I’ve always had an instinctive rule of thumb about how to react to situations when other people experience death, ill-health or misfortune. Life is a challenge and we all carry too many of our own burdens to shoulder pain for those distant from us. Thus, if a person dies or has a traumatic life experience I’ve rarely been impacted unless I know that person well or at the very least have inhabited the same circles. Social media informs us of death and destruction on a daily basis and whilst much of it makes me sad, it doesn’t gnaw at my soul. So when Princess Diana, Michael Jackson, Amy Winehouse and many other notable humans died I couldn’t really relate to the outpouring of emotion from some quarters. Each to their own, but it wasn’t for me.
My rule has been tested and has evolved since I’ve been blessed by the births of my daughters. I’m now deeply impacted by the death and suffering of children and feel a great deal of sadness when I hear that a father or mother has died leaving young kids. Perhaps my greatest fear in life is not being here to help and support my own before they are physically and emotionally strong and independent. I cannot bear the thought of children experiencing harm and found myself unexpectedly blubbing my way through the One Love Manchester concert.
However, I’ve only, I think, ever felt the sort of fear or grief that grabs hold of your insides and twists them three times in my life, when each of my maternal grandparents died and when my dad had a heart-attack five years ago. You don’t forget that moment when you hear the news and your soul feels like it has frozen over.
Or rather I HAD only experienced that sensation three times, until Saturday evening when the news broke that Sir Alex Ferguson had experienced a brain haemorrhage and was in a grave condition post-op at Salford Royal. My response took me by surprise, because I’m not overly sentimental, have never met the great man and can’t profess to know him on a personal level at all. I can’t write the sort of high quality, experience-rich ode to Fergie that the always brilliant Daniel Taylor produced for The Guardian on Sunday, or the stories of friendship or caring from those who inhabit his world or who have temporarily passed through it at one time or another.
To be honest my reaction initially vexed me. How could I involuntarily respond inside in much the same way as I did after my own dad’s brush with his own mortality? One is my parent after all, the other a relative stranger. My dad has always been a straight-laced school master type who rarely shows affection and, as far as I can remember, has never told me he loves me, but he’s also shown that he does in myriad practical ways. He’s my dad. Perhaps I should have fallen apart more when he fell ill? What does it say about me that I didn’t? How should I have instinctively responded inside?
This initial reaction unnerved me, but the more I thought about Saturday’s news and my own response the more it began to make sense. In some ways I’ve had a tricky life, experiencing health issues from my early twenties that have at times deeply impacted on my sense of well-being. There have been some dark times, but also many happy ones. My constant throughout, apart from the support of my family and closest friends, has been football and Manchester United. I started supporting the club in the early eighties when Ron Atkinson was manager and the odd FA Cup was the pinnacle of the club’s achievement, not to be sniffed at, but being so distant from the First Division title was a frustrating experience. Then came Sir Alex and, eventually, everything changed. After some teething troubles at a highly dysfunctional club he made the dreams of a young-adult come true, just at that sweet spot in my life when football, girls, beer and music collided. The timing was a thing of beauty.
And I caught the wave and rode it, through the good times and the bad. Almost every event and occurrence in my life is ordered in my mind by the football of the time and I can recall where I was and what I was doing during virtually every notable match (and an awful lot of irrelevant ones) for the last 30+ years. I can remember carrying a huge battery-powered radio with me on my paper-round, the aerial extended about three feet into the air, to listen to United’s ultimately glorious European Cup Winners’ Cup run in 1990/91, or the Charity Shield the previous August that was played the same day that my Grandad died. That was the season that I first felt that United had a team I could really be proud of. I recall the look on Sir Matt Busby’s face as he witnessed Fergie’s side finally lifting the Premier League trophy in 1993, and when my drunken Liverpool supporting University flat mate fuzzed his chair through a giant window pane after King Eric scored the winner in the FA Cup Final at Wembley. That was a long, glorious and slightly hazy day and night.
The memories go on forever, from watching United finally win the Champions League/European Cup in 1999 from my sick bed to the repeat in 2008 which remains one of the best and most epically drunken nights I can ever recall. The day my first daughter was born Paul Scholes and Darren Fletcher were sent off in a 2-0 defeat at Fulham. It was the best day of my life, but a small corner of my brain was also hosting a sliver of disappointment. Then there was the time that I watched United beat Liverpool 3-0 with friends in Walkabout in Birmingham (the match when Javier Mascherano was sent off), got hideously drunk into the evening and in my euphoria totally dismissed my best-mates claims that he wasn’t feeling well. It turned out that he had deep vein thrombosis, spent weeks in hospital and was fortunate to survive. Bitter-sweet day that.
The point of this ramble down memory lane is to demonstrate that almost my entire adult life has been viewed through the prism of Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United and has been made immeasurably better by it. Aside from the birth of my two daughters the greatest days and nights of my life were the product of the football, the architect of which was arguably the finest coach ever involved in sport. He made it all possible just when I was best placed to immerse myself in the experience. Managers have and will come and go at United post-Fergie, but they will only be transient, caretakers of the institution that is his legacy. The modern-day club is Sir Alex and Sir Alex is the club.
As I pondered my reaction to his plight on Saturday night it dawned on me that after my mum and my children, no human being has had as deep, meaningful and positive influence on the course of my life than the great man. He has dragged me through dark times, made the good ones even better and created memories which will live with me forever. In that context, the knots that still inhabit my insides are entirely understandable.
Having experienced my fair share of ill-health I cringe a little at the clichéd comments about battling and fighting in his current predicament. Strength of character is of little help when the body is struggling, but all we can do is hope that Sir Alex pulls though. It is the wider world’s reaction to events like this that tell us most about the character of a man or woman and the messages he and his family have received from clubs, coaches, players, supporters, friends, journalists and all sections of society demonstrate the extent to which he is admired and respected. As I write this he has just been taken out of intensive care after an operation that was described in United’s official statement as having gone well. There is cautious optimism and he and Cathy deserve many more years in retirement together. I’m not ready for him to leave us either. I doubt I ever will be.