AS SIR Alex Ferguson prepared to end his magnificent managerial career he cast his mind back 39 years to the start – at East Stirlingshire, with eight players and no goalkeeper.
At West Brom tomorrow, Ferguson’s 1,500th and final game as Manchester United manager will bring down the curtain on the most remarkable career in British football history.
With 49 trophies, it is by far the most successful, ensuring the 71-year-old will go down in the history books, never to be removed.
And yesterday, as he prepared for the end, Ferguson could not help recalling where it all began, at Firs Park in Falkirk, home of East Stirling.
“I have had 39 years as a manager,” he said. “On that day in 1974, when I started at East Stirling, I had eight players and no goalkeeper. Today I have six goalkeepers and about 100 players.
“I remember the old chairman Willie Muirhead, he was a great chain smoker. When I asked him for a list of players, he started to shake. His cigarette was going 100 miles an hour. I had to remind him a couple of days later. He gave me a list of eight players and no goalkeeper. I said ‘you know it is advisable to start with a keeper, are you aware of that?’.”
And so Ferguson began building the first of so many squads he has assembled during his time in the game. And he did it on a shoestring.
“My first signing was a lad from Partick Thistle called Tom Gourlay. He was big. My God, he was big. I paid £1,000 for him. All the rest were £100 signing-on fees and free transfers.”
Glamorous it was not. Yet, as Ferguson sees it, the lessons learned in those early days, sweating for a living in the lower reaches of Scottish League Division Two, provided an invaluable education for what was to follow, first at Aberdeen and, for the last quarter of a century, Old Trafford. “It is an education for anybody,” he said. “In management, anybody should start out in that kind of way. I spent £2,000 on five players.”
There was no social media then, no 24-hour rolling news stations and no agents. “It is inevitable change comes around,” he said. “You have to manage that.
“There have been big changes at this club in terms of the number of staff, sports science, modern technology. When I started as a manager, there were no agents. There was no freedom of contract either.
“The media was different too. That is a difficult job given the pressure journalists are under with modern TV, the internet, Facebook and all the other nonsense.”
Ferguson was presented with a cake by the media, a mock-up of a front page with the Scot hanging up his hairdryer.
Major interest around his last game concerns whether Wayne Rooney will be recalled after the England forward’s recent transfer request.
Ferguson has already confirmed Anders Lindegaard will start in goal, with Jonny Evans and Phil Jones due to be partnered in central defence as the outgoing manager retains an eye on the future David Moyes will inherit when he takes over in the summer.
“Vidic and Ferdinand will just have to make do with a place on the bench,” he said.
This weekend is about the past though, and the Red Devils saying goodbye to a manager who has just delivered the last of an incredible 13 Premier League titles.
“The memories are all there,” said Ferguson. “When you have 26 years at Manchester United it is fantastic. The whole thing, everything. The day I came was a privilege. The day I have left I feel honoured.
“You run the gamut of emotions, of course. You can’t be successful without having disappointments. But disappointments are good for you. They are a challenge to you in terms of recovery. We have been good at that over the years.
“It is such a great club and I am lucky to have been here this length of time.”