IN THE life and times of Sir Alex Ferguson it is hard to know what there has been more of; trophies that proved his greatness or stories that forecast his demise.
Yesterday, amid the paeans that greeted the announcement that the most formidable football man of all is about to retire, the mind drifted back to 2006, to a less than stellar period in his epic career, a time when people thought Fergie had “lost it”. It wasn’t just anybody saying it. That summer, it was his former captain and one of his most influential players who was ready to go public on how his mentor had changed – and not for the better.
Roy Keane was thinking of writing a book, a follow-up to his autobiography that would have picked up his story from 2002 onwards. Part of the book would be an exploration of how Ferguson’s focus had become blurred, how he had his head turned by his new friends among the thoroughbred horse-racing elite and how his hunger had lessened as a consequence.
There was a story about Ferguson bringing his new billionaire pal (soon to be his sworn enemy) John Magnier to the United team hotel in Germany on the day of the 2002 Champions League semi-final second leg against Bayer Leverkusen. Ferguson introduced Magnier and his equally monied friend, JP McManus, to some of his team, eventually getting to Keane who greeted them with a perfunctory hello delivered in the unmissable style of a man who clearly didn’t believe they belonged there, no matter how important they were. This was held up as an example of a less than focused Ferguson. The Fergie of old would have treated the team hotel as a fortress on such days. Nobody would have got in, regardless of wealth.
United bowed out of the Champions League that night. The following season they lost to Real Madrid in the quarter-final, the season after they never made it past AC Milan in the last 16 and didn’t even go that far the year after when they finished last in their pool with only one victory in six games. In the four seasons after Leverkusen, United won the Premiership only once. In 2003-04 they were third, 15 points behind Arsenal. In 2004-05 they were third again, 18 points behind Chelsea. The season after, they were second, eight points behind Jose Mourinho’s team. Keane had left Old Trafford by then. There was bitterness at the way he was shunted out the door. By 2006 he was re-evaluating his Old Trafford years – and particularly his relationship with Ferguson – and was poised to write what could have been an explosive story.
It never got written because that summer Keane was made manager of Sunderland and didn’t need the hassle that would have come with heavily criticising the most successful boss that British football has ever known. And it’s probably just as well for Keane that the book died a death for he would have been hung by his own words when Ferguson started to win everything in sight again. Others were not so fortunate. Back in 2006 there was almost a pleading for Ferguson to retire in order to preserve his legacy. His empire, it was written, was crumbling.
Since 1980 when he broke the Old Firm wide open and made Aberdeen champions of Scotland three certainties have existed in life; death, taxes and Ferguson.
For 35 years at Pittodrie and Old Trafford he hasn’t just fought every fight, he has won everything there is to win and silenced everyone there is to silence and he has done it with an unrivalled rage for power and control and justice as he perceived it. Willie Allison, a bigot in the Rangers PR department when Ferguson was a player there probably represented one of the first known illustrations of his extraordinary intensity in football and life. Allison was verbally assaulted as a “diseased zealot” and a “religious bigot of the deepest dye” who created a “poisonous hostility” to Ferguson simply because he had married a Catholic. One evening, during a summer tour to Copenhagen, Ferguson verbally assaulted Allison. His team-mates soon carted him off to bed only for Ferguson to return, in his pyjamas, for another blast at the kind of Neanderthal he simply would not tolerate.
He has spent his life railing and winning. One war after another after another. Willie Todd, the man who sacked him at St Mirren; the Old Firm; the SFA; Paul McGrath and the booze culture at United; Paul Ince and his ego; David Beckham and his celebrity; Jaap Stam and the indiscretions in his autobiography; Roy Keane; Kevin Keegan; Kenny Dalglish; the “disgrace” Arsene Wenger; the head of the noisy neighbours Roberto Mancini; referees too many to mention, some of whom had him “choking on vomit” such were the injustices they perpetrated against his team in places like Anfield.
