The dust has settled, the mainstream tributes have poured in - both knowledgeable and hamfisted - and he's away. Sralex Ferguson - to childishly both respect and denigrate the man's premature honouring - announced his retirement from the managership of Manchester United several weeks ago.

I was shocked. The signs were there earlier in the season - the Wembley Champions League final a tantalising potential farewell, the desperate ambition to wrestle the Premier League title from Manchester City, the distressed reaction to missing out on one and composed satisfaction in securing the other - but they only appeared in hindsight. Ferguson was surely to perish in the line of duty, Lord willing not pitchside like his mentor and friend Jock Stein, but in gainful managerial employment all the same. He was "too old to retire".

We were wrong. He has retired. And he retires as the greatest football manager England, Great Britain, Europe and, most likely, the world has ever seen, and will ever see. The Liverpool fans' Facebook cover images were uploaded in double-quick time once the announcement was made - Bob Paisley (a mere Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) with three European Cups. Ferguson could not attain such an achievement. Paisley was surely his superior. Surely.

He wasn't. Great manager as he was, he did not hit the heights of the Ferguson regime. Ferguson achieved his successes not in the immediate aftermath of a Bill Shankly-led transformation of a football club in structure, ethics and policy, but brought this about himself. Ferguson compromised the ethics where he had to, in an uncompromising and blinkered desire to return Manchester United to their position as the biggest club in England and one of the three greatest worldwide. He, after a foundation-laying and barren four years, delivered a haul of trophies spread thickly over 23 more tinged with every dark art at his disposal - coercing, pressurising and manipulating his way to the top.

And this is the crux. Manchester United, Sralex Ferguson's Manchester United, are modern day society in microcosm. Integrity is for runners up, for the also-rans. So what if Roy Keane has agreed to join Blackburn? "[Has he] signed anything?" So what if there have been no injuries and one substitution in a free-flowing second half? Manchester United need a win, so the fourth official needs to be told, in no uncertain terms, how much stoppage time should be added in order for United to be victorious.

It is said that we should judge a man by his friends. Well this is where Ferguson falls a little short. The most notable admirer, and occasional drinking buddy (more of which later), is Jose "You Have To Block The 'Keeper" Mourinho. Another who pursues victory at all cost - to his reputation, to his players' reputations, to his clubs' reputations - Mourinho is fascinated by Ferguson's desire, his man-management - Eric Cantona and Roy Keane the unlikeliest of revelatory leaders - his tactical nous and his insatiable determination to pettily get one over his rivals.

Ferguson is the best ever. If you could replicate him in cyborg form you would, but could also imagine a moralistic US government chief engineer being assassinated as he questions the implications for mankind in the wake of administering the lifeblood. Ferguson did it through hard work - his desktop motto of "nil sine labore" not even partially for show - and genius, probably the greatest tactician football has seen, but he won, so consistently, because he was prepared to be victorious in the wake of slurs, in the wake of targeted mind games no other manager, save Mourinho, could handle. Manchester United were hated before he arrived and will be hated long after his departure, but Sralex Ferguson's Manchester United are, for many, the (Red) Devil incarnate.

And where now for the man? Away from football, but even on the subject of football, reams of evidence point to a warm and friendly individual, a working class egalitarian bravely marrying across a religious divide and bearing no resemblance to the Old Trafford rearer of attack dogs we have come to know him as. Is that healthy? Less indicative of an act perfected for professional football audiences, in any other walk of life it may suggest psychopathy, sociopathy or schizophrenia. Ferguson has none of these ailments and any accusations of alcoholism are just as inaccurate, but is he happy? Does the intensity of thirty plus years of professional football management - and how - take its toll? If not, then does the yearning for the day-to-day involvement create a void which cannot be filled with French lessons and ambassadorial trips?

Whatever, Sralex Ferguson is now the benchmark. No one - not Shankly, not Paisley, not Dalglish, certainly not Benitez - comes close. For each particular statistic of inferiority - and the elusive fourth and fifth Manchester United European Cups will give him sleepless nights - Ferguson can counter with unprecedented intertwining of consistency and longevity, of never letting the unrelenting stress get the better of him, of persevering even when the advice may have been for the opposite. He doesn't just have more Premier League titles than anyone else, he has more Premier League titles than an Autobot Combiner of Blackburn, Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City. And this during the most arduous period for domestic and European achievement there has ever been, in the face of new money and formidable new pretenders to his throne almost biannually. This is truly formidable.

No, by hook or by crook - by hook and by crook - Ferguson became the greatest, and in this 21st century world his achievements and methods are something so many will aspire to replicate, at whatever cost. And all we can do is judge a man by the context of the society in which he resides.

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