by Luke Healey
After news came out about Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement two weeks ago, I remarked on Facebook that I was going to write an essay entitled ‘In Fergie Time: Manchester United, Kairos and the Long Twentieth-Century’. I was only half-joking. While the title’s scope seemed to be mainly defined by an opportune pun, the more I thought about the prospective essay the more it seemed to me capable of addressing certain rhetorical structures, and certain structures of feeling, which accompanied Ferguson’s abdication. Consider this a hastily-researched ‘Notes Towards…’ kind of essay.
One of the first things I really remember is Eric Cantona retiring from football. I don’t remember too much about following Manchester United beforehand, apart from a brief glimpse of a pin-badge seller outside Old Trafford sometime around a 1995 FA Cup tie against Wrexham which the home side won 5-2, the only United game my Dad took me on before he gave up his season ticket and I defected to my Mum’s Preston North End. Cantona’s retirement happened in May 1997; I was on some sort of half-term holiday with North End mum and United dad, and my younger brother, who would later become a better North End fan than I’ll ever be. This means that I was seven years old at the time, which seems a little late for an early memory but that just testifies to the importance of this event on my psyche: out of all the imprints left for involuntary recall in the first eight years of my life, the moment when I received the news of Eric Cantona’s retirement is one of the few that I can quite actively summon up, never more so than in the last few weeks.
When Sir Alex Ferguson announced his retirement from the managerial post which he has held at Manchester United for 26 years on the 8th of May, I had the immediate sensation that something quite complex had just happened with regards to time and memory. I put something out on Facebook about great constants and the new millennium beginning in earnest. I certainly wasn’t the only one thinking through the news in these terms. Stand-up comedian Jim Campbell would later quip on the Football Ramble podcast, ”I assumed I’d die before he left that job’. Freelance football journalist Daniel Harris, writing in The Guardian, summed up the existential knot that this severance had revealed: ‘For almost 27 years, Alex Ferguson has inhabited, directed and dictated the lives of Manchester United supporters, and consequently, the days of his life are the days of my life.’ Statistics were dredged up: Amy Lawrence related the number of managerial changes that United’s major competitors on the European stage have undergone since Ferguson was installed: ‘Real Madrid 24; Inter Milan 19; Bayern Munich 14; and Barcelona 13.’ After David Moyes announced that he was to vacant his job at Everton to fill Ferguson’s shoes, Newcastle United’s Alan Pardew became the nominal fourth-longest-serving manager in the Premier League, ‘despite having been at the Magpies for less than two and a half years.‘ The linked article goes on to speculate that Pardew could be bumped up to number two, should Roberto Martinez and Tony Pulis, as is widely expected, move on from their respective clubs.
Ferguson’s twenty-six years were unanimously recognised as a statistical anomaly in a field of work known for its precarity. He rightfully received his plaudits for the footballing nous and force of personality that had granted him such an extended run. But what was arguably more interesting was the sense of Ferguson as a hanger-on from an earlier era of football. Ferguson’s tenure represented a kind of long tail for football’s twentieth century, a century in which most of the game’s history, from Dick, Kerr’s Ladies to Herbert Chapman to the Mighty Magyars to Pele and Maradona to Heysel and Hillsborough and the birth of the Premier League, is contained. In Ferguson, this era reached over into the new century of Pep and Mou, of £62 tickets and Emirati billionaires and Twitter. When Ferguson took the United job in 1986, writes Lawrence, ‘There was no internet to send instant sound bites to the world, no 24 hour news channels to analyze every syllable, no need for the New York Stock Exchange to react to events at a football club in the north of England.’ As long as Ferguson was at United, you felt, one could still talk of football’s “long twentieth century”. And then, one couldn’t. The present moment had shifted, shaken off part of its constitution. It was enough to make a mass of twenty-somethings feel suddenly out of joint with the times we’re living in. Barney Ronay had forseen this in a short film made to accompany his 2009 book The Manager: The Absurd Ascent of the Most Important Man in Football:
The modern era is the Ferguson era, which might seem slightly strange, because if anything Ferguson stands as an emblem of things past, of old virtues rather than new. As time has passed Ferguson has come to resemble s0me national trust tribute exhibit, a glittering managerial theme park. Postmodern rather than old-fashioned he has a little bit of everything. There’s that deep sense of Glasweigan managerial authenticity, the salty phrase-making of a Shankley and the iron-man appeal of a Cullis. Just looking at him ancient and empurpled on the touchline, we even sense a deep connection to the secretary with the watch-chain and his rising sense of futility. Ferguson has the lot. Right now he is the manager, it’s all in him, everything from A to Z. This is a feat of total management that will never be repeated, mainly because other things have begun to happen, and the manager as we know him is in the process of being re-cast, his authority undermined by a new breed of global supercapitalist. The real transformational power now lies with the boundless finance of the billionaire owner, below who we find the off-the-peg PLC business model, a hierarchy of finance directors and chief executives, all of which leaves room for English football’s traditional – and frankly rather odd – managerial reimagining of the mill or the jam factory. And suddenly, in a certain light, the manager looks old. This latest threat to his preeminence may have emerged from the steepling rip-tides of international finance, but in fact it’s simply the reawakening of his oldest adversary: the director. Before long we may even look back and say that the manager has had his time, that this was a twentieth century story, a story of class, of ambition, and of a cult of personality that may, even now, be in the process of passing.
