It is a measure of how much Sir Alex Ferguson changed football that his retirement should have overshadowed the Queen’s speech and led to newspapers printing souvenir editions. It is hard to imagine any other football manager leaving his job, and that too at the age of 71, having such a profound impact. Indeed the amount of time and space devoted to his retirement suggests he is no longer regarded as a football coach but more like a statesman or world thinker who shaped all our lives.
While some of this may reflect the demands made on the media in the age of twitter and rolling 24 hour news it is also a testament to the Scot who came to manage Manchester United with few expectations, was odds on favourite to be sacked after three years and finally retired after 26 years in charge leaving behind 38 trophies in the boardroom.
During this time he probably fashioned five teams starting with the Eric Cantona inspired one that won him his first Premiership title in the inaugural 1992-93 season. In the process he also introduced various changes in English football, not least the rotation system, something unknown until suddenly unveiled by Ferguson in the 1995-96 season. By then, having established domestic supremacy, he had worked out that he needed to reduce the workload of the first team, more so as he sought European glory.
Look back at the controversy generated that season when he decided not to field his best team in the League Cup. Instead Ferguson gave opportunities to “kids” such as Butt, Scholes and the Neville brothers in a League Cup match against York City. On the field United were embarrassed by York. Many rubbished the idea Fergie’s kids could win anything and others felt the Scot had devalued an important competition. Not even Ferguson could have imagined how well his plans would work, let alone that it would soon become common practise in English football. But that he was willing to incur the wrath of so many in order to help his wider objectives shows both the vision of the man and his determination to pursue his goals.
But while during his long reign Ferguson made history he was also helped by wider historical events, some of which were not even on the horizon when he came down from Aberdeen to take charge of Manchester United in 1986. Nobody then could have anticipated the launch of the Premier League, let alone that it would become a global brand. And nobody had heard of Bosman and the dramatic impact the judgement of the European court would have on football. The European court may not be much liked in this country now, but in this case it helped Ferguson fulfil his European dreams.
Think back to the time before Bosman. Then UEFA had its 3 plus 2 rule which limited clubs to fielding three foreign players plus two “assimilated” foreigners – those who had been playing in the country for five years or had been playing there since they were youngsters such as Ryan Giggs. For Ferguson 3 plus 2 was a nightmare. This meant for European competitions he had to constantly change his domestic teams and was forced to field weakened teams to make sure he did not fall foul of 3 plus 2. But, post-Bosman, with UEFA no longer able to dictate to Ferguson what sort of team he could field, Ferguson quickly showed what he could do in Europe. And it is no surprise that his unique treble in 1998-99 came after the Bosman ruling had made 3 plus 2 history.
But perhaps what makes Ferguson special is he knew how to be ambitious and was not afraid to aim high, a lesson he drummed into all those he came into contact with. This is best illustrated by the story of Andy Melvin, the man who played a huge part in shaping Sky television’s coverage of football.
The year is 1980 and Melvin has every reason to be happy in his life. He is working in his home town of Aberdeen for the local evening newspaper, the Evening Express, covering Aberdeen FC. His duties include working on the Green Final football paper, published every Saturday afternoon just after the final whistle. Ferguson, the Aberdeen manager, has smashed the age-old monopoly of Celtic and Rangers and is taking Aberdeen to new heights, including Europe, and Melvin loves his work.
As Melvin recalled to me:
“Alex and I butted heads until we developed a kind of mutual respect. We are both Scots and feisty but, eventually, we had a fantastic relationship. So much so, and it just shows how different things are then from now, I used to travel on the team bus. Can you imagine that in the 21st century? So, I would sit on the team bus for away games back to Aberdeen. Willie Miller and Alex McLeish would get sent into the chip shop and return to the bus with chips and fish and stuff, which we would eat on the way home. Dick Donald, the chairman, would have his trilby on the back of his head. It was lovely. He was a plain man but not an ordinary man and Aberdeen have never done anything since he died. Alex was a pall-bearer at his funeral. Those were fantastic days.”
