They were preparing to face Braga in the Champions League. In the background to this frenzy of front-line football action, manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s wife, Cathy, had recently lost her sister and best friend, Bridget. Unbeknown to almost everybody, things had changed at one of the world’s biggest football clubs.
One of the results of the serious contemplation this family loss provoked in Ferguson is that on the night Manchester United were playing an important Champions League tie against Real Sociedad in Spain, he was not there. He was not even watching on television.
Instead, Ferguson was on stage at the Aberdeen Music Hall. He was on tour. He was back in what many will consider to be his emotional home. He was operating under the slogan “Alex Ferguson Live”. He was having to think about how many sticks of chewing gum he would like included in his rider backstage rather than how to cope with Sociedad’s rampaging full-backs in the Basque country.
The last time many of those in the audience shuffled into the Aberdeen Music Hall was probably to see a band emerge from clouds of dry ice. That was certainly true of this writer. So when the lights dimmed in preparation for the star attraction’s entrance on Tuesday evening, it seemed slightly odd to see a 71-year-old in a suit amble onto the stage. One supposes he hadn’t been responsible for the music selection, which included songs from James and the Stone Roses (although he might well have asked for the Aberdeen FC ‘European Song’ from 1983, which also got a well-received airing).
Some have noted how much less fearsome Ferguson already seems to be, just a matter of months after he stepped down as manager. And he does seem slightly denuded. However, he also appears to be benefiting from the release from the relentless round of football matches. He looks well.
Something Ferguson has described as one of his greatest reliefs about leaving football management is that he didn’t have to watch endless re-runs of himself carrying out press-conference duties on sports news channels. So it must be slightly dismaying for Ferguson to still be surrounded by pictures of himself. They hung down on banners behind him, they adorned the walls outside the venue and his face even stared out at you from the T-shirts worn by the helpful elves handing out books to members of the audience on the way in.
He has accepted he is in the midst of a promotional blitz and so must endure the determination of his publishers to strike while the iron is hot. If there is one criticism of the book – Alex Ferguson: My Autobiography [Hodder & Stoughton] – it is that it has a slightly rushed feel to it. While Ferguson appears fazed by the storm of reaction that has been generated by its release, sales are record-breakingly high. So going around the country and charging over £40 (the price included a book, to be fair) to hear you speak is how it has to be, although he does appear supremely at ease with the format: a few questions from master of ceremonies Dougie Donnelly, none from the audience.
While Ferguson certainly cuts a more grandfatherly figure, he retains an ability to remember minute details – how else could he sit and talk without notes for nearly an hour and a half about games in the dim and distant past? He stumbled only once and was slightly irritated with himself as he became briefly muddled when trying to chart the chronology of events surrounding being dropped by Dunfermline for the 1965 Scottish Cup final against Celtic.
Sensibly, the event had been tailored slightly to suit the needs of this particular audience. While there were some enjoyable introductory “dumping ashes in the midden” memories from his Govan childhood, the focus was trained on his Aberdeen days. He said he rated Steve Archibald as being one of the top ten strikers he worked with. There was obviously plenty on Gothenburg, and being trampled upon after slipping in a puddle following the explosion of bodies from the dugout when John Hewitt scored the winning goal against Real Madrid.
It is unlikely that in Dublin tomorrow night, the tour’s next stop-off, they will hear as many tales about the St Clair ferry which famously ran out of booze about five miles from shore – that’s the Aberdeen shore – while en route to Sweden for the Cup Winners’ Cup final.
But such memories were lapped up by those in attendance. Otherwise it was a well-behaved evening on the road with Fergie. But then most had already been on the road with Fergie many times before.