Despite enjoying a close relationship with Sir Alexander Chapman Ferguson for the last 26 years, I only actually met him just the once. This was after the home derby at the close of the 1990/91 season (the game in which Ryan Giggs scored his first United goal, fact fans – though he clearly never got a touch) at one of those supporters’ club functions they used to have at OT. This was back in the days before the club took the decision to spare the players such ordeals, and thus there remains almost no opportunities for local fans and players to mix socially – unless you are fortunate enough to stumble upon one spewing up outside a casino at 6am.
Held in one of the exec lounges a couple of hours after the game, it was a bit of a grim affair to be honest – like a night at the Phoenix Club overseen by Keith Fane instead of Jerry St Clair. You got chicken and chips in a plastic basket, there was a pay bar that was happy to serve me without ID and that ‘I’m so Excited, it’s Man United’ Tracy bird did a PA. The star turn was the appearance of the players, who as a group possessed all the charm and charisma of prison inmates on death row. They spent the evening reluctantly signing autographs and forcing smiles for photographs – all whilst slowly getting shitfaced and leering at any women who crossed their line of sight.
Alex Ferguson by contrast, was an absolute star. Whilst the players could barely conceal their displeasure at being obliged to spend a couple of hours with the great unwashed, Fergie worked the room like a total pro and had time for everyone. He listened intently as people crapped on endlessly in the way football supporters do and even made a point of seeking out and sitting down with a couple of elderly dudes who weren’t mobile enough to jostle in the scrum constantly surrounding him. It was impressive to witness. I mean he can’t have genuinely wanted to be there, he must have wanted to disappear off home like everyone else there in a professional capacity – but you’d never have guessed that watching him.
That was the closest I got to spending time with the bloke at close quarters, not exactly revelatory I know – just another recollection to put alongside the thousands upon thousands of others on record (most of which you’ve heard repeated again over the last month or so.) Even as a 17 year old kid he just struck me as the real deal – genuine, statesmanlike… a leader of men and all that. I walked out of OT later that night thinking Clayton Blackmore and Lee Sharpe were a pair of dicks… but not Fergie, no. Fergie was a top boy, a boss.
That isn’t just my perception alone, it ties in with what many have said over the years. His compassion, his willingness to go that extra mile, his eye for the insignificant, smaller details that leave a lasting impression on people… all admirable traits that will continue to be repeated as people line up to eulogise the man. It’s doing him a disservice to simply pile platitude upon platitude, however – the relationship between Fergie and United fans was far more complex and multi-layered than to simply state he was a top bloke and everyone loved him unconditionally.
Like many patriarchal figures throughout history, Alex Ferguson was a complete pain in the arse at times. The endless, unfathomable tactical tinkering and rotation of line-ups; the brutal way in which ties with several legendary players were severed; the horse spunk episode; the u-turn in his attitude to the club’s sale; his treatment of anyone who dared to criticise or question his methods. It’s one thing possessing a stubborn streak, it’s kind-of a prerequisite for anyone hoping to thrive in a high-pressure managerial role. Fergie however – it’s not unfair to say – could be single-minded to the point of obnoxiousness.
I’m aware that by admitting to not being completely enamoured with every decision he ever made, I could be seen as guilty of gross insubordination in the eyes of many reds. Vast numbers of United fans were so in thrall to Ferguson that even his most irrational or (on face value) unhinged actions were accepted without question. That was in part due to his influence and power, yet also something of a genius trait he possesses – even if you don’t agree with him, time has shown that most people come round to his way of thinking eventually.
Amongst the tributes paid over the last few weeks, it speaks volumes that so many one-time adversaries had nothing but kind words to say about the man. Beckham, Ruud, Jaap Stam, Paul Ince – ex-players who left the club under something of a cloud armed with justified grounds to hold lifetime grudges against their former boss… all full of genuine admiration and praise. Content to have played a part in the story and knowing any personal grievances they once held are now mere footnotes in something that turned out to be much bigger than any individual playing career.
The respect is still there because all sportsmen recognise that in order to reach the top, its an implicit fact that sacrifices have to be made and there are inevitable casualties along the way. Manager-player relationships are fleeting, mutually undertaken, marriages of convenience – once either party grows restless or the bad times start to outweigh the good it’s usually a signal to part ways. For sanity purposes, it’s probably helps not to dwell too much on the past.
Ferguson was ruthless when faced with such decisions. Utterly unsentimental, business was business and once you’d served your purpose or stepped out of line one too many times you were out of the door. He claimed to have mellowed over the years but there’s little evidence to suggest that was the case in reality – you only needed to note his final, parting shot at Wayne Rooney for evidence that Fergie was still relishing the battle even during his final week in charge.
His standards never slipped, despite at times, appearances to the contrary. From 2005-2007 it looked for all the world that he’d well and truly lost the plot. The squad was in such a mess that The Mirror’s habit of printing the club badge with a big crack down the middle seemed justified for once. The signings were shit, old favourites had departed and the whole club seemed to be on the downward spiral many predicted post-takeover. Yeah right… within 18 months we’d won back-to-back league titles and were champions of Europe again. Only the very stupid or very brave would risk declaring him ‘finished’ again after that.
Fergie leaves us having remodelled the club and completed the next phase of Sir Matt’s original vision – not just champions of England or Europe, champions of the world twice. Those victories in Tokyo and Yokohama are viewed as little more than trinkets to most people in this country at present, though with the rapid globalisation of the game I’ll be stunned if they don’t hold increased value in future years. He understood this whereas successive Liverpool managers had dismissed the fixture as a glorified friendly. Never mind, eh?
More valuable than trophies or titles, the greatest thing he leaves us with is memories. Rotterdam, Blackburn at home in ’93, Turin ’99, Barca, Moscow… 5 of the greatest nights of my life. I’ve spent countless hours cursing him over the years but now it’s all over… well I can only conclude that it’s been an absolute pleasure to have been present throughout. There was always a method in his madness. There’s no question about that.
Copyright Red News – June 2013