Then suddenly in 1980 Bob Patience, the sports editor at Scottish Television, rang and offered Melvin a job. “I thought to myself, why on earth do I want to go and work in television in Glasgow? Glasgow was a horrible place. Ibrox, Parkhead and Hampden Park – that was all Glasgow was to me. Little did I know it would become my favourite city in the world. I told Bob, ‘I ain’t going to Glasgow. I’m not going to work in television. I’ve got the best job in the world, I follow Aberdeen Football Club, they are successful, and I am following them round Europe.’”
Not long after Melvin had turned down STV, his phone rang. It was Alex Ferguson and without any preliminaries Ferguson thundered:
‘What the fuck are you doing?’
‘What are you talking about?’
‘You’ve been offered a job in telly, and why are you not going?’
‘Well, I’ve got a great job, I love it here, you know’.
‘You’re only 28. You’re young. You’ve got to be ambitious’.
‘Hang on, you were offered the Wolves job last year, you didn’t take that’.
‘That’s not being fucking ambitious, forget about that. You’ve got to take this job, you’re young, you’ve got to be ambitious’”
Melvin eventually got to Sky, helped remake football on television and the story illustrates the impact Ferguson can have on his friends.
It must also be said that Ferguson used his success to control and direct the press in the way no other football manager has ever done.
I had an early foretaste of this, in the season he won his first Premiership title. He turned down my request to interview Ryan Giggs saying he did not want young Giggs exposed to the press and suffer the same fate as George Best. When I wrote a piece saying that Ferguson had drawn the wrong lessons from what had happened to Best he was not best pleased. He decided the best way to handle me was to mock me. Not long after that he was in London to collect an award for winning the Premier League title and referring to me said my name Bose sounded like Booze, a Scottish broth. Ferguson was not the first to call me booze but he delivered the lines like a master comic who knew how to hone in on his target. Even I joined the laughter it provoked.
In the years to come I would see him impose his control on the press even more ferociously, banning the BBC for many years and also other media outlets that had offended him. The BBC were so frightened of him that at the 2009 UEFA Champions League Final they were not sure whether I, then the BBC sports editor, should even go to his pre-match press conference and ask him a question. Would Sir Alex allow that? Would he throw me out? In fact he answered my question very well and there was no problem.
What Ferguson wanted was to be the master of the back page and his handling of a reporter from The Mail on Sunday illustrates this. Bob Cass, who knows Ferguson well, had run a story saying Bryan Robson, who was often injured, was making a comeback in a televised Sunday match. It was the back-page lead but as the television cameras rolled there was no Robson, not even on the bench. Roger Kelly, then sports editor of The Mail on Sunday, was not best pleased and told Cass so. Kelly then went off to play golf and as he returned home the telephone rang. The caller said he was Alex Ferguson. Kelly thought it was a joke but it was the man himself and he told Kelly that Cass had the right story but Ferguson had made a late change and Cass was not to blame. It showed how Ferguson could control the back-page agenda.
And Ferguson was also able to command the loyalty of some of the best sports writers of this country. I still find it difficult to believe that Hugh McIllvaney, arguably our greatest sports writer, would have agreed to ghost Ferguson’s autobiography. Writers of that stature do not normally do ghosted books. If such a relationship with the press was a new feature in the football landscape it must also be said that Ferguson’s views on certain aspects of football management were very different to the manager who had preceded him, Sir Matt Busby, and one who had been a rival, Terry Venables.
Busby had been seen as a potential owner of United and the thwarting of his ambition by the Edwards family was seen by many United supporters as the man of football losing out to the man of money. Ferguson, in contrast, never showed the slightest interest in owning the club. And unlike Venables, Ferguson was not interested in forming companies and never expressed the view that he could manage clubs better than their existing owners.
His problem with Martin Edwards, the chairman who brought him to Old Trafford, was that he felt Edwards was mean with money. As Ferguson put it very candidly in his autobiography, Managing My Life: “Conversations with Martin Edwards are usually straightforward and pleasant until you ask him for more money. Then you have a problem.” It is unusual for a manager to be quite so blunt about his employer but by the time he wrote the book Ferguson’s status as the untouchable of Old Trafford meant that he had nothing to fear.
