Why Sir Alex Ferguson is the greatest survivor

Berlin were at number one with the theme to Top Gun when Sir Alex Ferguson took charge of Manchester United in November 1986, but a more appropriate cinematic reference from the autumn of that year is Highlander  - the story of an ageless Scottish warrior whose feats transcend time.

Ferguson's kind of magic is his ability to win trophies - and his haul of silverware and his longevity at Old Trafford are undoubtedly related.

But, putting to one side his repeated successes, the fact he has lasted 25 years as United manager is an unprecedented achievement at any level in the professional game in the modern era in England, let alone the very highest.

There are 13 managers above him in the long-serving list  in this country but all of them began their tenures more than 100 years ago and cannot be fairly compared.

Unless, like Highlander's Connor MacLeod, Ferguson really IS immortal, he is unlikely to outlast Fred Everiss, who spent 46 years as manager of West Bromwich Albion from 1902, for example.

But, back then, management was more of an administrative role than the delicate mix of tactical nous, mind games, media and man-management plus financial acumen that it is now.

I'm the manager of the biggest club in the world... but I am not intimidated by the size of the job I have taken on. I can and will cope

Sir Alex Ferguson speaking after taking charge of United in 1986

It has become a cut-throat business too. Since its formation in 1992, the average time spent in situ by Premier League managers is 4.09 seasons and, in the entire Football League, that drops to 2.14 seasons in the same period.

According to the League Managers' Association (LMA), a body Ferguson helped form almost 20 years ago, 1,052 managers in the English game have been sacked, resigned or left by mutual consent since he was appointed to replace Ron Atkinson on 6 November 1986.

Of the 22 other men (John Sillett and George Curtis shared duties at Coventry) who were then in charge of teams in what was known as the Today League Division One, only Kenny Dalglish remains in top-flight management.

Dalglish is, of course, back at Anfield after his decade-long sabbatical from the game but he has spent fewer than 11 of the last 25 years in management.

So just how and why has Ferguson stuck around for so long? There are many factors but Howard Wilkinson - his sparring partner at Sheffield Wednesday and Leeds in the 1980s and 90s, and long-term colleague on the LMA board - feels the most important is that management is in his DNA. It has to be.

"If you look at the ideal profile for success in this profession these days then Alex has all of those qualities," Wilkinson told BBC Sport.

FERGUSON'S UNITED REIGN IN NUMBERS

  • 1,409 games
  • 836 wins
  • 326 draws
  • 247 defeats
  • 2,579 goals scored
  • 1,262 conceded

"He has a consuming desire to be better and better and he is obsessed by the subject of football. He has a thirst for knowledge and he baulks at all of the advice concerning a balanced lifestyle - it's 24/7 as far as he is concerned and a way of life. Management is what he is, not what he does.

"But he is not a one-trick pony, which is one of his strengths. He is a very well-read, well educated person who will have discussions with you about subjects that would amaze people. And don't even think about taking him on in a quiz!"

Another member of the class of 1986, Jim Smith, would go on to become one of Ferguson's closest friends. The then-QPR boss feels United are as important to him as he became to the club.

Smith has worked at nine clubs during his 39 years in management. He said: "The key to him staying at Old Trafford is his hunger and desire to be the best and work in the environment he loves.

"He is a super humble guy. He realises the value of the job he is in and he works very hard to keep it.

"You always have an incentive when you move clubs, because you either move because you have been sacked and you want to prove people wrong, or you move because you have been successful and you want to kick on. Alex has had that determination while walking through the same doors for 25 years. It's the biggest club in the world, which makes a difference, but it is still incredible."

In 1986-87...

  • Kenny Dalglish's Liverpool side were trophy-less after winning the Double the previous season
  • Roy Hodgson guided Malmo to the first of five Allsvenskan league titles in Sweden
  • Arsene Wenger was relegated from Ligue 1 with AS Nancy
  • Harry Redknapp took Bournemouth into Division Two for the first time
  • Neil Warnock won promotion to the Football League with Scarborough

A quarter of a century ago, aside from Ferguson and Dalglish, just four other managers currently at Premier League clubs had even embarked on a career in the dugout - Arsene Wenger at AS Nancy, Roy Hodgson with Malmo, Harry Redknapp at Bournemouth and Neil Warnock at Scarborough.

Hodgson has changed jobs 14 times in the same period, Warnock nine. Redknapp has moved five times and even Wenger and Dalglish have been at three other clubs.

Significantly, only Ferguson has not spent even a single day out of football in all that time.

"Alex has a great determination to win football matches but he has energy too and that is a magical thing," said David Pleat, who in 1986 was also a highly rated young coach who had just taken over at Tottenham and would himself enjoy a managerial career spanning 33 years.

