IT WAS a piece of advice offered by Jock Stein that helped guide Sir Alex Ferguson: “As Big Jock said to me about players: never fall in love with them, because they’ll two-time you.”
The anecdote is included in Ferguson’s new autobiography, a publishing event so major as to necessitate a press conference at the Institute of Directors on Pall Mall yesterday. The newly-retired Ferguson might have wished he was elsewhere, especially when it opened with a journalist asking for an apology for disparaging remarks Ferguson apparently made, some years ago, to a female colleague. “That’s a good start, thank you,” said Ferguson. “Dearie me.”
The press conference yielded little. The book offers more. Most notably, it demonstrates that Ferguson took Stein’s advice to heart in his treatment of two players, Roy Keane and David Beckham, who might have considered themselves untouchable, and perhaps loved, if for very different reasons.
For the first time, Ferguson explains the full circumstances of the two highest profile and most controversial departures in his 27 years at Old Trafford. Both were two-timing him: Beckham with fame, Keane with a darker alter ego, who thought himself a superior manager to Ferguson.
With Beckham, Ferguson puts the boot in but withdraws it to express his admiration for the man he has become, even if he will forever remain baffled by his decision to swap Real Madrid for LA Galaxy.
With Keane, the boot is left in. The Keane chapter, detailing how the Irishman went from favourite son to outcast, makes for chilling reading. Ferguson praises his intensity but admits that even at his best “there were episodes of great friction and drama as he tried to impose his will on the team,” which took a more sinister turn “when he realised he was no longer the Roy Keane of old.”
Keane clashed with Ferguson’s assistant, Carlos Queiroz, on a pre-season training camp in 2005. When the manager confronted him, Keane told Ferguson that he had changed. “We had a real set-to,” writes Ferguson. “A proper argument. I told him he was out of order.”
The end came when Keane gave his notorious interview to the club’s TV channel, MUTV, lambasting players including Darren Fletcher and Rio Ferdinand. When Ferguson watched the recording of a never-to-be-broadcast interview, his reaction was: “Jesus. It was unbelievable. He slaughtered everyone.”
Once again he confronts Keane: “What you did in that interview was a disgrace, a joke.” Keane’s response was to suggest showing it to his team-mates. “I agreed, and the whole team came up to see it.” Afterwards, “Roy asked the players whether they had anything to say about what they had just seen.
“Edwin van der Sar said yes. He told Roy he was out of line criticising his team-mates. So Roy attacked Edwin.” Then Keane turned on Ferguson, telling him: “You brought your private life into the club with your argument with [John] Magnier.”
It is telling that this episode is the final straw as far as Ferguson is concerned – Keane’s dig related to his dispute with the Man United shareholder over the ownership of the racehorse, Rock of Gibralter, an episode all but glossed over in the book.
This final confrontation with Keane was “venemous,” in Ferguson’s description. “The hardest part of Roy’s body is his tongue. He has the most savage tongue you can imagine. He can debilitate the most confident person in the world in seconds with that tongue.
“What I noticed about him that day I was arguing with him was that his eyes started to narrow, almost to wee black beads. It was frightening to watch. And I’m from Glasgow.”
Keane’s departure was swift. “We need to get Roy out,” Ferguson told the club’s chief executive, David Gill. Within days he was gone, to Celtic, where Ferguson expected him to star. But when he watched him in his first Old Firm match “he was never in the game. He played a passive role.”
Two months later Keane returned to Old Trafford, partly to rave about Celtic and the facilities in Glasgow, but also to say sorry. “I just want to apologise for my behaviour,” he told Ferguson. But relations soured again when Keane gave an interview to a Sunday newspaper in which he was critical of Ferguson – and again mentioned the Magnier dispute. “I could never understand his obsession with the Rock of Gibralter affair,” writes Ferguson.
The circumstances around Beckham’s exit, and his fall from grace in Ferguson’s eyes, have a more comic aspect. On one occasion Ferguson despaired at his star’s insistence on wearing a beanie hat, even as they had dinner. The reason was that Beckham was hiding a new haircut before its “official” unveiling. Ferguson was not impressed.
Ferguson felt that Beckham “surrendered his talent” as he embraced fame in his final season with the club. But as with Keane, there was a crunch point, when the manager kicked a boot and it hit him above the eye. “Of course he rose to have a go at me and the players stopped him,” writes Ferguson. “ ‘Sit down,’ I said. ‘You’ve let your team down. You can argue as much as you like.’ ”
Ferguson writes: “David was the only player I managed who chose to be famous, who made it his mission to be known outside the game.” Eventually, he adds, “David thought he was bigger than Alex Ferguson.” Which meant one thing: “That was the death knell for him.”
Control is the theme running through his book. Ferguson knows he was fortunate: “The control I was able to exert over Manchester United was a privilege few managers will be lucky enough to know.”
David Moyes might not be so lucky, but Ferguson recognises aspects of himself in his fellow Scotsman: “A lot of Scots have a dourness about them: a strong will. When they leave Scotland it tends to be for one reason only. To be successful.”
Doubtless Ferguson has impressed upon his successor Stein’s valuable lesson: don’t fall in love with the players.
Roy Keane ‘won’t be losing sleep’
Roy Keane has accused Sir Alex Ferguson of disloyalty, claiming that his former Manchester United manager ‘does not know the meaning of the word’ loyalty.
“I do remember having conversations with the manager when I was at the club about loyalty and, in my opinion, I don’t think he knows the meaning of the word,” said Keane last night as he responded to Ferguson’s criticism of him.
“It doesn’t bother me too much what he has to say about me but to constantly criticise other players at the club who brought him a lot of success, I find very, very strange. But I won’t be losing any sleep over it.”
He added: “I just don’t think the manager needs to do it. I don’t know how many books he’s written now but he has to draw the line eventually to say ‘listen, these players have been all top servants to Man Utd’.
“And a lot of these players helped the manager win lots of trophies so imagine if we’d never won a trophy what he would have said.
“We brought success to the club, we gave it everything we had when we were there.
“But, as I said, it’s just part of modern life now. People like to do books and criticise their ex-players.”
On David Beckham
“David was the only player I managed who chose to be famous, who made it his mission to be known outside the game”
On Roy Keane
“He has the most savage tongue you can imagine. He can debilitate the most confident person in the world in seconds with that tongue”
On player power
“In modern football, celebrity status overrides the manager’s power. In my day you wouldn’t whisper a word about your manager. You would fear certain death”
On Steven Gerrard
“I am one of the few who felt Gerrard was not a top player”
On Mark Bosnich
“A terrible professional... we played down at Wimbledon in February (2000), and Bosnich was tucking into everything: sandwiches, soups, steaks. He was going through the menu, eating like a horse”
On Rafa Benitez
“The mistake he made was to turn our rivalry personal ... I had success on my side”
On managing Manchester United
“I would sit in my office in the afternoon, with my work complete, wanting company”
On Frank Lampard
“I didn’t think of him as an elite international footballer”
Recalling what an un-named Inter Milan official told him:
“Do you know the difference between the English and Italians? In England they don’t think a game can ever be corrupt. In Italy they don’t think a game cannot be corrupt”
On the United States
“The States always intrigued and inspired me. I fed off America’s energy and vastness, its variety”
On former US President John F Kennedy:
“I developed a forensic interest in how he was killed, by whom and why”