Who have we missed? Loads. Magnier and the move to undermine and dethrone him when things went wrong over a racehorse; Brian Kidd his one-time lieutenant frozen out after comments in a book; the BBC banned and bullied; newspapermen banned and bullied; the FA attacked; Wayne Rooney’s bid for freedom and the portents of Fergie doom that followed; accusations that an opponent had recently tried to kill Robin van Persie on the pitch which was something of a reminder of arguably his most thunderous comment about a rival player when Paul Bosvelt of Feyenoord cynically hacked down Denis Irwin in a European game in the 1997-98 season. “You scumbag, you ratbag, you dirty bastard,” an incandescent Ferguson shouted at Bosvelt.
There’s an element of madness in him. Madness and cruelty, control freakery and rule by fear. Mark McGhee tells a story about the aftermath of an Aberdeen game with Forfar. Aberdeen reserves, that is. “In his (Ferguson’s) anger he kicked the laundry basket and these pants flew through the air and landed on another guy’s head like a hat. He didn’t move. Just sat there rigid. Fergie didn’t even notice until he had finished raging. Then he looked up at the boy and said, ‘And you can take those f*****g pants off your head. What the hell do you think you’re playing?’”
There are a million more recognisable images that encapsulate the Ferguson phenomenon but that snapshot of a player so petrified by his manager that he was afraid to remove a pair of underpants from his head has its place in the album. Of course, none of this would ever have been recorded for posterity had intimidation been his only trick. Hardness only took Ferguson a small distance down the road to greatness. Intelligence, psychology and remarkable football nous took him the rest of the way. And character. Without an inner steel he’d have been gone from Old Trafford before a single trophy had ever been won.
It’s easy to forget because it is so long in the past, but his early years at United were so horrendous that they would have broken lesser men. In the autumn of 1989 United fans were calling for his head in big numbers. “Bye-bye Fergie,” read a banner on a bedsheet at Old Trafford. “Three years of excuses and it’s still crap.” The Red Army fanzine called for his removal. His team were booed off after losing 3-0 to Spurs. Emlyn Hughes, the former Liverpool captain, had awarded him the OBE – Out Before Easter. He was a figure of fun. Brian Clough was in the papers saying he himself should have got the United job, not Ferguson. There was talk that Howard Kendall was going to replace him. Then United lost 5-1 to Manchester City. Ferguson spoke about it soon after. “Believe me,” he said, “what I have felt in the last week you wouldn’t think should happen in football. Every time somebody looks at me I feel I have betrayed that man. After such a result you feel as if you have to sneak around corners, feel as if you are some kind of criminal.”
Archie Knox was his assistant at the time. “I think Alex said he felt like going home and putting his head in the oven,” he told me a year ago. “It was a disaster. After games, we were parking our car under the stand and leaving through the laundry and that kind of stuff. There was a bit of that going on. It affected him. He says he became a bit of a hermit and, aye, he went into his shell round about that time. We weren’t maybe as close socially as we had been. I was trying to get him out for a drink but he didn’t want to. He was never going to chuck it, though. Never a mention of anything like that. Never. He was not going to throw the towel in.”
Force of will carried him through, carried him onwards through the various crises that followed, the doubts in the media and among the fans over his sale of Mark Hughes and Paul Ince, the storm over Eric Cantona and that karate kick, the uncertainty of his retirement that never was, the fear that swirled in United’s world in the early part of the new millennium and the eruption caused by Rooney saying he wanted to leave.
At one point in the early 2000s the criticism got so close to home that Ferguson imposed a seven-day ban on the club’s own television station. Those who questioned him were sent to the margins with their ears ringing and their senses assaulted. Some have never returned.
A world of praise came Ferguson’s way yesterday and the honours will grow until fever pitch on Sunday and his last stand at Old Trafford. He’ll appreciate the plaudits but, really, all he’s ever wanted in football was success and plenty of it and for three and a half decades he has stopped at nothing to get it.
A ruthless genius. A relentless winner. Perhaps the greatest football man there’s ever been. Soon to be gone, but never, ever to be forgotten.