"To have that energy he has to pace himself. I am quite sure he will have cat-naps from time to time at this stage in his life but he comes out fighting again. It is a treadmill but sometimes people thrive on that type of intensity and I think he is a classic case."

Undoubtedly, those demands have increased as the football landscape has developed. It is unrecognisable now from 1986-87, when Dave Bassett steered tiny Wimbledon to sixth place in the Dons' first season in the top flight.

PHIL MCNULTY'S BLOG

Ferguson may be a divisive figure to some without a strong allegiance to Old Trafford, but even those who temper their admiration for the Scot cannot contest his right to be regarded among the finest managers football has known

"Alex has admitted himself his job is different now," Bassett told BBC Sport. "The game is the same - pitches and the nets are the same size and 50% of goals are still scored from set-plays - but a manager has a lot more to do, from the explosion of interest in the media to dealing with agents, plus the changing profile of players and international owners.

"He has adapted but he has also delegated to people who have got the same values as him. He trusts them to do some of the jobs for him and he has selected very well."

How long will Ferguson, who turns 70 on 31 December, continue for? Who knows. Only last year he said "retirement is for young people"  and Wilkinson, the LMA chairman, can see him carrying on for a while yet.

"I don't know whether switching off is an alternative for him," Wilkinson said. "I'm sure, if and when he does step down, he won't retire in the sense of going from something to nothing. He will do something else."

FERGUSON'S CONTEMPORARIES IN 1986 AND HOW HE OUTLASTED THEM ALL:

George Graham

GEORGE GRAHAM (ARSENAL) Age now: 66

Left: February 1995 after eight years, 11 months

Last manager's job: Tottenham in 2001

Fergie fact: Graham gave Ferguson a copy of his Arsenal contract to help him with his negotiations with United chairman Martin Edwards.

Number of permanent Gunners managers since Ferguson appointed: three

Billy McNeill

BILLY McNEILL (ASTON VILLA) Age now: 71

Left: May 1987 after eight months

Last manager's job: Hibs (caretaker) in 1998

Fergie fact: Left Man City in September 1986 to replace Graham Turner, who was the last top-flight manager to be sacked before Ron Atkinson left United.

Number of Villa managers since Ferguson appointed: 12 (Including two spells by Graham Taylor)

Lennie Lawrence

LENNIE LAWRENCE (CHARLTON) Age now: 63

Left: July 1991 after nine years, eight months

Last manager's job: Cardiff City in 2005

Number of Addicks managers since Ferguson appointed: seven

John Hollins

JOHN HOLLINS (CHELSEA) Age now: 65

Left: March 1988 after two years, eight months

Last manager's job: Weymouth in 2008

Number of Blues managers since Ferguson appointed: 12

George Curtis
John Sillett

GEORGE CURTIS & JOHN SILLETT (COVENTRY) Now: 72 & 75

Left: Curtis in May 1987 after one year and Sillett in November 1990 after four years and six months

Last manager's job: Curtis with Coventry in 1987, Sillett with Hereford in 1992

Number of Sky Blues managers since Ferguson appointed: 17

Howard Kendall

HOWARD KENDALL (EVERTON) Age now: 65

Left: May 1987 after five years, eight months

Last manager's job: Ethnikos Piraeus (Greece) in 1999

Fergie fact: Kendall was manager of the year in 1986-87 after steering Everton to their second title in three seasons.

Number of Toffees managers since Ferguson appointed: nine (Including two more spells by Kendall)

Gordon Milne

GORDON MILNE (LEICESTER) Age now: 74

Left: May 1987 after four years, 10 months

Last manager's job: Trabzonspor (Turkey) in 1999

Number of Foxes managers since Ferguson appointed: 18

Kenny Dalglish

KENNY DALGLISH (LIVERPOOL) Age now: 60

Left: February 1991 after five years, eight months

Last manager's job: Returned to Liverpool in January 2011

Number of Reds managers since Ferguson appointed: eight (Including both Dalglish spells)

David Moore

JOHN MOORE (LUTON TOWN) Age now: 67

Left: June 1987 after one year

Last manager's job: Luton 1987

Number of Hatters managers since Ferguson appointed: 14

Picture of John Moore courtesy of Luton Town FC

Jimmy Frizzell

JIMMY FRIZZELL (MAN CITY) Age now: 74

Left: May 1987 after eight months

Last manager's job: Man City in 1987

Number of City managers since Ferguson appointed: 14

Picture of Jimmy Frizzell courtesy of Oldham Athletic FC

Willie McFaul

WILLIE McFAUL (NEWCASTLE UTD) Age now: 68

Left: October 1988 after three years, one month

Last manager's job: Guam in 2004

Number of Magpies managers since Ferguson appointed: 15 (including two spells by Kevin Keegan)

