt at walking away from Manchester United, he bided his time and got it right, after 11 years—about three times as long as the average premiership manager lasts. In that time, he won six more league titles, one more FA Cup, three League Cups and one Champions League. Not bad for a stay of execution. 

He has been the manager with almost everything. Trophies, obviously. Consistency, too: the holy grail for professional sportsmen. A bad season for Manchester United is when they finish third in the league. A year ago, they were even gutted to finish second. 

But these are potentially dull virtues. Ferguson’s greatest feat was not to lose sight of entertainment amid all the efficiency. He maintained United’s traditions of silky creativity (Ryan Giggs, Wayne Rooney), breathtaking flair (van Persie), flying if fitful wingers (Antonio Valencia, Nani) and cultured centre-backs (Rio Ferdinand, Phil Jones). Paul Scholes’s party trick, landing a 40-yard crossfield ball on a winger’s instep, is something Rooney and Michael Carrick can now do with their eyes shut, and even the young defender Johnny Evans has pulled it off a few times. United’s success may be boring for everyone else, but their team never is.

There were only two things Ferguson couldn’t manage. One was consistent success in Europe. Even a United fan has to concede that they were lucky to scrape that Champions League win in 2008 (on penalties, against Chelsea), and whenever they’ve gone out since, usually against Barcelona or Real Madrid, they have been made to look gauche. Ferguson has to bear some of the blame, with his blind spot about the need for holding midfielders, and his excessive enthusiasm for tinkering—playing people out of position when he didn’t need to, sometimes apparently shifting them around just to show them who was boss. 

The other thing he seldom managed was to be gracious. His interviews after a match were too often narky and pusillanimous, shedding light only on his own competitiveness and showing a mean streak in his treatment of referees. If he could have risen above those tendencies, he would have been even more admirable. He goes out, rightly, as a living legend—but also as proof that nobody’s perfect. 

Tim de Lisle is editor of Intelligent Life

Picture: Alex Ferguson shouts at an assistant referee during a match between Manchester United and West Bromwich Albion at Old Trafford in December 2012. United won the game 2-0 (Andrew Yates/AFP/Getty Images)