AMONG the myriad characteristics identified as integral to Sir Alex Ferguson’s greatness, the retiring Manchester United manager’s humanity and basic decency have been reduced to the status of extras. Yet these took feature billing for Craig Levein in his dealings with the man, especially when it came to the 71-year-old’s treatment of Darren Fletcher.
As Scotland manager, in effect, from 2010 to 2012, Levein had cause to speak regularly with Ferguson over issues relating to the medical condition, ulcerative colitis, that has wrecked the past two seasons of the United midfielder and Scotland captain. It was made public in December 2011 that Fletcher suffered from an illness that has placed doubts over his career. Levein was privy to knowledge of the problem earlier and that gave him a special insight into Ferguson’s protectiveness of a player regarded as one of the most conscientious in the modern game.
“Darren has had that illness a lot longer than anyone in here knew,” said Levein, who was yesterday speaking at an ESPN promotion for this Sunday’s Edinburgh derby. “But Fergie gives him a four-year contract. What does that tell you? You couldn’t meet a better person than Darren Fletcher and I think Sir Alex knew that and made sure the laddie got looked after. And he was unbelievably helpful to the SFA with that whole situation as much as he was also unbelievably helpful towards Darren too.”
Just how accommodating Ferguson was willing to be with a fellow Scot, Levein discovered to his amazement when he went down to Old Trafford to talk to him about Fletcher as he made his return to senior action following nine months sidelined in the Capital One Cup tie against Newcastle United in September.
“I said I’d stay overnight after the game and go into training in the morning to see him,” Levein said. “But he said ‘No, watch the game and I’ll come and see you’. Kick-off was 7.45pm and he sat with me from 6.50pm to 7.30pm because I had a lot of things to discuss about Darren and about other stuff too. I know what it’s like an hour before a match as a manager. You’ve got so many things going through your head. He sat there for 40 minutes and answered every question.
“He had an important match but he was quite happy to give up his time to go out of his way to help. That told a big story about him. The amount of Scottish guys you speak to it becomes clear he’s so helpful to them all. Scottish guys down there have asked questions, and so has Neil Lennon, and he’s got time for everyone.
“For a man who has so much going on in his life he shows an amazing amount of patience and a desire to help. He phoned me about players. He phoned me about Darren quite a lot. He’s just an approachable, decent guy. We spoke about the Steven Fletcher situation, we spoke about a lot of things. He’s the manager of the biggest football club in the world but never once did he not return a phone call.”
The Govan-born patriot, who as international manager called up a young Craig Levein for a friendly away to Israel in 1986, has always had time to involve himself in projects or initiatives aimed at the promotion and betterment of the sport in his homeland. “When I was involved in the performance thing at the SFA, myself and Alistair Gray [chair of British swimming who assisted the Association in developing the strategy] went to see him and he spent two-and-a-half hours imparting knowledge about the key things we should be trying to implement in our performance system,” said Levein. “He’s always available and he doesn’t guard things, he shares information.”
Few would like to follow him at the helm of the Old Trafford club but that unenviable task could fall to a fellow Scot, David Moyes. Speaking at the same ESPN event yesterday, 58-times capped John Collins, who played for Everton just before Moyes took over, believes the fellow former Celtic player has the necessary attributes for the most daunting assignment in football management.
“I think he [Moyes] can [succeed him],” said Collins. He’s done an unbelievable job at Everton. He deserves a chance. I’m not sure you would want to follow Sir Alex but it’s a great club. He’s built it up and everything’s in place – the team, stadium, and training ground. Everything’s there. To keep winning trophies is the hard thing. But over a long period of time, Davy has maintained a high standard at Everton. What he’s achieved there, sitting in the top half of the table every year, has been terrific. He’s not had major funds to spend but he’s a good football manager. David Moyes could be an excellent manager for Manchester United.”
He won’t be another Ferguson because that position could never become vacant. “What he has achieved will never be repeated, that’s for sure,” he said. “We beat him once [with Monaco in the Champions League quarter-finals in 1998] although we maybe got a little bit lucky that night. Twenty-six years at one club winning trophy after trophy – unbelievable. He’s got so many strengths: he knows what a player is, knows how to motivate a player, knows how to put a team together, knows how to spend money wisely. When you put all that together it explains why he’s been such a special manager for so long.”