Sir Alex Ferguson has penned an insightful valedictory love letter to English football which will be published this week by the Premier League.
Ferguson stood down as Manchester United manager in May after 27 years and 13 Premier League titles, the announcement of his retirement unleashing 1.4 million related tweets in an hour.
From social media to stadia, marketing to merchandising, and cosmopolitan dressing-rooms to booming broadcasting revenues, the game has changed out of all recognition since Ferguson arrived south on Nov 6, 1986.
Ferguson helped to script the Premier League’s extraordinary headline-grabbing show from 92 onwards. The average gate at Old Trafford in 91-92 was 42,061; last season it was 75,530, a climb of 80 per cent.
Attendances across the elite division are now 66 per cent higher than in 91-92 (35,606 from 21,622). Reflecting the multinational make-up of modern football, Ferguson used 211 players from 33 countries (100 from England).
For all Ferguson’s passion for the Premier League, it needs stating that last season’s title race was one of the poorest, and that 1986 still saw players of the prolific class of Gary Lineker (before Barcelona called) and Clive Allen. Matt Le Tissier made his debut and Wolves paid West Brom £35,000 for a certain Steve Bull.
The playing talent, primarily British, was there but the game was undeniably scarred by hooliganism and substandard grounds while the post-Heysel European ban bred insularity.
“English football is in a much better place than it was 27 years ago,’’ Ferguson writes in his missive contained in the Premier League’s 64-page review of the 2012-13 season.
“Across the leagues, stadiums weren’t what they should have been, the development of players was nowhere near as advanced as it is now, those controlling the game couldn’t give the TV rights away, fans weren’t treated properly and what interest there was in football from Government was negative.”
Ferguson dismisses the old romantics.
“There are some with rose-tinted glasses who think football was great a generation ago, but nostalgia plays strange tricks with the mind.
"Back then, football’s role in the cultural make-up of the country was arguably in decline. It was a great shame.”
United “symbolised the transformation of the English game during the Premier League years’’, according to Ferguson. The self-styled Theatre of Dreams became a gleaming arena of trophies and revenue streams.
“The club’s commitment to investment at every level shines through. Top-class players, both purchased and developed; wonderful facilities at Old Trafford and Carrington for players and fans; community programmes that place us at the heart of the community locally and farther afield – the club has set a standard in the Premier League that others strive to better.
"Sometimes they manage to! Those challenges, season after season, spur the best on to be better.”
Those challenges emanated from, amongst others, Leeds United,Blackburn Rovers, Newcastle United, Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpooland Manchester City.
“Competition is healthy and it is what sets this league apart from others in Europe.
"The quality and entertainment of the football in the Premier League has increased year on year. It was always getting harder to go out and win the title, to find the right mix of players, youth, experience and attitude.
“After the trophies, both domestic and European, my proudest achievement is the culture of youth development that we created in the best traditions of Matt Busby’s vision for the club.
"Wonderful players like Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Gary Neville set the standard but there have been and will be plenty more. There has been a Manchester United Academy graduate in every one of my teams.”
United lifted last season’s Under-21 Premier League with eight players born within 21 miles of Old Trafford: two from Manchester, and one each from Bury, Rochdale, Oldham, Stockport, Macclesfield and Warrington. Not quite the Lisbon Lions but still impressive.
“This is the type of commitment to progressing home-grown players that the Elite Player Performance Plan will deliver.
"There are talented boys throughout this country and given the right training, environment and opportunity there is no reason why the whole English game can’t benefit from the hard work and investment of the clubs.”
Roy Hodgson will certainly hope so, although the key word of Ferguson’s is “opportunity”.
Will a manager under pressure really keep faith with a developing academy graduate in a first team desperately chasing points?
In his letter, Ferguson sent a message to United, applauding his players’ “never say die” attitude and thanking the supporters for the emotional farewell on the last day of the season at the Hawthorns and particularly before that in his final game at Old Trafford, “something neither I nor my family will ever forget”.
He also saluted rivals.
“The Premier League is known the world over for the passion and knowledge of its fans as well as the atmosphere in the grounds. Not just Old Trafford – the trips to Goodison, St James’, Anfield and White Hart Lane amongst others always produced fantastic support.
"It’s part of the history and tradition of the English game that drives its success today. I will miss all of it.”