Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson gestures to supporters after the English Premier League soccer match away against West Bromwich Albion, his last as manager of Manchester United, at The Hawthorns Stadium, West Bromwich, England, Sunday May. 19, 2013. (AP Photo/Jon Super)
WEST BROMWICH, England (AP) — Alex Ferguson. Former Manchester United manager.
At the end of his 1,500th game in charge of Man United on Sunday, the 71-year-old Scot bowed in front of thousands of applauding fans — and then bowed out of soccer for good.
The most successful managerial career in British soccer history is over, leaving a void that might not be filled for generations.
And what a thrilling way to bow out at West Bromwich Albion in central England — the first 5-5 draw in the Premier League on the back of a 13th championship for Ferguson.
John Sivebaek scored 9,675 days ago for the first United goal under Ferguson, and Javier Hernandez scored the last.
"It is not only a loss for the British fans but he has changed football across the world," Hernandez said. "He has been here for 26 years and made the impossible dream come true."
The official retirement party was last week at home when 76,000 fans at Old Trafford saluted Ferguson for delivering the record-extending 20 English league title for United.
Referee Michael Oliver, only 1-year-old when Ferguson took charge of United in 1986, blew the whistle on his glittering career at the Hawthorns. From now on, the defensive fragilities on display Sunday are incoming manager David Moyes' problem.
After the match, the manager went over to bow to the United fans who had backed him as he waited until 1990 to win the first of 38 trophies for the club.
Ferguson, a keen wine aficionado who is planning trips to various vineyards in his retirement, later shared a $140 bottle of 2003 Chateau Pontet Canet Pauillac with West Brom manager Steve Clarke.
"He said it was a good year," Clarke said. "It's great he has gone out as a champion ... anyone who was in the stadium will remember it for years."
As customary as Ferguson's post-match bottle of wine with rivals is his reluctance to attend the media conference.
Sunday was no different.
But he couldn't have been pleased to see his team throw away a 4-2 lead to be pegged back to 5-5. It had seemed like fate that Ferguson would witness his team conjuring another memorable goal in stoppage-time that had characterized his reign.
"I was waiting for some 'Fergie Time,'" United striker Robin van Persie said. "But it didn't happen. It was good fun for everyone, to score 10 goals."
United defender Rio Ferdinand added on Twitter: "What a mad result! Lets be honest the boss was never going out with a boring 0-0!!"
Ferguson signaled he's ready for a quieter life by placidly watching his players rip West Brom apart and then showed none of the usual anger at their capitulation.
But the scorers on this day will be long forgotten — it was all about the manager in the opposition dugout.
Now a former manager.
A son of a ship-builder from Govan in Scotland and a top player in his native country from 1957-74, Ferguson entered management with East Stirlingshire in 1974. He moved to St. Mirren later that year and was hired by Aberdeen in 1978, making his mark by breaking the dominance of Rangers and Celtic.
After a brief taste of international soccer with Scotland at the 1986 World Cup, Ferguson was lured from Aberdeen to United in November 1986.
Since then he has won 13 Premier League titles, the Champions League twice, five FA Cups, four League Cups, the European Cup Winners' Cup, the UEFA Super Cup, the Club World Cup, the Intercontinental Cup and 10 Community Shields.
Little wonder that even West Brom fans were buying the commemorative scarves being sold by enterprising salesman outside of the stadium.
Ferguson could see them from the team bus as it pulled into the ground. In the stands were affectionate banners, including "Thank you dinosaur."
Before kickoff, West Brom's players formed a guard of honor for the champions and were then joined by the United team to usher Ferguson onto the pitch.
"What the West Brom fans did was a nice touch," Van Persie said, before also referring to the retiring Paul Scholes. "Of course, when you speak about players like Scholesy and managers like Sir Alex, I think it's right to do that (show respect). It doesn't always happen in football but today it did, and I'm glad that it did."
Just like in every one of his previous 1,499 matches, Ferguson featured an academy graduate in his squad — a hallmark that has helped to deliver such unprecedented success.
One of those, Scholes, came off the bench in the 69th minute to make his 718th and final appearance for the club at which he had spent his entire career.
It was a party atmosphere from the start, with red flares being set off in the United end.
Ferguson, though, was the calmest United representative when Shinji Kagawa headed his side in front after six minutes.
West Brom gifted United another inside three minutes, with Jonas Olsson turning Antonio Valencia's cross-shot past his own goal goalkeeper, and Alexander Buttner grabbed a third in the 31st minute.
Just when United looked like inflicting a humiliating result, James Morrison pulled one back five minutes before halftime.
Substitute Romelu Lukaku reduced the deficit in the 50th before Van Persie canceled it out three minutes later.
Ryan Giggs, who has featured in every one of United's title-winning teams, came off the bench to set up Hernandez to tap into the net to make it 5-2.
A cruising United was too relaxed, and West Brom spoiled the party with goals from Lukaku and Youssouf Mulumbu in the 81st.
It was Lukaku who bundled the ball into the net to complete his hat trick and become the last player to score against a Ferguson team.
When the end came, Ferguson shook hands with Clarke before being ushered by Giggs to thank their visiting fans.
The home fans showed their appreciation, too. They got to witness the end of an era.
Rob Harris can be reached at http://twitter.com/RobHarris