I’ll admit that I knew fairly little about Manchester United soccer manager Sir Alex Ferguson until this week. Despite my hopeless ignorance of the world’s most popular sport, however, I was intrigued by Ferguson’s retirement — and even more so by the trials that lay ahead for his successor, David Moyes.
Moyes has had a successful career himself, both as a player and manager, but surely taking over the role of manager of Manchester United from Ferguson — who ran the club for 27 years with an unprecedented record of success that is unlikely ever to be matched — represents one of the biggest challenges of his career. As my TIME colleague Bill Saporito mused a few days ago, “No one can actually succeed Sir Alex, only follow him.”
How do you take over for a legend?
Of course, this question isn’t limited to sports. In every discipline there are icons that come and eventually go — and then there are the poor saps who have to take over. Pondering this phenomenon, I was reminded of what President Harry Truman reportedly told a group of journalists the day after his assumption of the Presidency from the man who held that role far longer than any in history: “Boys, if you pray, pray for me now. I don’t know if you fellows ever had a load of hay fall on you, but when they told me yesterday what had happened, I felt like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me.”
Harry Truman is one of my favorite examples of a man who had to succeed a legend because he was such a humble figure both in disposition and, in some respects, ability. Regardless of what you think of his presidency, his allure as a historical figure is undeniable, as he’s the quintessential everyman who had greatness thrust upon him. In 1934, Truman was a 50-year-old failed farmer, speculator, and haberdasher. Ten years later he had the fate of the planet – and the most awful weapon in human history – in his hands.
There is a world of difference between coaching a soccer team and leading the free world through an existential struggle, to be sure. But on a human level, there are parallels. Whether you are an economist like Ben Bernanke taking over for Alan Greenspan — the recession-addled among us might forget that when Greenspan stepped down as Fed chairman in 2006, he was being hailed as a “Maestro” beyond compare — or a comedian like Jay Leno succeeding Johnny Carson, these represent the few moments in life where fate taps you on the shoulder and says, “Alright, you’re up. Let’s see what you can do.”
And in this sense, we can all relate to the stories of Moyes, Truman, Leno, and the rest. Whatever your vocation or calling, there will be moments, and probably no more than a few, where your success or failure will determine whether you advance or stagnate. These are the hours in life where time seems to slow because of the gravity of the situation, but also quicken because you know you will have but a few of these chances in your life.
Moyes now has the opportunity to also ascend to greatness. As the handpicked successor of one of the most distinguished managers in the history of the sport, he surely has the talent to rise to the occasion. Unfortunately, however, he’ll be judged not just on his own merits, but also against the idealized performance of his predecessor. And just as is the case for all of us, fate will not be fully in Moyes hands. He will rely those who assemble his team to provide him with the necessary talent. He will rely on that talent to play to the best of its ability. And lastly he’ll rely on that mysterious variable – call it luck or the divine – that can make or break any venture.
And so in that sense, regardless of their previous success, Moyes and his ilk are the ultimate underdogs. Whether, like Truman, your chance at greatness falls in your lap, or like Moyes, you have been preparing for this chance your whole life, watching these men attempt to climb that very last rung on the ladder is the ultimate drama. Soccer fan or no, how can you resist watching to see if Moyes makes it?