Ken Brown

KEN BROWN (NORWICH) Age now: 77

Left: November 1987 after seven years

Last manager's job: Plymouth in 1990

Number of Canaries managers since Ferguson appointed: 13 (Including two spells by Mike Walker)

Brian Clough

BRIAN CLOUGH (NOTT'M FOREST) Died aged 69 in Sep 2004

Left: May 1993 after 18 years, four months

Last manager's job: Forest 1993

Fergie fact: Clough's team were two points clear of Arsenal at the top of the league when Ferguson took charge. They eventually finished eighth.

Number of Forest managers since Ferguson appointed: 11

Maurice Evans

MAURICE EVANS (OXFORD UTD) Died aged 63 in August 2000

Left: March 1988 after two years, 10 months

Last manager's job: Oxford Utd (caretaker) in 1993

Fergie fact: Beat United in Ferguson's first game in charge of the Old Trafford club. Ferguson said afterwards: "If I'd been choosing where to make a start, the Manor Ground would probably be bottom of the list."

Number of Us managers since Ferguson appointed: 16 (including two spells by Denis Smith and another for Jim Smith)

Jim Smith

JIM SMITH (QPR) Age now: 70

Left: December 1988 after three years, four months

Last manager's job: Oxford Utd (caretaker) in 2008

Fergie fact: Ferguson's first win as United boss came in his third game, against QPR. Smith first met him in a hotel the night before that match. "I'd gone to the bar to meet Ron Atkinson before he flew off to Spain after getting the sack and Alex was having his dinner in the next room. I was looking round the door to see where Alex was because I was worried what would happen if they met."

Number of QPR managers since Ferguson appointed: 16

Howard Wilkinson

HOWARD WILKINSON (SHEFF WED) Age now: 67

Left: October 1988 after five years, three months

Last manager's job: Shanghai Shenhua (China) in 2004

Fergie fact: Along with Ferguson, "Sgt Wilko" was a founding member of the League Managers Association in 1992.

Number of Owls managers since Ferguson appointed: 15

Chris Nicholl

CHRIS NICHOLL (SOUTHAMPTON) Age now: 65

Left: May 1991 after five years, 10 months

Last manager's job: Walsall in 1997

Fergie fact: Southampton's 4-1 League Cup victory over Manchester United on 4 November led to then manager Ron Atkinson being sacked and Ferguson taking over as his replacement.

Number of Saints managers since Ferguson appointed: 19

Picture of Chris Nicholl courtesy of Walsall FC/David Linney Photography

David Pleat

DAVID PLEAT (TOTTENHAM) Age now: 66

Left: November 1987 after one year, four months

Last manager's job: Tottenham (caretaker) in 2004

Fergie fact: Pleat first met Ferguson on a trip to Euro 84 in France. "There were a few older managers there but Alex was the most impressive," Pleat said. "He knew the most about history and wine and was prepared to speak about religion. Also, he had class. While we were in France, he went out and bought a very expensive and beautiful white dinner jacket."

Number of Spurs managers since Ferguson appointed: 13

Graham Taylor

GRAHAM TAYLOR (WATFORD) Age now: 67

Left: May 1987 after 10 years

Last manager's job: Aston Villa in 2003

Fergie fact: Taylor's appointment as Aston Villa boss in May 1987 by "Deadly" Doug Ellis was the first top-flight managerial change after Ferguson's appointment at United.

Number of Hornets managers since Ferguson appointed: 16 (including two more spells by Taylor)

John Lyall

JOHN LYALL (WEST HAM) Died aged 66 in April 2006

Left: June 1989 after 14 years, 10 months

Last manager's job: Ipswich in 1994

Fergie fact: Lyall was the longest-serving Division One manager when Ferguson was appointed.

Number of Hammers managers since Ferguson appointed: 10

Dave Bassett

DAVE BASSETT (WIMBLEDON) Age now: 67

Left: June 1987 after six years, four months

Last manager's job: Southampton (caretaker) in 2005

Fergie fact: Bassett first met Ferguson in March 1986 when the then-Aberdeen boss came to London to watch IFK Gothenburg play a friendly with Wimbledon ahead of his side's European Cup quarter-final with the Swedes. IFK lost 7-2 to Wimbledon but beat Aberdeen on away goals.

Number of Wimbledon managers since Ferguson appointed: eight (up until August 2004, then six more as MK Dons)