The Ferguson-Edwards relationship is the sort that could form the plot of a good novel. Edwards and the United directors were not sure whether the Scot, despite his success in Scotland, could hack it down south. They were worried by the fact that Scots who had only worked north of the border had never made it in England. The most obvious failure being that of Ferguson’s mentor Jock Stein.
Then three years after his appointment with no trophies in sight Edwards could easily have sacked him. Ferguson had ended 1989 as the bookies’ favourite for the first managerial sacking in the 1990s. At Christmas he was 4-7 to be sacked before the beginning of the 1990-91 season but that soon became 2-5 with William Hill. Had Edwards got rid of Ferguson that season, not only would nobody have blamed him but he might have won over some of the fans who by then had turned against him over his stewardship of the club.
One of the most dramatic nights of that season came on October 25, 1989, when Tottenham beat Manchester United 3-0 at Old Trafford in the third round of the League Cup. There was an attempt to storm the directors’ box to assault Edwards. He recalls, “I was taking a bit of abuse in the box from some supporters. Someone in front of the box did actually try to get into the box and I think a steward or somebody intervened to stop them.”
It is worth recalling that back in 1990 it was not just Manchester United fans who thought Ferguson was useless. So did some of the most prominent voices in football. So before the crucial match against Nottingham Forest in the third round of the FA Cup in 1990, a match widely seen as marking the turning point in Ferguson’s fortunes, Brian Glanville, writing in The Sunday Times on the day of the match, said that Ferguson’s “transfer policy has been a disaster, his team selection has often made little sense and results, given the greatness of the club, have been abysmal. Today his job literally hangs in the balance. Comparisons with what Ferguson achieved at Aberdeen have little relevance. There, king of the castle, he was unquestionably a most successful manager. This, however, was rather as though one might flourish off Broadway, but fail on Broadway itself. The stakes at Old Trafford are vastly bigger, the expectations far larger, the competition so much more intense.”
But as we know Ferguson proved such a master of the Broadway of football that all those who have come in his wake have had to change their scripts and shows just to keep up. But if United has been the beneficiary of this there is one English club which will always book back and think what might have happened if he had decided to perform on their stage. He could so easily have performed this last quarter of a century at White Hart Lane.
According to then Spurs chairman Irving Scholar in 1984 he and Ferguson had shaken hands on a deal. The pair had met twice in Paris and everything seemed agreed. But then Scholar learnt that Ferguson’s wife Cathy did not fancy moving to London. In June 1999, a week after Manchester United completed the treble Scholar, waiting by the carousel at Nice airport, ran into Ferguson. As they chatted the Scot introduced Scholar to Cathy and Scholar said: “Ah, you are the woman who stopped him coming to Tottenham.” Cathy Ferguson just looked at Scholar and said nothing.
This is, of course, Scholar’s version. Ferguson makes no mention of this episode in his autobiography. Paddy Barclay in his book on Ferguson says that Ferguson might have moved had Tottenham offered him a five-year deal but having started with two, they went up to three, but would not budge further.
This will remain one of those what ifs.
What is not in question is that we shall never again see the like of Ferguson. He emerged at a particular moment in history and was so adroit in shaping and changing things that everyone who comes after him has to adjust not merely to Fergie time but the Fergie world he has left behind.
Mihir Bose’s latest book: Game Changer: How the English Premier League Came to Dominate the World has been published by Marshall Cavendish for £14.99. Follow Mihir on Twitter @ mihirbose
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Why is it impossible to decide who is the Lionel Messi of football’s men in suits?
Forget the argument about whether Lionel Messi is the greatest player. That argument can never be resolved as it depends on a variety of factors, many of them intensely subjective.
For instance, people of my generation who were brought up on the greatness of Pele will continue to believe that while Messi is a wonderful player, even a great player, he can never dethrone Pele from his throne and be proclaimed king. Similarly, those who missed Pele and his wonderful World Cup deeds, but were introduced to football through the magic of Maradona will always believe that Messi’s fellow Argentinean is the greatest. The argument is so bedevilled by the memories we carry, and the difficulties of comparing the different ages of football, that in many ways it is doomed never to be resolved.
But if working out the greatest among those who perform with their shorts on is impossible what about football’s men in suits, I say men because despite all the talk it is still men who run the game. Surely here we can point to one figure in a suit and proclaim him the greatest.
