“Whit is it?” growled the voice on the other end of the phone. It was a voice woven into the fabric of Scottish football. After the old Hampden roar and some commentary-box exclamations, maybe the single most significant sound in what could be called our Bayview Tapestry.
Like most Scots, I’d enjoyed following this man’s progress in England when he turned up on TV post-match and thrilled to those moments when he didn’t like the question, then sat back and waited for the explosion. Now it was my turn to suffer.
Sir Alex Ferguson had either forgotten I would be phoning him at 8am for help with a book I was writing, or the matter had just become an irritation he could do without.
Perhaps his Manchester United superstars required some additional marshalling. Maybe, given that in his life he was once surrounded by riveters, he was thinking that what the Premier League really needed on this quiet Tuesday was for his team’s stranglehold over it to be tightened by an extra notch or ten.
“It’s a book about a Scotsman (me) trying to follow England at the 2006 World Cup, Sir Alex… could you tell me what the men in white shirts mean to you?”
Suddenly he was off.
The excoriating rasp – capable of removing rust from a hull – had been replaced by the fuzzy burr which had kept Only an Excuse? on air and other impersonators like his ex-Aberdeen charge Neale Cooper busy on the after-dinner circuit. And the stories tumbled out.
He told me about pilgrimages to Wembley as a fan, long before the Tartan Army marched with a self-conscious swagger. The lost weekends that became lost weeks and the excuses that were needed for the folks, and employers, back home. The extra-determined Scots who packed oxy-acetylene torches and sang “Heigh ho, heigh ho” as they burrowed through the Twin Towers. And the stories of how we won games and shouldn’t have lost others, even the 9-3 one. England were “fly”, he said. They were allowed to take a free-kick too quickly when there was only one goal between the sides. Fergie still wanted to debate this vile calumny – preferably with the French referee.
I got all I needed for my book and all I needed in confirmation that it might be worth me continuing with the job of asking questions of football men. On TV when Fergie approved of a post-match chat he would tell the interviewer: “Well done.” I got “Well done” that day and right now, with the game’s greatest-ever manager lying in intensive care, it seems like my career highlight.
That has been my only conversation with him. Others who’ve been subjected to the hairdryer treatment – similar to the blast from an oxy-acetylene torch, I would imagine – have written brilliant pieces about encountering him two or three times a week, how they had to be absolutely on their mettle each time, the challenges and rewards of a regular date with Fergie. I relate my slight tale to further illustrate the man’s generosity, humour and passion and because everyone’s thinking of him just now, and praying he makes a good recovery.
To be writing about Scottish football in the post-Fergie era for this paper, after he’d headed south for Old Trafford all of 32 years ago, is to be a collector of Sir Alex anecdotes which still bring a smile and sometimes cause a shiver. Maybe that’s just me and the way I go about my work, but I don’t think so. He continues to loom large over Scottish football, having ripped up its natural order so thrillingly when in charge of Aberdeen. Even at 76, five years retired, the merest hint he may have been interested in managing the national team would have got him the job.
The first to tell me a Ferguson story was Pat Stanton, his first assistant at Pittodrie. The Hibs man thought he was merely describing how Fergie, despite a hectic schedule as a colossus at the pinnacle of the game, would keep up with friends and those who’d helped get him there. “I could be walking along Great Junction Street in Leith one afternoon and my phone would ring,” said Stanton. But this is typical of Fergie. Many have similar tales. Celebrations and funerals, he’s almost always in attendance.
Now, I may not have been in the room when Fergie has blown his top, but I can pull rank on some journos for having seen him play and it was unforgettable. Brockville 1972, the fag-end of his career with Falkirk, Stanton’s Hibees the opposition, but he wasn’t about to go quietly. His jaggy elbows flailed all afternoon, he crocked Alex Cropley, he headbutted his future No 2 and was sent off.
Who knows, maybe John Blackley’s yarn came from the same humdinger of a game: “Just before kick-off Alex asked me to get a Hibs photo signed by all the guys. During the game he elbowed me in the jaw. ‘But I got the autographs you wanted,’ I said. ‘He said, and the incident is in one of his books, ‘There’s nae friends in football, John.’”
Roy Barry used to fight with Fergie all the time – and this was when they were team-mates at Dunfermline. “We were aye at it,” Barry told me. “After one punch-up, [manager] Willie Cunningham – hands like big shovels, no one messed with him – said: ‘Right, I’ll have you both, who’s first?’ His solution was to make us room together and, after that, everything was fine.”
As we can see from the past few tense, sad days since his brain haemorrhage was revealed, there are friends in football. Friends at Manchester City, Liverpool and other fierce rival clubs to the one ruled so imperiously by Fergie. You have to be a bastard in football sometimes but it’s nothing personal.
Among the many fine words, Hearts manager Craig Levein told how he always thought of Fergie as “indestructible” and how his passion for Scotland and Scottish football shone through every time Levein visited Old Trafford during his spell in charge of the national team.
This reminded me of his sign-off during our 20 minutes of cherished conversation. He’d already admitted that in 1966 he wanted England to win the World Cup because at that time he was a young footballer measuring himself against their players. “I could equate myself to them,” he said. And what about World Cups after that, did he still cheer for them?
“Ach, I cannae tell you that, son,” he whispered. “Dinnae forget I have to work down here.”