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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