Football without Alex Ferguson? Like Britain without the queen or gin without tonic, it seems almost unthinkable.
Yet that will be the reality from Sunday when British football's most successful manager walks away after his 1,500th and final match in charge of Manchester United. Surely, the only ones not feeling twinges of sadness will be those bits of gum Ferguson chewed to death during games and his die-hard haters who looked on enviously as this most driven of men turned United into England's dominant club, eclipsing Liverpool, and becoming a global sporting force.
It would be a stretch to argue that it will take 26 years to stop feeling nostalgic about Ferguson's 26 years at United. But nor can the mourning be quick. Nostalgia can be dangerous. It could make us gloss over, perhaps even forgive, those many times when Ferguson was simply unpleasant, bullying referees and spitting venom at journalists. But, often, you also don't properly value what you have until it is gone. That will be true of Ferguson.
Here are 10 reasons — to name just a few — why Ferguson's absence in the Red Devils' dugout will be sorely felt next season.
1. BECAUSE HE IS A MISERABLE SO-AND-SO. His moodiness made him so interesting. One could never be sure which Ferguson you'd see: the kindly, wise-cracking fatherly figure with an infectious laugh? Or the hair-trigger temper itching for confrontation? Ferguson's bluntness — for instance, calling Real Madrid "that mob" and saying "I wouldn't sell them a virus" — was like cool water for parched throats in a business whose stars so often say nothing of interest. His Jekyll and Hyde personality made Ferguson a bio-pic waiting to be filmed. Anthony Hopkins might be good as Ferguson, because he does charming and terrifying so well. Now, without Ferguson setting the tone, will other managers become less inclined to also speak their minds?
2. FOR HIS JOY. Even into his seventies, Ferguson celebrated goals and victories with the pure, unadulterated, bounce-up-and-down excitement of a kid. Ferguson hugging whoever he could, thrusting his fists skyward and beaming a million-watt smile is one of football's great sights. He wasn't triumphalist, sliding theatrically on his knees like Jose Mourinho. Unlike some cold-fish managers, Ferguson didn't simply react to goals by scribbling a few words in a notebook.
3. FOR "FOOTBALL, BLOODY HELL." Why is this sport so engrossing? Because outcomes are never guaranteed. United pulled off one of the most dramatic comebacks ever, in any sport, when it scored twice in two minutes of injury time to defeat Bayern Munich 2-1 in the Champions League final in 1999. Ferguson's breathless, immortal "football, bloody hell!" perfectly summed up the feat and the sport's addictive "wow" factor.
4. FOR GIVING VENT TO THE GENIUS OF ERIC CANTONA. Oh, ah, Cantona. A legend whose gifts to Ferguson's United included not just goals and strutting, winning personality, but also possibly football's most memorable quote: "When the seagulls follow the trawler, it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea." Thanks, Sir Alex, for not dispatching Cantona off to exile in Siberia for spouting such delightful nonsense and, more seriously, for his lunacy of kung-fu kicking a fan. Would coaches today other than Ferguson have the man-management skills to be able to handle a Cantona-like player and recognize their value?
5. FOR NOT LETTING PLAYERS RULE THE ROOST. As players' salaries and celebrity went through the roof, Ferguson made sure they didn't also get all the power. Gordon Strachan recalled that when he played under Ferguson at Aberdeen, the manager made one of his footballers wear a balaclava in training because he ignored Ferguson's ban against players having their hair permed. Angrily kicking a boot at David Beckham, cutting him above the left eye after the midfielder and fashion icon swore at him in the United dressing room, was excessive of Ferguson. But at least he was consistent: With the possible exception of Cantona, Ferguson left no doubt that he was the boss of his multimillionaire players, not the other way around.
6. FOR 'FERGIE TIME.' The idea that no game is won or lost until it ends is now locked into United's DNA. Even under his successor, David Moyes, those extra minutes that Ferguson would huff, puff and pressure match officials to grant so his team could get the result he wanted will still be "Fergie time." "I love those last-minute goals," Ferguson said.
7. FOR BACKING YOUTH. "If they are good enough, they are old enough, no matter what the age," Ferguson said way back in his Aberdeen days, before taking over at United in 1986. A fine philosophy that brought much success. Like drilling players to never say die before the final whistle, Ferguson's policy of hot-housing, trusting and promoting young footballers is also now woven into United's fabric and business model and should survive long after his retirement.
8. FOR MAX LONSDALE. The 18-year-old, British media reported in 2011, had the audacity to go to Ferguson's house and ring his buzzer to tell him that he wanted to play for United. Instead of sending him packing, the manager let him in, told Lonsdale he showed "tremendous courage" by daring to come to Ferguson's house and rewarded him with a month-long trial at United, the Daily Mail reported. Nice. Even as he joined the rich and powerful and got a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II, the shipyard worker's son from Govan on Glasgow's edge never seemed to lose his common touch.
9. FOR HIS LOYALTY TO HIS WIFE, CATHY. Ferguson's United could be summed up in a word — silence. He ensured that much of what happened behind closed doors at the club stayed behind closed doors, including by banning journalists who reported things he wanted kept quiet or asked questions that riled him. Even in his last week as manager, Ferguson said "a part of my job is to keep us out of the news." But in explaining the reasons for his retirement at age 71, Ferguson was forthright. He suggested on live television that Cathy needed him at home after the death of her sister, Bridget. "She's isolated a lot now," he said. "She's lost her best friend." From a man so guarded professionally, this rang as a remarkable and touching declaration of affection and loyalty.
10. BECAUSE MOYES IS SO LIKE FERGUSON. In the transition from Ferguson to Moyes, much has been made of the two managers' similarities: both Scottish, both driven, both abrasive. But this could backfire on Moyes, because it will make comparisons easier and perhaps make Ferguson harder to forget. Moyes will risk looking like an ersatz version of Ferguson if he doesn't quickly start winning trophies at a decent rate. United perhaps would have been wiser to have first chosen a manager cut from completely different cloth from Ferguson for a few years before turning over the reins to his mini-me.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester