The inside story of Sir Alex’s farewell
The 5-5 draw with West Bromwich Albion on this day in 2013 was Sir Alex Ferguson’s 1,500th and final game as Manchester United manager.
Evans and Cleverley both played in the action-packed clash at the Hawthorns, while Januzaj made the matchday squad for the first time as an 18-year-old.
As you can read below, the trio reflect on the events leading up to Sir Alex’s farewell, including the moment they found he was retiring...
WHEN THE SQUAD FOUND OUT
The news of Sir Alex’s retirement came as a surprise to many, including United’s players, who found out at a charity golf day. It was later confirmed inside the dressing room at Carrington...
Evans: “We were all having a game of golf at a club golf day – the players were playing against the staff. We were all on the golf course when the news came through. It was pretty surprising and quite a surreal feeling, but I think we all understood that it would come to an end one day. There was no sign at all that Sir Alex was considering retirement. In the back of your mind you think that the boss will go on forever. I didn’t know anything else but Sir Alex being United manager. It was hard to gauge what was going to happen next as we’d had no experience of anything apart from Sir Alex.”
Cleverley: “It was a strange period. I remember playing golf with Wayne Rooney at Dunham and the rumours started to circulate a little bit that the gaffer was going to retire. Everyone was so shocked; it came out of the blue. It made sense that he wanted to retire at the top – we’d lost the league the year before in unfortunate circumstances so it must have felt so sweet for the manager that we won the league by 11 points the next year and he obviously felt that it was the right time for him to go.
“He got the whole team in the dressing room at Carrington to announce his retirement. It was quite emotional for players who had played under him for 15 plus years and for people like me who’d been at the club since they were 12 years old and had only known one leader. He wasn’t a normal manager – he negotiated my first professional contract, he had massive input into where I went out on loan, him and Paul McGuinness were the two most influential people in my career, so it was an emotional dressing room.”
Januzaj: “I was actually very sad because I was just starting my career under him. It was a shock – not just for me but for the whole football world. But I was really happy to be part of final game and to be there.”
Sir Alex was met with raucous applause from all four sides of Old Trafford when he made his final entrance from the tunnel as manager, with the players forming a guard of honour.
Chicharito put the Reds in front before Michu equalised. In typical fashion, Sir Alex’s men claimed a dramatic late victory through a rare goal from Rio Ferdinand in the 87th minute – Fergie time!
Celebrations ensued as Sir Alex lifted the Premier League title for a 13th time. The boss then gave a stirring speech, as he told the Old Trafford faithful: “You have been the most fantastic experience of my life.”
Evans: “All I can remember is Rio’s goal – smashing the ball in the net and running off – he loved a celebration. Afterwards the manager spoke to the crowd – you don’t really see many moments like that in your career - you feel part of something that was huge. We’d been champions for the best part of the month and we did make the most of it I have to say! We had a few nights out and celebrated a lot.”
Cleverley: “We went mad when Rio scored and it meant so much for us as players to get the boss a win in his last ever game at Old Trafford. That picture of the guard of honour is still circulated everywhere – it was a proud day to be part of, but it made me even prouder that I was also part of his last ever game as a manager the following week.”
AN EMOTIONAL AND ENTERTAINING FAREWELL
An all-time classic was played out between West Brom and United in Sir Alex’s final game. The 5-5 draw was the highest-scoring match of his United tenure.
Sir Alex wanted to sign off with a victory, but the full-throttle attacking football was a fitting tribute to the thrilling style in which many of his great teams had played...
Evans: “I remember that we played a slightly different system and the two full-backs played really high and wide in a diamond formation. It was all-out attack. He just wanted us to enjoy the game. The weather was nice and it was a bit of a party atmosphere. I particularly remember Alexander Buttner’s goal to make it 3-0 – I remember thinking that we should’ve played that formation more often! Lukaku scored a hat-trick as a substitute. He was only a young boy but what a powerhouse – he completely changed the game. I remember coming in after the game and he tried to make light of us conceding five goals! Deep down he wanted to win and there was a wee bit of sadness from us that we ended up drawing the game. It felt a privilege to be playing in Sir Alex’s final game. And to be a part of it. I remember the love and respect and admiration we had for him and it was so good to be part of that historic day.”
