The football world was stunned on Saturday evening when news was confirmed by Manchester United that Alex Ferguson had undergone emergency surgery for a brain haemorrhage.
“The procedure has gone well,” read a statement from the club he managed and revolutionised between 1986-2013, “but he needs a period of intensive care to optimise his recovery.”
Ferguson is being cared for in the neurological unit at Salford Royal hospital, one of the best in the United Kingdom. He had complained of feeling unwell since Thursday and an air ambulance attended his home on Saturday morning. He went first to Macclesfield hospital close to his home south west of Manchester, before being transferred to Salford. Located close to Old Trafford and the Cliff training ground where Ferguson spent so much of his time, it is known locally as Hope Hospital.
Fittingly, Ferguson’s treatment and recovery will be carried out near to the place where he masterminded the rebuilding of United. He transformed it from a club which had to pay AC Milan to attend a 1988 friendly at Old Trafford as fans were starved of glamour, to one which knocked Milan out of football’s grandest competition with United considered the most glamorous club on the planet.
Fans were shocked, in part because Ferguson, 76, has always appeared to be in rude health since he stepped down as United manager five years ago. People who know him have stressed how much he has been enjoying a varied life among family and friends. Only last Sunday, a beaming Ferguson presented an award to his long-time adversary Arsene Wenger on the Old Trafford pitch before Wenger’s final game in Manchester as Arsenal manager.
There is no shortage of demand for Ferguson’s professional services either and he maintains a full diary and an office staffed by his loyal secretary in Wilmslow, close to his home. He is a regular at horse racing meetings, has co-written two books, lectured internationally, attended the Oscars and watches the majority of United matches at Old Trafford, entertaining his guests in the directors’ box before and after games. He was spotted mingling with United fans a year ago in Stockholm before the team won the Europa League.
Careful not to offer public opinion on the mixed fortunes of the club he left as league champions, he keeps in contact with almost all of his former players, asking them how they and their teams are playing and how their families are doing. He sits on the football board of the club, where his influence is limited. Ferguson doesn’t want to be seen to overshadow the present incumbent and none of United’s four managers since he stepped down have considered him a threat, appreciating that Manchester United is what it is because Ferguson was given time not only to build a great team, but to build a great football club.
The Glaswegian’s bond to United remains strong. The children of players and staff who played and worked under him still receive birthday and Christmas presents from Ferguson and his wife Cathy. One player’s wife who was convinced that she used to receive flowers from him because he wanted her husband to stay playing for his team is stunned that the flowers never stopped on her birthday, long after her husband hung up his boots.
Ferguson also told his former left-back Patrice Evra, now at West Ham United, that his grandchildren guided him to watch his impression of Bob Marley on Instagram. The man who couldn’t abide social media when he was manager now embraces it. Ferguson read an interview online with the Brazilian midfielder Anderson in January and made contact with his former player, who adores him and saw him as a father figure as he lost his own aged 12. Ferguson’s affinity with Anderson was forged from the minute they met. When his new manager offered him his hand as he signed from Porto in 2007, the grateful teenager ignored it and gave him a big hug instead.
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Ferguson stepped down because he felt it unfair to his wife to continue in a job which obsessed him and swallowed up his time, especially after she lost her sister Bridget in the autumn of 2012. He dedicated his 2013 autobiography "To Bridget, Cathy’s sister, rock and best friend."
He was well aware of how his contemporaries in management never saw enough of their families; tellingly, he had seen his idol, Jock Stein, collapse and die after a game in 1985.
Ferguson earned his right to put his feet up and enjoy a retirement which started age 71. Amid countless messages of goodwill, not only from legends of the game, Aberdeen and United supporters, but fans around the world, including United’s greatest rivals, football wishes Britain’s most successful manager well and hopes to see him make a full recovery.