SIR Alex Ferguson – or just plain old Alex Ferguson, as his new book re-brands him – has returned to Aberdeen many times since his departure for Manchester United in 1986. But only rarely can he have done so with the Dons riding so high in the league.
That might be one reason why there was an extra buzz in the air at the Aberdeen Music Hall, where the latest Ferguson book tour concluded on Thursday. Successive recent defeats hadn’t managed to douse local enthusiasm for the return of the last person to bring the title flag back to the city, just over 30 years ago.
Even before the three-for-the-price-of-one hairspray hootenanny comprising Nik Kershaw, Go West and T’Pau, a coming attraction advertised on posters on the wall of the venue, Ferguson was able to convey what it took to be big in the Eighties.
It seemed significant that Ferguson should arrive back in town now, with Aberdeen mounting their most serious title challenge since the embers of that glorious decade died out in the early 1990s. There was last season’s attempt to keep tabs with Celtic, of course. But the eventual 17-point gap underlined that Aberdeen were not quite ready then. Are they ready now?
Strangely, there was precious little mention of Aberdeen’s currently lofty position as league leaders. The main task was to profile Ferguson’s new book, Leading, written in conjunction with another knight who forgoes having his title on the dust jacket, San Francisco-based venture capitalist Michael Moritz.
But, when Aberdeen manager Derek McInnes was revealed as being in the house, along with Gothenburg greats John Hewitt, Neil Simpson and Neale Cooper, discussion veered towards the current side, who aim to get back to winning ways against St Johnstone this afternoon.
“There is purpose in that team,” said Ferguson. “I watched the game against Celtic recently, and even with ten men, they were the better team. And they were the better team because they believed they could win it.
“There is conviction about them,” he added.
Even last season, when Aberdeen sought to draw level with Celtic at the top at Parkhead in March, Ferguson said they “dominated” for most of the opening half before losing 4-0. “Before [Jonny] Hayes went off injured, for 40 minutes they outplayed Celtic. They are not far away.
“They have a better chance now with Celtic’s policy of selling players,” he added. “Aberdeen are improving and have some stability to sustain their challenge now too.”
From someone who has just written the book on how to make “the impossible dream possible”, these were heartening words. During an earlier discussion, Ferguson talked about his early managerial challenges. They were different in nature, depending on the size of club and also, intriguingly, geography.
He recalled taking over at St Mirren, a club based in a town “devastated by unemployment”. “I had to motivate in a different way,” he said, with reference to touring the streets drumming up interest with a megaphone. “It was a depressed city, in the shadow of Glasgow,” he added. But in the north, where he was lured to Aberdeen, he realised a different approach was required.
“The further north you go, the quieter people are, no question,” he said, to a slight titter from those in the audience, which helped demonstrate the point. “What I had to do was create expectation. That is what a manager lived by. Therefore character building was important. Aggression. Discipline had to be strong.”
No doubt Messrs Hewitt, Simpson and Cooper can attest to this, with Cooper accused by Ferguson of “giving me my grey hairs!” All water under the bridge now, of course. These former players joined the rest of the audience in giving Ferguson a standing ovation, when he first stepped on to the stage as well as when he left it.
“You see, they haven’t forgotten me,” Ferguson smiled after Nicky Campbell’s introduction.
The BBC 5 Live presenter recalled being asked if he’d like to interview Ferguson on stage in front of a full-house in what is Campbell’s old university town: “How much will I have to pay you?!”
Campbell wasn’t quite as smooth a performer as his persona on radio suggests he would be. And there were areas he had possibly been advised to avoid: Roy Keane for one. While the midfielder wasn’t mentioned once, the thorny subject of world-class players was addressed. Keane’s name is of course conspicuous by its absence from Ferguson’s list of four he says he has worked with: Scholes, Ronaldo, Giggs and Cantona.
“In the last 50 years of Ballon d’Or, only two winners have been defenders,” Ferguson explained. “And I would question if one of them is a defender anyway – Franz Beckenbauer. [Fabio] Cannavaro is the other, and I am not sure he would have won it had Zidane not been sent off [in the 2006 World Cup final].
“So why only two defenders in 50 years? Because people want to see players like Ronaldo. I had great defenders, great midfielders. But fans want to see players who make a difference. And that’s the point that has been lost in all the controversy.”
The outro music was Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen, who, considering Ferguson’s advances Stateside, must feel his previously undisputed status as “The Boss” is now under threat. Ferguson, indeed, is due in New York for broadcaster SiriusXM’s acclaimed “Town Hall” series of talks, following in the footsteps of other “iconic personalities”, including Springsteen.
But he will be back in Aberdeen before long. In November, Ferguson will be inducted in the Aberdeen FC Hall of Fame. So, while he has, to quote the blurb in his new book, achieved “world-class success over a sustained period of time”, winning 49 major trophies to make him the most successful British manager of all time, he has still had to wait his turn behind the likes of Doug Rougvie, Joe Harper and Jim Bett to gain entry to this distinguished Pittodrie set.
According to an Aberdeen insider, he is apparently “amused” by the oversight which, presumably, is what it is.
The punters, meanwhile, still lap up Ferguson’s tales of yesteryear, drifting off afterwards beneath a bright but waning moon bathing Union Street in celestial light. They gathered across the road in famed Aberdeen grog-house The Grill to reminisce further about glories just re-lived. And, perhaps, to dream of those to come.