Alex Ferguson is celebrating 25 years at Man Utd but as his former assistant remembers, life there wasn’t always so easy. By Tom English
The funny bit, says Archie Knox, was how it happened in the first place. A day in Aberdeen in late 1986, Knox putting the young Dons through their paces in Seaton Park, Alex Ferguson zooming towards him in a Merc. “Cannae mind the colour, but he was travelling.”
He was going at such a lick that a sense of foreboding came over Knox, whose mother was ill at the time. “I thought, ‘Oh Christ, here he is with some bad news for me’.” Ferguson stops the car near the training pitch and reverses down the narrow channel to where his Pittodrie lieutenant is standing. He winds down the window and comes to the point.
“Right,” he says. “We’re going to Man United’.”
“I says, ‘Oh aye, good’.”
“He says, ‘You’ll be offered the job here’.”
“I says, ‘I’m no’ wanting the job here. I’m on-board with you’.”
And that was it. That was how Ferguson and Knox decided they were going to leave Aberdeen and join Manchester United. “He drove off to I don’t know where and I went back to my training. It was all done in 30 seconds. Maybe less.”
It was 25 years ago this coming Sunday that Ferguson became the United manager, joined down south three weeks later by his assistant, his confidant and in the early months, his house mate, too. Knox is sitting in his office at Pittodrie reminiscing about the four and a half years he spent at Ferguson’s side at Old Trafford, four and a half years of heavy turbulence the severity of which we tend to forget, so distant are they. “A quarter of a century,” he says. “It’s unbelievable he’s there that long. Unbelievable. Doesn’t seem like 25 years, though. No.”
In the beginning, before the titles and the cups and the glory and the adulation, there was a modest start. They stayed together in hotels, from the Four Seasons in the city to some place in Sale that Knox struggles to remember the name of now. Later, they moved to a house in a place called Timperley, found by Ferguson after a conversation with a chef. “A two-bedroom semi in a housing scheme,” says Knox. “We’d never seen it before, but we took it. We went through the door, Alex dived up the stair and got the best room and that was it.
“We used to take a turn about on a Sunday morning. I’d go and get the papers and the rolls, the bacon and egg and he’d make the breakfast. I got the stuff one day and I’m in reading the paper when there’s this almighty explosion. I thought the kitchen had been blown up. So I run through and here’s Alex going like this, waving his arms and flapping at the fire and the smoke. There was one of these old cookers with the grill on top. He’d left a big box of these Swan matches on top of the grill and they’ve caught fire. What a bang! The neighbours were out and everything. ‘Was that a gas explosion?’ ‘No, ’twas him there and a box of matches’. That could have been the end of the United thing before it got started.”
Alex and Archie in the big city. “We used to go to the pictures together. We’d be standing in the queue, down at that Salford Quays when it was starting to get built up and they had the big cinema thing down there and we’d go and we’d get wor sweeties and stuff like that ’cause there was nothing else to do. And people would be looking at us as if to say, ‘Christ almighty, what’s happening here?’ I cannae mind what the pictures were. Probably fell asleep. We’d have been knackered.”
In 1986, everything about United was tired. They hadn’t won a league championship in 19 years. They’d finished fourth, fourth and fourth the previous three seasons, 12 points behind Liverpool in 1986 and 14 points behind Everton in 1985. By the time they replaced Ron Atkinson on 6 November, 1986, United were adrift again. They’d played 13 league matches and had won only three. They ended up in 11th that season, 30 points behind the champions, Everton. The following year they rallied to second, then in Ferguson’s third season they were 11th again, 25 points behind the champions, Arsenal.
“There was a discipline problem at the club. Boys drinking and drink-driving. Always stories about us. Always leaks from the dressing room. Well, that had to stop for a start. And it did stop. We stopped it dead. Players were doing similar things at Anfield but nothing ever came out of there. Never one iota came out of that club. Alex was constantly on about that. Whatever goes on here it doesn’t leave here. It stays where it is. He became a little bit obsessed with Liverpool. I can remember going to Liverpool, maybe our first time there, and after the match there’s Kenny [Dalglish] and Joe Fagan and Ronnie Moran and Roy Evans and the whole backroom staff, scouts and everything piled in and Alex and I went in on our own and it was ‘Aye, your team played well today’. I can’t remember the score; 2-1 to them or something like that, and it was that sort of patronising way they had. Alex walks out the door and says, ‘Right, that’ll be the last time we’ll be in there on our own’. Next season we went in mob-handed. Everybody’s there, the reserve team coach, youth team coach, kit man, laundry lady, girls who make the tea. We were all in the room. Alex didn’t want them intimidating us with their numbers.”