It helps that time was already such a central part of the Ferguson lexicon. “Fergie time” designates an extensive period of time added on after the 90 minutes to account for injuries and stoppages, a characteristic coda to the normal course of affairs during which time United would usually score and win (when Sergio Agüero clinched last year’s Premiership for Manchester City with a goal in the 94th minute of their final league fixture, the City fans naturally chanted ‘We won the league/On Fergie time/We won the league/On Fergie time’). The headlines then came ready-made: the retirement was ‘the end of Fergie time‘, the end of the coda, a definitive break with a lingering presence.
There’s a name for this break: kairos. The term is ancient, but has recently been taken up by a number of writers dealing with the nature of time as it relates to historical process and transformation, Giorgio Agamben among them. I take my own comparatively dunderheaded understanding from Mumbai-based cultural theorist Nancy Adajania, and a talk she gave at the 3rd Former West Research Congress in April 2012, entitled An (Un)timely Meditation: Pointing to a Future Ecumene of Art. In this paper, Adajania conceives of three distinct models of time: ‘chronos is an inertial entropic flow, crisis is a dynamic, kairos is a moment.’ More precisely, chronos is described as the ‘the flow of undifferentiated time as it runs its course’. Crisis is ‘a dynamic that builds up through the interplay, collision and collusion of contradictory forces, a dynamic that builds up to a head or flashpoint where the contradiction among these forces can no longer be contained by hegemony, diffused by co-option or stylised by social mythology.’ And kairos is ‘the belief in an elusive moment of renewal and transformation, an opportune moment for the change of fortunes and a belief, correspondingly, that one can prepare oneself to be receptive to the advent of such a moment and seize it.’ Most of the time, most of us muddle through chronos; occasionally we may live through a crisis that compels our collective history to move in a particular direction. Only very fleetingly do we experience the advent of kairos, and then only if we are very receptive: ‘symbolically speaking, kairos‘s lock of hair precedes him – you either recognise and seize it or he will pass by and all you are left with is a bald pate.’
Haven’t the 21st century developments in football’s mediation that Lawrence describes in her article precisely primed us for this kind of receptivity? To appropriate a passage from Vilém Flusser’s Towards a Philosophy of Photography (1983), the constant merry-go-round of managerial appointments and sackings fed to us online and through rolling TV news can only result in such information becoming redundant: change has become indifferent and the only information truly worth its name is that which outlasts the news cycle, that which appears by comparison to relate to a ‘standstill situation’. Paradoxically, the abiding image of Ferguson’s departure was one of stasis: in the wave of articles following the resignation, “Fergie Time” was at least as present as its closure. Kairos relies on chronos, the opportune moment depends on the otherwise stable flow of time. And kairos – to steer the metaphor into uncharted and potentially dubious territory – shows us what chronos looks like. In a moment, twenty-six years popped into view and could be grasped as an object. In its duration this twenty-six year period appears very much like the lifespan of a young-ish football fan, hence Daniel Harris’s sudden existential knot. In its location, spanning the 20th and 21st centuries, it appears very much like the long tail of the former, stretching out into an era in which Harris’s generation are, for all their knowledge and credentials, essentially non-native. History is brought into focus by such tails, by periods of nonsynchronicity which extend and finally snap. By the same token, personal memory must hang its markers on such knots: after all, when Eric Cantona retired I hadn’t known a Manchester United without him, either.
 Vilém Flusser, Towards a Philosophy of Photography, trans. Martin Chalmers. London: Reaktion, 2000. p. 65