The Gaffer: How Alex Ferguson Became The Premier League's Largest Legend

​To mark twenty-five years of Esquire, we recall twenty-five men who have shaped the country since we first went to print. ​Here, David Goldblatt looks back on the most successful figure our national obsession has ever produced

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In British popular culture of the last quarter of a century, football has been king. There have been pretenders to the throne. For a moment the London Olympics usurped it. Fashion, food, computer games, festivals, reality TV and the sorry parade of celebrity culture have consumed us, but there is nothing to compare to football: more punters than the Church of England, more ecstatic crowds than Glastonbury, bigger TV audiences than the royal wedding, more media space than all the soap operas put together. It has a cast of thousands but nobody has lasted longer, won more or generated bigger headlines than Sir Alex Ferguson.

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In an era when the average tenure of a Premier League manager is less than two years, his 26-year stint at Manchester United speaks for itself. Since 1991, five years after he joined the Red Devils from Aberdeen, his teams won 13 Premier League titles, four FA Cups, four League Cups, the UEFA Champions League twice, an Intercontinental and a FIFA Club World Cup and nine Community Shields. League title number 12 for Ferguson made it 19 for Manchester United in total and Liverpool, with 18 championships, were duly "knocked off their fucking perch". The 1999 Champions League win finally put to bed the ghosts of Sir Matt Busby and the 1968 European Cup winners. Winning it again in 2008 made his position within United's mythological hierarchy unassailable. At their best, his teams played high-tempo, attacking football with a swagger and self-confidence that delivered extraordinary last-minute goals and victories.

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He was immortalised long before his departure from football. Three autobiographies and innumerable biographies and profiles have long been constructing his mythic history and ascent. The English language has made a place for him. The Oxford English Dictionary, quoting Ferguson on the last stretch of the 2003 title race, defines "squeaky-bum time" as "the tense final stages of a league competition, especially from the point of view of the leaders". In the lexicon of football we have had eponymous great players — the "Cruyff turn" and "Fritz Walter weather" — but no coach had been similarly recognised till "Fergie time" was coined: the extraordinary capacity when United needed it most, for additional time to stretch out.

Herbert Chapman's bust sat for decades in the marble halls of Highbury, but like all the older generation of football managers — Stan Cullis, Brian Clough, Bill Shankly — they had to die before they were publicly commemorated. Ferguson, very much alive, has already been cast in bronze by "royal sculptor" Philip Jackson. In this regard, his only peer is Bobby Robson, commemorated at Ipswich before his death in 2009. Both were knighted, joining Sir Alf Ramsey and Sir Matt Busby as the only other football managers so honoured.

The fate of Manchester United since his retirement in 2013 has confirmed Ferguson's stature. In a parallel of life after Busby, United have been, by their standards, poor to calamitous. Anointed successor David Moyes proved to be Fergie-lite. Louis van Gaal's joyless Dutch technocracy was marginally more successful but failed to match a shadow of the bravado and sporting showmanship of Ferguson's years. Whether José Mourinho can do any better remains to be seen.

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Although a regular presence in Old Trafford's directors' box, Ferguson has found more time for politics. Long a confidant of the inner circle of New Labour, and a generous donor to the party, he was an important voice in the "No" campaign during the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. The authentic voice of Scots who'd gone south to make their careers without ever abandoning their identity and allegiance to Scotland, he sparred with nationalist leader Alex Salmond over their exclusion from the referendum electorate and appeared in key adverts and appeals for the "remainers".

Perhaps his most noticeable new venture has been his appointment at Harvard Business School; a sinecure that other New Labour luminaries like Eds Miliband and Balls, have taken up. Here, academics mined Ferguson for his method, yielding scholarly articles and the manual, Leading. While there is much of passing interest in these, to my eye they miss what is important about Ferguson, and why he is, if not always loved, so venerated. The clue is in one of his conversations, completely unremarked upon by the Boston Brahmins: "It's a working-class thing." More precisely, it's a Scottish working-class thing.

"When the wind's howling down the Clyde, that's what forges your character." Born in 1941 in Govan, once the shipbuilding heart of Glasgow, Ferguson is the son of a shipyard timekeeper, a child of the old working classes of the Great Depression. Raised in a tenement without running hot water or a bathroom, he knew manual work as an apprentice toolmaker and fiery shop steward before getting his football break at St Johnston. Between finishing as a player and managing full time at St Mirren, he ran an equally fiery pub. Although he would go on to earn a small fortune, move in circles more august than any of his footballing predecessors or contemporaries, his inner circle has always been drawn from his Govan days. Self-educated and sharp-minded, he became a voracious reader but his speech barely shifted. Responding to media criticism of Juan Sebastián Verón he remarked, "On you go. I'm no' fucking talking to you. He's a fucking great player. Yous are fucking idiots."

Above all Ferguson created a football club that really was a collective project, in which the common good trumped any ego or private interest, in which solidarity and mutual respect really did translate into the extraordinary team power of United's finest performances. Neither democrat nor saint, he combined theatrical authoritarianism in the dressing room with public contempt for officials, but it was his charisma, human touch, wit and will forged in the central belt of Scotland that truly catalysed these teams.

Football is a social democratic game in a neo-liberal world. Hyper commercialised, privatised, gentrified and sold by the pound, its demeanour and icons remain resolutely working class. Its players still get wages, the manager is still the gaffer, its clubs still reflect the geography of Victorian England. Our collective obsession with a game that seemed destined for the scrap heap in the Eighties is the long goodbye to the industrial working-class Britain that forged it. Ferguson's rise is an echo of those times. Of settled and supportive community, of a still united kingdom, of the possibility of real social mobility without the middle-class vault of higher education, of rising to the top but staying true to where you came from. His departure and the futile wait for a British successor of such a calibre suggests that however much we scrutinise his words, the conditions and the culture that moulded him have gone. We are all the poorer for it.