It wasn’t working, though. Ferguson had shaken up his team. Kevin Moran and Paul McGrath left – or were booted – and in their place came Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister. Frank Stapleton and Norman Whiteside had been shifted and in came Brian McClair and Mark Hughes. Gordon Strachan had gone and Paul Ince and Neil Webb had arrived and yet the results were awful.
That was when the doubts in the press and on the streets cemented to certainty. Autumn of 1989. A horrendous period. Calls for his head by the week. “Bye-bye, Fergie,” read a banner on a bedsheet at Old Trafford. “Three years of excuses and it’s still crap.” The popular Red Army fanzine went to war against him. “Resign now,” it screamed. “Do the decent thing for Man United.” They were booed off against Spurs after losing 3-0. “Oh aye, I remember,” says Knox.
In the September, they lost 5-1 to Manchester City.
“The turmoil that caused...” says Knox.
Ferguson spoke about it soon after. “Believe me,” he said, “what I have felt in the last week you wouldn’t think should happen in football.”
“Aye,” says Knox, as he listens to the quote. “I remember it.”
“Every time somebody looks at me I feel I have betrayed that man. After such a result you feel as if you have to sneak around corners, feel as if you are some kind of criminal,” said Ferguson.
“I felt the same,” says Knox. “It was like that. I think Alex said he felt like going home and putting his head in the oven. That’s it. It was a disaster. After games, we were parking our car under the stand and leaving through the laundry and that kind of stuff. There was a bit of that going on. It affected him. He says he became a bit of a hermit and, aye, he went into his shell round about that time. We weren’t maybe as close socially as we had been. I was trying to get him out for a drink but he didn’t want to. He was never going to chuck it, though. Never a mention of anything like that. Never. He was not going to throw the towel in.”
They lost at home to Crystal Palace, a side that had shipped nine goals to Liverpool not three months before. Howard Kendall was rumoured to be taking over from Ferguson. The FA Cup run of 1989-90 saved him; 1-0 away to Nottingham Forest (and the famous Mark Robins goal), 1-0 away at Hereford, 3-2 in Newcastle, 1-0 at Sheffield United and 240 minutes of a semi-final against Oldham, an experience Ferguson described as “the most draining thing I’ve ever been part of. The pressure got to me mercilessly. Never have I been so overcome.”
“The pressure was incredible,” recalls Knox. “There we were, right. We were convinced that things were on the up but we needed proof. And winning the cup would have been the proof we needed and we draw 3-3 after extra-time and then it’s extra time again in the replay. There was a massive strain there. Massive.”
Validation, as history recalls, came with that replayed cup final victory against Crystal Palace. “He was up and running then,” says Knox. “He was on his way. He had the players, the confidence, the whole bit. Next season, we won the Cup-Winners’ Cup and it was only heading one way after that.”
The Ferguson story went into the realms of fantasy, but it did so without Knox. A week before United faced Barcelona in that European final, Ferguson’s loyal assistant, the man he once described as a “beast for work”, accepted an offer from Rangers and headed back to Scotland.
“People ask was there a fall-out between us, but there was nothing like that. I got paid more at Rangers than I was ever going to get at Man United and that was it. It was unfortunate timing, but there was no way out of it. I asked Rangers could I stay on for the final, but Rangers didn’t want it. Alex got my salary up by quite a margin but it still fell well short of what I was getting at Rangers and when you have a wife and kids and you don’t know how long you’re going to be in football, you’ve got to look after them. If it had been just football, I’d have stayed. No doubt about that. But there were other issues to take care of. If you’re not a wealthy person then here’s an opportunity to get myself in a better position for my family. That was the only reason. I’ve never said that to anybody before.
“You cannae look back. No. You cannae have that. I made my decision and had great times at Rangers. Och, in an odd moment you might think, I could have been part of all that down there, but that’s the way it goes. Not in my wildest dreams could I have believed he could be there this length of time. I’ll see him Thursday. I’m looking forward to that.”
Up above him on the wall he has Thursday’s date marked out, a day when he will go to England and celebrate Ferguson’s 25-year milestone at a dinner at the Lancashire Cricket Club. Many will come, but not many will understand what it was like for him in the beginning when the roars of approval seemed so distant. “Aye, it’ll be good. We’ll have a chat. I’ll remind him of the time he nearly blew himself up grilling the breakfast.”