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Talk to those who have studied United or who just love it with a passion about what it is that makes the club special, and they keep coming back to United's death and rebirth. I asked my friend Mark Hider, a fan and top advertising executive in New York City who knows something about branding, how important Munich and its legacy was to United's appeal. "The honest answer?" he said. "A lot." The club, Hider argues, has "kept the stories, the myths, the legends around the brand very live for the fans." (Go to the club's website, look at the banners at Old Trafford that memorialize Munich, see the statue of the Holy Trinity outside the stadium, and you'll see what he means.) Charlton, now 73, is a director of the club, which since 2005 has been owned by the Glazer family, which also owns the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the U.S.'s National Football League. More than that, says Hider, Charlton is the club's conscience, a living link to a talented group of young men, his close friends, whose promise was snuffed out.
Put like that, of course, United's deployment of the Munich story as a brand attribute sounds like a mawkish romanticization of death, a bit like those statues of Confederate soldier boys wistfully gazing north that dot towns in the American South. But there's more to it than that. The point about the Babes is not just that so many of them died; it is also that they were young and that they played thrilling, attacking football. It's the memory of that youth and beauty, says Hider, that is the yin to the tragedy's yang.
He's not alone. Time and again, talking to people about United, those two things "We give youth a chance; we attack" come up. And it's true. Edwards was just 16 when he first played for United; Ryan Giggs, now 37 and the team's evergreen midfielder, was 17. Charlton was 18, as was Cristiano Ronaldo, now with Real Madrid, and the Brazilian twins Rafael and Fabio da Silva. David Beckham, now with Adidas and sundry other sponsors, was 19 when he first started a game. And all those plus scores more who have passed through United's system were players skillful and exciting enough that neutrals would pay good money to see them.
Ferguson, those who know him say, instinctively saw the importance of United's brand attributes when he was appointed manager in 1986. (In the busy period before the Champions League final, United politely declined TIME's request to interview Ferguson.) A classic product of the west of Scotland assembly line that produces football managers like western Pennsylvania does quarterbacks, Ferguson took over the club after a period in which it had fallen from grace and employed some managers who, frankly, were an embarrassment. When he arrived at Old Trafford, Ferguson "understood there was a culture that had to be revived," says a man who worked closely with him. Ferguson, he says, in the perfect phrasing, thinks of himself as "the steward of the story he has to keep the narrative going."
Talk to those who know Ferguson best, and unprompted they say how much he likes working with young players like the da Silva twins and Javier Hernandez, a 22-year-old Mexican who has just had a spectacular first season with United. "He loves bringing players on," says Alastair Campbell, a close friend of Ferguson's and a onetime top aide to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Not that anyone has ever accused Ferguson of being a soft touch. A player who displeases him is likely to get what has famously become known as the hair-dryer treatment, with the Boss yelling into a star's face from close range. But then, when he arrived in Manchester, Ferguson needed to be tough. His fans were fed up. United had not won a championship in 19 years; in that time, Liverpool had won nine of them. Though Liverpool and Manchester are only some 60 km apart, for all intents and purposes part of the same metropolitan area, they have long had different cultures. Manchester millworkers held rallies for the Union during the U.S. Civil War, for example, while Liverpool was the most pro-Confederate city in Britain. The rivalry between them is intense. Each city thinks itself superior to the other; my father brought us up to intone, "Liverpool gentleman, Manchester man," while United fans delight in dreaming up chants and songs that bait their Merseyside rivals. (The best draws a link between United's Korean player, Park Ji-Sung, and the supposed dietary habits of Liverpudlians.)