Pick up any newspaper over here in the UK and you could be forgiven for thinking that Sir Alex Ferguson had died, not retired. The outgoing Manchester United manager, hanging up his coat after 26 years in charge at Old Trafford, made front-page news in every one of the country's major newspapers on Thursday and five -- broadsheets and tabloids alike -- also printed souvenir supplements to mark the occasion.
With large monochrome photographs and solemn date stamps ("1986-2013"), these pages resemble nothing more than a royal obituary. The outpouring of grief has engulfed the news agenda. At this rate Ferguson can only be disappointed by the coverage when he does die, for it cannot possibly be so vast and appreciative.
"Fergie: the man who changed the game" said the Times' 12-page pullout; "The greatest" read the Telegraph's 16-pager, included in addition to six pages of coverage in the sports section; on the Guardian's, which runs to 20 pages, simply "Sir Alex." The first page showed a close-up shot of Ferguson pointing down the lens as if he is about to threaten some damage to the person wielding the camera, that familiar "Oi, you!" look. The whole of the front page of the Sun is given over to the news, with a red United-branded hairdryer hanging on a hook. Even the infamous page 3 model is shunted to page 9 to make way for reaction to Ferguson's departure, and Staci, 23, from Preston, says, "Fergie's legacy will live on for ever."
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The content of the column inches varied from paper to paper, but the Guardian's commemorative T-shirt (£19.99 plus postage) apart, nothing strays too far from a menu of lengthy and seemingly heartfelt eulogy, anecdotes from former players (and even referees), best and worst signings lists, Ferguson's best XI.
There are trophy timelines and stats rundowns. Top five bust-ups (David Beckham's bloodied eyebrow features strongly here). And the inevitable selection of quotes, from the famous quips -- is Gary Neville the milkman's? -- to the rather more beautiful. "He was 13 and just floated over the ground like a cocker spaniel chasing a piece of silver paper in the wind," he once said of Ryan Giggs.
Almost without exception those writers given the task of committing to paper the story of Ferguson turn to Glasgow as the root of his success, and to his ability to adapt as the cause of his longevity. Few have ignored Ferguson's darker side, but while some have him as a bully, others insist the long list of conflicts to punctuate his years at Old Trafford are the mark of a man fiercely intent on creating and sustaining United's success. All agree he was often a grumpy and cantankerous old man.
There is a huge amount of affection in these pieces, though, and nobody who has worked around him for any length of time has failed to stress his kindness and generosity, even if it sometimes surprised them. Overall we are as accustomed to seeing Ferguson leaping about grinning as we are to the sight of him pressing his index finger into his watch, chewing gum as if he means to break his own jaw in protest at the officials' timekeeping. Writing in the Guardian, Daniel Harris said Ferguson has "perhaps the most absorbing, rhapsodic, infectious, enormous smile in the history of faces. No one enjoys joy quite like him."
Ferguson was well known for his scathing and often dictatorial dealings with the press, from the Juan Sebastian Veron blowup in 2002 to the increasingly frequent bans for any journalist asking a question he didn't like. But he took obvious delight in this dueling -- how often has he said one thing and then announced entirely the opposite less than 24 hours later? He even prefaced his retirement with program notes promising he had no intention of going -- and in turn there is evident romance in the way that the members of the press regard him.
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He is the final link with an era that we will not see the likes of again, a gigantic figure in the game whose regard few could kid themselves for long that they did not want. Ferguson is like a school-teacher crush, even for those troupes of grown men journeying to Carrington week in, week out, for years: to be chastised by him stung like a burn, but to get one good word was the most intense thrill. You can imagine the pieces filling this week's souvenir pullouts being written with one eye on what Ferguson himself might think, how his face might set itself, as he read it.
The sheer volume of coverage may in part be down to how much might already have been written. We have been talking about "when Ferguson goes" for years. Now writers are able finally to dust off and show off their painstakingly crafted lines. It is in the pages of these expansive pullouts that writers can take refuge from the brevity and levity of Twitter and really get their teeth in to a topic.
There is also a sense, though, thatthings just got real. What does the top flight without Ferguson even look like? This is just the first in a spiraling list of questions: Why now? Why David Moyes? Is he really the right person? What will happen to Everton? Who will take over at Goodison Park? If it is Roberto Martinez, who will replace him at Wigan? Which players will follow their managers? Already it transpires that Wayne Rooney again has asked to leave United, with Chelsea among the clubs with the funds for a deal. Ferguson had flat refused to consider selling, but Moyes? The knock-on effects of Ferguson's retirement will play out beyond the end of this season and the start of the next.
Ultimately, and even the Liverpool fans (and others) tweeting sarcastic comments are evidence of this, Ferguson's retirement changes the Premier League for everyone. For many of us around the age of 30, the top tier is unrecognizable without Alex Ferguson in it. Manchester United without Ferguson is just a story, told alongside black and white photographs. With Moyes switching jobs and Arsene Wenger's final season at Arsenal feeling ever closer, the Premier League could soon be somewhere that Tony Pulis' seven-year spell in charge at Stoke City is by some way the longest. Roberto Mancini will be like a piece of the furniture, despite having only arrived at Manchester City in 2009.
Ferguson has walked out of the door and let the future in.
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