Aidan Smith: Did I tell you about the time I never met Sir Alex?
Not even crumbs, more like a blob of Bazooka Joe, which was always the gum I wanted him to be chewing, furiously, during his incredible Old Trafford reign. Realistically, being the brand of my boyhood, this was unlikely, but it didn’t stop me fantasising about him having a standing order for the stuff and a favourite hiding place in the home dugout’s red brickwork. And about how many times he was tempted to leave a deposit on Arsene Wenger’s seat when Arsenal came to town.
I have never met Fergie but feel I can write about him as an armchair fan because he was such a fixture on the idiot-lantern that it seemed he was right there in my parlour (truly, if this had been the case, he’d have found the parlour parlous. My merlot comes from Scotmid). And, even those with a flimsy knowledge of, or interest in, football these past 26 years would have to confess: “Yes, I know that heavy coat with the built-in zipped cardigan and, yes, I know the cardie is attached and that the ensemble was specially made for him because, well, Fergie’s Fergie, isn’t he?”
Never met the man. Know all his catchphrases. “Football, bloody hell! Squeaky-bum time. Sometimes you look in a field and see a cow. That lad was born offside. You lot are all f****n’ idiots!”
Fergie was entertaining when he talked, entertaining when he didn’t (the long BBC ban) and hugely entertaining when he jumped up and down on the touchline, tapped his watch, tried to spook the fourth official, ranted and pointed and turned Bazooka Joe-coloured (there used to be a flavour called Grape Rage), then climbed back into his berth, where he was always the last to realise Manchester United had scored an injury-time winner, requiring a help up from Mike Phelan or a recap from Rene Meulensteen.
After a Fergie-featured game when we were returned to the studio – full of ex-pros in tight-fitting suits, blethering – I couldn’t wait to get straight back to the stadium, down in the bowels, where our man would deliver the definitive verdict on the performance. The interviewer had to prompt him with a question, and there was always delicious, sadistic anticipation over this. Sometimes you thought you could see the microphone shake, smell the fear in the voice. But Fergie post-match, as far as I can remember, never set out to ridicule or was contrary for the hell of it, like so many in football are. Intelligent questions got intelligent answers. And, if he was in a good mood, he’d sign off: “Well done.”
Never met the man. Saw him put the heid on Pat Stanton. Falkirk versus Hibs, 1972, a packed Brockville, thunderous game. No hard feelings, though, as evidenced by the call a few years later: “Hey Pat, do you fancy being my assistant at Aberdeen as I try to change the face of Scottish football?”
Remember Aberdeen? Sky TV’s rolling news last Wednesday didn’t. Filling airtime until the first proper pundit could be found, one voice was concerned that David Moyes didn’t have the necessary European experience for the Old Trafford job. Ah, said another voice, but neither did Fergie. Whoops.
I have never met Fergie but we spoke on the phone. I was writing a book on the Scotland-England rivalry and thought he’d be good value. He told funny stories and historical ones, about the Highland Clearances and Hi-hoh-ing Tartan Army fans with oxyacetylene torches intent on burning their way into Wembley. In namechecking the ref in the 9-3 thrashing and a deceased friend, you got a sense of his ginormous football brain and his loyalty. Who did he support in the 1966 World Cup final? “England,” he said without hesitation, a revelation which made Page 3 of the Daily Record. So, in subsequent tournaments, did he continue supporting them? “Ach son, I cannae tell you that. Dinnae forget I have to work down here.”
No, never met the greatest club manager, ever, but I’ve had a “Well done” from him and it’s a personal career highlight. Mind you, I’d have been just as chuffed with being called a flippin’ idiot.