Saturday, 5 November 2011

Alex Ferguson: an alternative history of the last quarter-century

The precise timing of Ferguson's career turning points run in such parallel to the modern history of English football itself - itself so much a mirror for the social history surrounding it - that it is almost too perfect to be true. The same years of struggle and uncertainty in the late '80s, the same moment of serendipity in 1990, seven minutes away from Wembley humiliation, a European shut-out in the first year of English clubs' return and probable oblivion, the same moment of celebration as a new kind of elite returned the success whose restoration had become what seemed like a futile obsession, the same millennial ultimate triumph and ultimate old-establishment embrace, the same eternal, endless status - permanent neoliberalism - on the other side. Precise dates can be identified. A YouTube upload of the September 1990 European return, just as BSB headed further and further towards the inevitable, has several commenters stating that they became Manchester United fans that night - six months earlier, they would so clearly have aspired towards the mythos of the NFL (while ignoring its semi-socialist reality) that you do not actually have to be a Palace fan to find reading them a painful experience.

Even the timing of Ferguson's original appointment is symbolic. We know that this has become perhaps the most bitter time of year, when we are reminded most harshly of the market as destructive force, eroding so much of value and lasting potency and power (infinitely more ancient and permanent than exaggerated and misremembered residual anti-Catholicism), and replacing something embedded, and for the most part wholly unthreatening and unprejudiced, with something hollow, empty and utterly devoid of resonance. We may not remember so easily that it was also at this time that, 21 years ago and another 21 years before that, Rupert Murdoch enjoyed two of his three greatest territorial advances, and when a further 13 years earlier an entire culture was discredited, ripped apart, rendered untouchable for an entire generation - a fully deserving fate had it not been for the fact that its replacement, once so promising, ended up arguably even more rotten, even more the detritus of a decaying empire. These weeks, which carry so much historical weight, have become almost unendurable for their meaning in modern times - and Ferguson, in his own way, is as much a part of that as anything else.

Ferguson, I think, suffers from the same underlying problem as the 'Republic of Mancunia' axis; like them, he has continued to regard an affinity to American pop culture (and thus Sky) and antipathy to "official" British culture (and thus the BBC) as somehow rebellious, unorthodox and anti-establishment, even as it has become so embedded in elite institutions that Etonian Tories use it to justify their claims to be more "of the people" than Labour (you cannot help fearing that some of the "Manc Attitude" diehards really do believe that Cameron and his acolytes feel more personal and spiritual affinity to the BBC than to Sky). As with so many of his generation, so anxious is he to distance himself from the squalor and deprivation of his early years in his current job that he views any criticism of the economic state he has benefited from so spectacularly - while pretending to be somehow above it, not fully part of it - as an attempt to drag the game back to Heysel and Bradford, and himself back to the slums of post-war Glasgow, a simplistic view of modern history which exists to close down any serious argument and debate before it has even begun.

Far from representing any kind of challenge to the orthodoxies of the modern game, he is thus their ultimate embodiment, the epitome of the false, either-or dichotomies and the one-way Journey as if there had never been another option. Trapped within the dicta of capitalist realism even as he pretends to be uneasy with them, he epitomises the dilemma of so many British people with post-war, pre-Beatles childhoods, now steadily retiring from the public stage but leaving a legacy which continues to define their successors as assuredly as it will, eventually, define his. Nobody else could be a more fitting bridge between the old game and the new, and precisely for that reason nobody else could have had that level of success. And precisely for both those reasons, nobody else poses deeper long-term problems.

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