But even for suits it is not quite so simple. That is because there are all sorts of men in suits and their functions are very different and this is, inevitably, reflected in the powers they exercise.
For many people Sepp Blatter, as President of FIFA, is naturally the most powerful man in football. In the sense that he is always ready to pontificate about the game it would be fair to say he is the most prominent. But it would be absurd to say that he is football’s equivalent of President Barack Obama. The American President has his detractors and does not enjoy unchallenged power even in his homeland, hobbled by a Congress where his Republican enemies are strong. Nevertheless, Obama can exercise the sort of control over his administration that Blatter does not have over FIFA’s machinery. Indeed Blatter has confessed as much when saying that members of his executive are elected by the various federations so he is working with a cabinet which is not answerable to him. He cannot sack any of them and would have to plot with the factions in the various federations to get rid of an executive member he did not want.
Not that Blatter is incapable of that. Indeed after his first term, when he was faced with the implacable hostility of UEFA smarting from the fact that Blatter had defeated their man Lennart Johansson, Blatter set about to do just that. This was what led to the election of Michel Platini to the FIFA executive and defeat of Johansson’s stalwarts like the Norwegian Per Omdal.
But Blatter finds it difficult to construct lasting alliances. Witness how his relationship with Platini has soured. So much so that while Blatter has finally been convinced that goal line technology should come Platini remains opposed. The result is that this overdue reform will form no part of matches controlled by UEFA.
Indeed the argument over goal line technology shows the limits of a FIFA President’s powers. Law changes in football have to be approved by the International Football Association Board, an organisation that finds decision making even more difficult than the UN Security Council. And just as the Security Council reflects the immediate post war world and can no longer claim to represent the modern world, India, Germany, Japan and Brazil are not members, so does IFAB. Besides FIFA its members are the four home nations of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. This extremely odd membership came about as a result of the historic compromise that brought the British nations back to FIFA after the war.
This may explain why, to Platini’s fury, Blatter never discusses IFAB issues at his executive nor tells them much about what happens there. He just goes and either agrees or disagrees. This proved an extremely useful tactic when it came to introducing goal line technology for had it been debated in the executive Platini would have tried hard to squash the idea.
But what about the rich men who own football clubs? There can be little doubt that men like Roman Abramovich have had enormous influence on football, not only in the English game but in the international arena. I say this not merely because of the money Abramovich has used to transform Chelsea from a club that promised much but rarely delivered, to one of the powerhouses in English football, the only one proving a persistent threat to Manchester United. There is also the fact that he has served as a template to other rich men who see football as an entertaining toy, the likes of Sheikh Mansour at Manchester City. And such is the impact of Abramovich that it is no exaggeration to say that UEFA’s financial fair play rules were inspired by Abramovich’s actions. But powerful as Abramovich and Mansour are they are faceless men. They do not talk, do not explain why they are doing what they are doing or what their objectives are. If we are to crown Abramovich as king of football then he cannot be seen as football’s equivalent of Peter the Great but one of those dowager Chinese Empresses who pulled the strings from behind the imperial throne but were never seen in public.
Now somebody like Richard Scudamore is seen in public, although like the shrewd man he is he controls his public appearances. His success as chief executive of the Premier League over the last decade and a half cannot be doubted. But to see him as the most powerful man in football is an argument difficult to sustain. At the end of the day he is a paid employee, however well paid. He is answerable to 20 club chairmen and while he can and does make sure the club chairmen do what he wants to do, as his predecessor Peter Leaver found out, they are bosses and can always pull the rug. Such a scenario is impossible to see in the case of Scudamore but he has had his problems, think of the 39th game, and to make him the most powerful man in football is to confuse the ability to make money with executive decision making power. In that sense he has much less power to change, or even influence, football than Blatter or indeed Abramovich.
And this is the problem with the men in suits. Football has become a business yet unlike other business there is no leader who soars over the others. Politics has Obama, business has Warren Buffet whose words can move markets. Football has lots of voices but no one whose pronouncements can change things. Or certainly not very quickly.
In that sense it is easier to decide who is the greatest player than agree who is the most powerful man in a suit running the world game.