x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Liverpool fan's grudging respect for Sir Alex Ferguson's contribution to Manchester United

Personally, I'll be sad to see Ferguson go. He didn't just knock Liverpool off the perch; he tarred and feathered us, too.

Sir Alex Ferguson wanted Liverpool off their perch as No 1 team in the late 80s and managed to do so. Michael Regan / Getty Images
Sir Alex Ferguson wanted Liverpool off their perch as No 1 team in the late 80s and managed to do so. Michael Regan / Getty Images

If you have a cable connection - legal or otherwise - this is an amazing time to be a football fan in India. Over the course of a weekend, you can follow league action in England, Spain, Italy, Germany and France.

In midweek, you can tune in to the Uefa Champions League and the Europa League. In theory, it's possible to get through a week doing little other than watching football.

It wasn't always so. In the early 1980s, Indian TV meant one terrestrial channel. Unless you lived in the big cities, you had no access to events like the football World Cup. That began to change in 1986.

The TV signals started to reach India's interior and many more millions got to see what transpired in Mexico.

No football tournament before or since has made such an impact, perhaps because the Diego Maradona story - street-urchin type overcoming tremendous odds almost single-handedly, aided by the odd sleight of hand - was straight out of a Bollywood studio.

Something else happened later that year, though it barely registered in India at the time.

Back then, coverage of English football meant a few column inches every year, usually dedicated to the FA Cup final or the final matches of the league season. The Premier League was still years away and apart from disasters like Bradford and Hillsborough, English football just wasn't considered newsworthy.

Sir Alex Ferguson's breakthrough years coincided with the time when both India's economy and airwaves were opening up.

By the time he won his second double, in 1996, beating Liverpool at Wembley, cable TV was the norm rather than the exception in most urban middle-class dwellings. By that season, ESPN had started showing Premier League games regularly, though there was nothing like the blanket coverage you get now.

Over the coming decade, millions of fans, old and young, hitched their wagons to the Manchester United stars.

More than Ferguson, who stayed in the job for 27 years, it was his "Fledgling" side that was responsible. By the late 1990s, you couldn't walk down a busy city street in India without bumping into at least one teenager trying to imitate David Beckham's latest hairstyle.

Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs may have been far better footballers, but it was Beckham who established United as by far India's most-popular football team.

It is not that the club was unknown before that. My parents' generation knew of United largely because of the Munich air crash and the subsequent phoenix-like resurrection. That old and tiny core of fans remained, but the vast majority were drawn in by the Beckham image rather the history of the Busby years.

Over the years, there have been other flavours of the season.

Arsene Wenger's early successes made Arsenal fans of many, while Chelsea and Jose Mourinho's nautanki - a form of theatre that used to be hugely popular in northern India - made believers of thousands who perhaps didn't fancy the colour red.

As for my team, Liverpool, the glory-hunters clambered on board right after Istanbul. You can see the odd Tottenham Hotspur shirt, too, these days, but the United red still rules, and with a significant majority.

Personally, I'll be sad to see Ferguson go. He didn't just knock Liverpool off the perch; he tarred and feathered us, too.

While some were resentful, others recognised and appreciated what he had done. He was old-school, and represented a tradition that should not be allowed to die.

You can keep your Special Ones and Chosen Ones. Ferguson was the closest to the spirit of Bill Shankly.

Coming from a Liverpool fan, there is no greater praise.

sports@thenational.ae

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