Senior staff of Manchester United knew weeks before. Mid-ranking staff knew the Sunday before, but somehow the news that Alex Ferguson was going to retire in May, 2013 didn’t leak.
Ferguson had made his decision the previous December after his wife’s sister passed away. He’d promised to retire before and almost did in 2002 before his wife changed his mind. But this time it was for real.
His floored reaction after the defeat to Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid in his final European game was an indication to some that he took it so badly because he knew it would be his last shot at a third Champions League. Ferguson didn’t face the media that night; Mourinho poured out the plaudits for his opponent and his side as if it was an elegy.
The Premier League was Ferguson’s priority for 2012-13, but United were being judged increasingly by what they did in Europe, because achievements in Europe are the yardstick for the greatest teams.
On Sunday, May 5, Ferguson wrote in his programme notes before a dull defeat at home to Chelsea: “This team of champions is not going to go away – we are here for the long ride! We will get better and if we apply ourselves in our normal fashion I see our 20th league title as nothing but the start of another decade of success.
“Whether I will be here to oversee another ten years remains to be seen, but I certainly don’t have any plans at the moment to walk away from what I believe will be something special and worth being around for all to see.”
But there was a possible caveat.
“It’s always difficult in football to be absolutely sure of the future because the game has a habit of tripping you up, but I don’t live in a fantasy world.”
A mere two days later, by the afternoon of Tuesday, May 7, some journalists had the story. This would be the calm before the storm when the huge news broke that football’s greatest manager was retiring after 39 years in football management, 27 of them with United. He’d won one title with St Mirren in his native Scotland and 12 trophies with Aberdeen, including the 1983 Cup Winners’ Cup after victory over Real Madrid.
Ferguson’s United sides won 37 trophies including 13 Premier League titles and two European Cups. England’s biggest club had not been English champions in the 19 years before he’d arrived.
Ferguson won too many individual awards to list, four freedoms of cities and more degrees than a thermometer. He was 71 in May 2013, six years beyond the then standard retirement age. He hoped to go out on his terms and he did from a football perspective with another Premier League title, but he couldn’t control the announcements.
He was was irked that the news slipped out before he’d had chance to tell his players face-to-face. He wanted to know how it had got out, but he later wrote to some journalists saying it was nothing personal and he knew they were doing their job.
Under a leaden Mancunian sky television camera crews gathered outside Old Trafford from 6am on Wednesday, May 8, 2013. A lone runner ran past one and shouted melodramatically “The King is dead, long live the King!” The news, confirmed by the club in an 9.30am announcement, would make global headlines and elicit responses from heads of state and football royalty.
Ferguson was on his way to Carrington and his team of champions United were preparing for Swansea at home, the penultimate league game of the season.
The Scot gathered his players on the morning of that Wednesday and told them after training. Most players left soon after to digest the news, others hung around. Those who did saw new manager David Moyes with Ferguson that afternoon in the Carrington canteen.
Ferguson departed and later said that he’d told his players: “I hope I haven’t let some of you down, because you may have joined thinking I would stay’. We had told Robin van Persie and Shinji Kagawa, for example, that I would not be retiring any time soon.”
Kagawa told me last month: “It was his decision, he told us to our face and I respected it. Genuinely. I was a little sad because he had worked for so many years. I wanted to work with him for more years, but everyone has to stop sometimes.”
Other players saw it differently.
“I was shocked,” said full-back Rafael, whose United career would never be the same post-Ferguson. “I’d just had my best season, I wanted to stay at that level for five years or more under the best manager in the world, a man who liked me.
“He’d always said that he wanted to keep going, then from nowhere he said that he was going to retire. It was a surprise and it was hard.
“And probably harder for other players like Van Persie who signed to play for him and he left a year later, but he had to go sometime and he left as a champion.”
Most moved on with happy memories of their former boss. Ferguson was around until the end of the season, then he said his goodbyes. He told his players that he wouldn’t see them around for a while because he didn’t want to come back and be seen to undermine his successor.
He didn’t want the accusations levelled at Sir Matt Busby after that great stepped down to be aimed at him. He carried on going to United games in his role as a club director and ambassador, but didn’t go back to the training ground as he does now where he is welcomed by Solskjaer.
And that was it. United haven’t been close to being champions of England since. Some acts seem just so hard to follow.