Cleverley: “Unfortunately we couldn’t get the win, but 5-5, I don’t think he’d ever managed a game like that and it was quite unique for his last ever game. We started the game unbelievably. Three goals up in the first half, played great football and were giving him a proper send off! But Lukaku came on and changed the game. I came off at 5-3. On the bench, the manager and Mike Phelan – I’ve never seen them so relaxed about conceding goals to be honest! He must have been desperate to win his final game, but the result didn’t feel as important as the Swansea game the previous week. The players didn’t feel too bad that we didn’t win that game because, sometimes, the manager would rather a game like that than a 1-0 win. He was all about entertainment – he hated boring performances – he wanted his teams to entertain the crowds.”
Januzaj: “It was the first time I’d actually been in the matchday squad. I’d travelled with the first team for a few friendlies but never a senior game. The night before the West Brom game, the reserve manager Warren Joyce called me and said that I have to go with the first team. I didn’t believe him and thought he was joking with me! But I’d been doing well with the Under-21s and had been training a lot with the first team so I was really happy to go.
“We tried to win the game – it really was a crazy game. I remember that the players had the desire to win the last game for Sir Alex and for his final game to be a victory. But at least for his last game it was a crazy game that’ll always be remembered. It was a bit crazy for me, too, as I was on the bench with Giggs, Scholes, Ferdinand, Evra and Vidic. I was a bit shocked and a bit nervous – it’s like you’re there but you’re not there! But those players always helped me and the other young kids. Warren Joyce always said to me, ‘when you go with the first team, don’t be afraid to kick them’. But they were always nice to us and always helped us. Normally I’m never nervous on the pitch but when I was on the bench, I knew I had pressure because being with those players is crazy! I was a bit scared to even go into the dressing room because I wanted to impress them. I remember the game like it was yesterday – a great game for Sir Alex to retire with! A 5-5 is crazy in football.”
The final whistle was sounded in the West Midlands to bring the curtain down on the career of English football’s greatest manager.
The team headed in the direction of United’s travelling contingent and Sir Alex made his way to the front, to give a bow and kiss to the fans who he had enthralled with brilliant football and countless memories during his trophy-laden career…
Evans: “It was quite emotional when you think back. When you’re playing you try and block those emotions out but there were a couple of times that season when it was emotional. There was the Real Madrid Champions League tie, when he was trying to gee the crowd up. I was on the bench and just got a wave of emotion that came over me. It was an iconic moment and I feel really fortunate to have been a part of the latter part of his career. I always think back to being a young kid and the effect that he had on me. It was a 15-year association with him, and he looked after us along the way and gave us opportunities in the first team.”
Cleverley: “I remember getting shivers down my spine – we were all stood in a row behind him. I remember thinking that this is unbelievable, and the end of an era and it was really emotional. You couldn’t sum up our leader better than having his players behind him and his adoring fans in front of him. There’s probably nine or 10 moments in your career that you’ll always remember and clapping him in front of our travelling fans was one of those at the end of that game.”
Januzaj: “I remember when we all stood up behind him. We were all talking a bit, saying ‘why is he going’? He came into the dressing room and congratulated us for the game! He said thank you to everyone that was in the dressing room.”
THE UNITED FAMILY
Ten years on from his final game, it’s clear to see Sir Alex’s influence was not only felt in the world of football but also in the players’ personal lives.
Sir Alex formed unbreakable connections with many of his former players and colleagues, displaying his great character and warmth as a person…
Evans: “I remember after the game thinking, ‘I need to get my shirt signed’. On the bus on the way back, I was thinking about asking him for an autograph. The last time I did that, I think I was 10 years old when I first met him! I remember getting nervous on the bus and going down the front to ask him for his signature. As you go up the stairs at home, there’s pictures of our wedding and our kids and right at the top there’s a picture of me, my wife Helen and the boss – it feels like he’s part of the family.”
Cleverley: “It’s a time to tell your kids and grandkids about. Growing up at United, you hear so much about Sir Matt Busby, and you knew what an iconic figure he was. I’m sure Sir Alex will have that same impact on my son’s generation and his son’s generation. So, to be able to tell them that I played under Sir Alex and that I actually played in his last game is something I’m really proud of.”
Januzaj: “Don’t tell me it’s 10 years ago as it makes me feel so old! People think I’m in my 30s but I’m only 28 [laughs]. The 10 years have gone so fast – I feel like it was yesterday. Life goes really fast. I’m proud that I worked under Sir Alex – in training and in friendly games. I feel proud that I have worked under one of the best managers of all time.”
Ten years on, every single one of us still loves Sir Alex.