HIS managerial career began with humble East Stirlingshire in 1974 and spanned the next 39 years, during which time Sir Alex Ferguson won his first major trophy at St Mirren before conquering Europe with Aberdeen and Manchester United.
He announced his retirement last week, at 71. Here, those who worked with him at his four clubs recall the man and his methods.
(East Stirlingshire player 1969-1985)
MY CLAIM to fame is that I was the first player Alex Ferguson ever suspended. It was the September weekend, and I told him I was going away to Blackpool. He said “No, you’re not”. I said, “yes, I am”. He said, “well, you’d better be back for training on Monday”.
So I went to Blackpool, but I met some people that I’m still friends with to this day and I had to phone and tell him that I wasn’t coming to training. I told him that I was in Carlisle and that my car had broken down, but he was very quick. He said “give me your number and I’ll call you back”, which I did. So he knew I was in Blackpool. He caught a few people out with things like that. Anyway, he suspended me for a month.
He made a big impression at the Shire. You either loved him or you loathed him. If you loved him, you played for him. If you loathed him, you played to prove him wrong. He was only with us for three months but, if he had stayed, we would have won the league. He knew a player, and he had this knack of changing a game with his substitutions. He’s done that all through his career.
About two or three months after he left the Shire, he came in and offered about £10,000 to take me to St Mirren. He must have rated me because ten grand was a lot of money in 1974, but it didn’t happen. Ian Ure [Ferguson’s successor at East Stirlingshire] said that if the club sold me, he would resign. Six months later, the Shire were wishing he had resigned. Big Urie was alright, but he wasn’t Fergie. Who was?
Fergie had that hunger, that determination to get better and better, which he still has to this day. Why he’s retired I’ll never know. I was taken aback when I heard. He says he’s not a Jock Stein or a Bill Shankly but I think he’s better. He’s done it with St Mirren, with Aberdeen and for 26 years with Manchester United. He’s something else.
(St Mirren player 1973-1979 and 1981-1989)
WE WERE in the Second Division, in turmoil, but he came in and lifted the team, lifted the club, the whole town. There was a big meeting on a Tuesday night, and we were all waiting to see who he was keeping and who he wasn’t. I said to my wife “I think I’m out”. I was petrified, especially when I was the first person he called into his office. But he sat me down and told me how he saw great potential in the club, how he had a plan to not just challenge Celtic and Rangers, but surpass them. And he wanted me to be captain. It was a bit of a shock, a turning point in my life. I was only 17. And I was just coming back from pleurisy. I don’t want to over-dramatise, but I was from the schemes. I got married the week after my 16th birthday, had my wee daughter, and things weren’t going well football-wise, but he believed in me.
It turned out to be a fantastic time in my life, an incredible time for the town. I know we won the League Cup this year, which was a fantastic achievement, and we won the Scottish Cup in 1987 but, if you ask St Mirren supporters, they all talk about the Fergie years, when the whole town was behind the club. We won the league [First Division], we were charging on and Paisley was booming.
He was way ahead of his time. Clubs talk about communities now, but 35 years ago, we went about the streets with Fergie in a loudspeaker van like the politicians. We went to Ferguslie, Foxbar, introducing the players to people. When we were walking down to the ground, grannies and grandfathers were shouting “all the best”. He showed a community he cared. And he did the same at Manchester.
I remember the day he called me into the office to say he had been sacked. I can still feel the horrible sickness in my stomach. If you could turn back time, we would keep him there, without a doubt. I would understand if he had bad feelings about the club after the way he was treated. As far as I was concerned, he never did much wrong, and I was at the tribunal. But he still has a great love of the St Mirren supporters.
He’s been a great inspiration in my life. He kept in touch with me when I played for Bristol City, and a couple of times I nearly joined him at Aberdeen. If my son hadn’t taken unwell, I might have gone. Another time, after a heavy defeat when I was the manager of St Mirren, he phoned me early in the morning to give me a pep talk. He said: “Listen, your players need you. Get in to that ground and be standing at the door, looking them straight in the face when they arrive”.
It was great advice. Mind you, it only worked for a couple of weeks. I’m not Alex Ferguson.
(Aberdeen assistant manager 1978-1980)
WE USED to drive down to Glasgow quite a lot, and there would be long sections of the journey when we wouldn’t talk. We would just sit there. But I remember one time, we were passing Brechin, when he turned and said: “Do you think we’re alone?” I didn’t know what to say so I just looked at him. He said: “In the cosmos I mean. Do you think we’re the only people here?”
He never mentioned it again between Brechin and Glasgow, where we were going to watch a game at Hampden. It was only after the match, when we were getting into the car to come back up the road, that he said: “Have you given it any thought?” I assumed he meant the match, and I told him it hadn’t been up to much, but he said: “No, no... do you think we’re on our own?” He was on about the cosmos again. Maybe it was mischief, I don’t know, but I was still stuck for words. Anybody would have been. He’s a very intelligent man, an interesting man.
I was his assistant for a couple of seasons. One of my main jobs was to follow in his tracks, trying to calm things down. I was the peacemaker. “He didn’t mean all that,” I would say. “He’s just angry.” A lot of times I would agree with him, but you had to get these same chaps to go out on a Saturday and get a result for you.
When I left Aberdeen, I didn’t have anywhere to go. After I had been back in Edinburgh for a while, Cowdenbeath came on the phone, and I thought, “why not?” I quite enjoyed it there, but I remember talking to him about it and him saying “remember, these players you’re going to work with are not as good as the ones at Aberdeen. You’ll need to bite your lip a bit”.
(Manchester United player 1974-1988)
In his first game, at Oxford, there should only have been one winner, but they had a good team at the time, well organised, and it was a tight little park, a very difficult place to go. We lost 2-0. The press attention was just weird, cameras everywhere, TV, and I think the manager might have been surprised by that. I think he was also shocked that a squad of internationalists – English, Scottish, Irish, Welsh, Danish – were fourth- or fifth-bottom of the league. It was just wrong really.
The season after he joined, we were playing Wimbledon at Plough Lane. We were a goal down at half-time so when we went into the dressing-room, which you couldn’t swing a cat in, he had a right go at everybody. It was understandable. We were playing awful. When it was nearly time for us to go back out, he told the kitman to get him a cup of tea, but he was so hyped up and agitated that he took a massive gulp of this tea... then spat it out. It turned out that one of the Wimbledon apprentices had filled it with salt. Everybody was looking at the floor, smirking and trying not to laugh. It was very, very difficult. The players couldn’t get out of there quickly enough.
His first trophy was the FA Cup, followed by the Cup-Winners’ Cup and the League Cup, but the main one for me was the Premiership title in 1993. Once he got that under his belt, the club and the fans grew in confidence. And that was it really. It just took off.
The last few days have been difficult. I’m one of about 14 or 15 ex-United lads who work in different hospitality lounges at Old Trafford. I’ve been doing local radio work in Manchester for the last ten or 15 years, as well as work for United’s TV channel at youth and reserve-team games, and I can tell you, the place is quite sad this week.
As you go about the city, there are people with long faces. The Swansea game [at Old Trafford today] will be emotional for the supporters. It feels like there’s been a death in the family. Alex will want everybody to enjoy the occasion, especially with the league trophy being presented, but at the beginning of the game, it will be quite sombre.
We’ve been very fortunate for the last 15 years. I’ve got two boys that are 33 and 30, and all they know is Alex as manager, winning trophy after trophy. But talk to guys my age, guys in their mid-50s, and they’ll tell you. It wasn’t always like that.