Alex Ferguson for all his achievements could hardly be compared to Winston Churchill. To do so would be absurd as football for all its wonder can hardly be compared to issues such as national survival that Churchill had to deal with.
But there is one Churchillian principle Ferguson has been keen to adopt. This is not only to make history but to write history. The Churchillian trick was to present the part he played in history as the most important part of the story – it helped that both in the first and more so in the second Churchill was often at the heart of the narrative. Even today almost anyone writing about the two wars, but particularly the second, has to take into account how Churchill presented the story of the war. They may disagree and have compelling evidence in their favour to argue their case but they cannot ignore Churchill’s massive tomes. In writing history the way he did Churchill knew he was framing the argument for future generations and so it has proved. Ferguson has understood the strategy well and his latest book is one that Churchill would have instantly recognised as an imitation of his classic presentation of personal story in the guise of history.
There is one caveat. Had the old man still been around he may have told the Scot that by calling his latest book, My Autobiography, he was taking liberties. Churchill was more imaginative in his use of his titles. His history of the First War, called The World Crisis, may have been dubbed by his contemporaries as the story of Winston’s crisis but remains a classic study of that period. In contrast the unwary reader picking upMy Autobiography may expect to find the life story of Britain’s greatest football manager only to discover that the first 60 years of his life is condensed to 18 pages in a chapter called Glasgow Roots. This deals with issues such as his problems with Martin Edwards, the Manchester United chairman who brought him to Old Trafford. The wrangles over Edwards’ reluctance to pay Ferguson what he felt was his due were so serious that Ferguson thought of leaving Manchester United.
Ferguson will argue that he dealt with that part of his life at length in Managing My Life but it would have been more accurate to call this Managing My Life Part II. But if Ferguson has ignored this part of the Churchill template in every other way he has, like Churchill, used his personal story to frame the issues and in one case drawn a veil on an issue which had a huge impact on Manchester United.
This was the explosive issue of the ownership of the Rock of Gibraltar which tore Manchester United apart, not only affecting the board but also the fans, and ensured that the Glazers would take over the club. But this is dismissed in less than a page. And one of the references is not a discussion of the wider issues of which there is none but how Roy Keane used the controversy over the horse to castigate Ferguson. Others may have written about it at length but Ferguson clearly does not want to dwell on it.
This reticence is in marked contrast to some very frank discussions of rival players and managers. How Ferguson kept in touch with what may be called the great club of football managers and helped them as and when he could and also received help from them are both interesting stories and very revealing. They include George Graham giving him his contract so he could confront Edwards and while this one was told at greater length in his earlier volume there are some new stories in this volume. In some ways his comments on Rafa Benitez and how he contrasts the Spaniard with his predecessor Gerard Houllier, is a classic case of how to put the knife into a manager, Benitez, and make sure the world understands why he likes the other, Houllier.
There is an even better illustration of this in his handling of Steven Gerrard. This has caused much controversy with Brendan Rodgers, the Liverpool manager, taking grave exceptions to something he clearly sees as an unwarranted insult to both the player and the club.
But anyone going beyond the sound bites and actually reading the book can see that Ferguson has been much shrewder than that. There is not one but five references to Gerrard and Ferguson, in effect, presents a potted history of Gerrard’s Liverpool career beginning with Houllier taking charge of Liverpool and Gerrard “starting to emerge as a youthful force in midfield”. Two of the references are not criticism of Gerrard but Benitez’s wretched use of the Liverpool player. He does say Gerrard was not a “top, top player.” What Gerrard had was “bravado”. He goes on to say, “When Scholes and Keane were in our team Gerrard seldom had a kick against us.” These remarks come in the context of why Michael Carrick did not get more of a chance for England.
Ferguson’s argument is that Carrick suffered not because of his lack of football skills but he did not have the “bravado” of Frank Lampard, who Ferguson feels was not “an elite international footballer” and he could not match the “big personalities” of Lampard and Gerrard.
These are reasonable arguments of a man who fashioned so many winning teams and I do not see why he should not be allowed to make them. And this brings us to Roy Keane’s outrage that Ferguson has broken the code of loyalty which is the basis of football teams. I do not quite understand this loyalty argument. Ferguson has retired, he is telling his story, just as a politician or anyone else in public life might. Is he not entitled to tell his story? When a politician tells his story and what happened in Cabinet is then breaking some code of loyalty? What nonsense.
In any case Ferguson’s riposte is Keane broke their agreement not to talk about the argument they had in his office by giving an interview for the Sunday Times. And with Keane having done that Ferguson feels no reason to hold back and he does not. If you think he is hard on Gerrard read his comments on Keane. He may have been one of Ferguson’s most influential players but as a man, the Scot has no time for the Irishman.
The only thing missing is an explanation of why in this second volume of his memoir Ferguson switched ghosts from Hugh McIllvanney to Paul Hayward. When his fellow Scot McIllvanney decided to turn ghost writer there was much surprise as McIllvanney is undoubtedly one of the legends of our profession. I can still recall the breathless expectancy when as a student I rushed to buy the Observer every Sunday and read his column.
Hayward is also, of course, one of the best sports feature writers and having had the privilege to work with him I know what wonderful gifts he brings to our profession. But to ditch a legend like Mcillvanney does seem strange. But then Ferguson can claim that he got two fine writers to help him write his story and who else in sport could ever make such a claim? Churchill also got researchers to help write his memoirs but none of them were as famous in their profession as McIllvanney and Hayward are. There the Scot can claim to be ahead of Churchill.