ALEX McLeish could wax lyrical about his former gaffer all day. He has known Sir Alex Ferguson as a manager, as a father figure, as a driving force, an inspiration, a winner and a mentor.
The retiring Manchester United manager shared in many of his football highs and helped him through some of his most desperate personal and professional lows.
“I’m sure some of the guys who played under him wouldn’t call him a father figure but those are the people who have had run-ins with him over the years, but hearing people describe him as a father figure is particularly poignant to me. My dad died at an early age, he was just 43, and we were in Hamburg to play a European game. My mother contacted Sir Alex and he decided to keep the news from me until after the game – he thought that’s what my dad would have wanted and he was right.
“But afterwards, even when I had a dip in form because of losing my dad, I will always be grateful to Sir Alex because he was really supportive. I was only 22 when my dad died and he knew I still had some growing up and maturing to do in my football career and he got me through what was a really tough spell. You think you are invincible because you’re in the first team, you’re getting accolades and you’re so confident but then all of a sudden that confidence can disappear and that’s when a manager earns his salt.”
As a player, McLeish was part of the backbone to Ferguson’s Aberdeen team, which shone domestically and in Europe. The secrets to that success have proved hard to excavate, even harder to replicate. But the demands were high.
“At Aberdeen he was on top of you all the time. It was incessant. He pulled us up for everything just to try to improve us. He was testing us and you couldn’t go into your shell, the guys who did were culled. The guys who had the success stayed. We were the guys who felt we wanted to prove something to him and he had players with that kind of mentality all around the dressing room.
“The final of the Cup Winners’ Cup summed him up. I was coming in at half-time and I had made the first goal for us but I’d also made the first goal for Real Madrid with a passback and coming in I knew which one he was going to bring up. ‘What were you bloody thinking about!’ was roughly what he said but it was in words stronger than that. I was ready for it and I came back at him and eventually Archie had to step in and reminded us we had a cup final to win, but in the second half I went out to show him and made sure I didn’t put a foot wrong. That’s what I mean – he knew our characters and he got the best from us.”
Ferguson once said that while no-one can win every game, there has to be the desire to win every game. For him it doesn’t matter if that is in training or a title decider.
“I was speaking to Dwight Yorke the other week and he still goes down to the training sometimes and we were talking about Sir Alex’s management style and the fact he can’t get up close with players the way he used to. I think the hairdyer treatment has been used more fleetingly in the last few years, but he is still popping up at the back of the training ground and the players just hear the voice growling ‘Naw, c’mon, sloppy, sloppy’ and everyone quickly ups their game.
“But it wasn’t the case that nobody ever answered him back. His players weren’t softies so if we felt something wasn’t right we would have our say, especially as the boss would sometimes exaggerate it. He’d say things like ‘That centre forward has been coming off you all day’, and I’d say, ‘That’s funny, I only remember him coming off me once’. But he would always get the last word so I would just think, ok, in the second half I’ll just have to make sure he doesn’t get away from me half a time. That was his way of getting the best out of us.”
McLeish says it make sense that Ferguson would want to bow out after regaining the Premier League title.
“It was always going to come as a shock whenever he retired but he has gone out at the top after a great championship win. After last season, I think people assumed that Manchester City were going to spend multi-millions and take over the throne but he showed them, United came back and seeing him out on the pitch after they had won it I thought, ‘God, he’ll go on for another ten years’. But he will know that he has chucked it at the top.
“I know what he would have been like [after losing the title to City in the final seconds of last season] because I know what he was like just losing a game. I remember losing a game in Europe early in my Aberdeen days. I came out the dressing room and saw him devastated that we had lost that game. He was almost inconsolable. That was before the glory days, before he had any right to believe we should be winning every game in Europe, but that’s how hard he took defeat. So after last season, he would have had to take the whole summer to recover.”
Always part manager, part sports psychologist, Ferguson has moved with the times and been happy to share some of his wisdom with those embarking on the same career path.
“He has never lost that personal touch and it would be stupid of anybody who has the chance not to lean on the managerial experience he has. A lot of us have but I don’t think he has given everything away because he famously said to somebody, ‘See him? I’ve taught him everything he knows… I’ve just not taught him everything I know’.”