As he drove away from the Crutherland House Hotel on the outskirts of East Kilbride in the spring of 2002, Sir Alex Ferguson could not escape the nagging feeling that he had provided just too much temptation to fate.
He had been dispatched north by the then Manchester United chief executive David Gill to scout potential headquarters for the club in the event of them reaching the Champions League final in Glasgow.
It remains among the biggest regrets of Ferguson’s extraordinary life in football that he missed out on that occasion in his home city as United manager.
That reconnaissance mission was rendered obsolete when his team, having led three times over the course of the tie, agonisingly lost on away goals to Bayer Leverkusen in the semi-finals of the tournament.
As he returned to the banks of the Clyde yesterday in his role as the Uefa ambassador for Glasgow as one of the 13 host cities for the Euro 2020 finals, Ferguson was moved to lament missing out on the Hampden showpiece of 14 years ago which saw Real Madrid defeat Leverkusen with Zinedine Zidane’s memorable winner.
“I had great experiences of taking teams to Hampden when I was Aberdeen manager,” recalled Ferguson. “But the one that I really regret is not taking Manchester United there in 2002 when they hosted the Champions League final.
“I always guard against complacency, it’s a disease. But, in the build up towards Hampden that season, David Gill told me ‘I think you should go up to Glasgow and check out hotels, because you know the place better than any of us’.
“So I went up and checked some out. I found one between East Kilbride and Strathaven. It would have been ideal for us, it was the perfect hotel.
“But driving away, I said to myself ‘I don’t like it. I should never have done this’. It was tempting fate.
“The whole build-up for me was about taking Manchester United back to the final in Glasgow, but we lost to Bayer Leverkusen in the semi-final. We were a wee bit unlucky – we ran out of time! The referee couldn’t understand my time and his time! But that’s life.”
Ferguson’s affinity with Hampden Park stretches back to playing there in a Scottish schools final at the age of 13, before it became the first home ground of his senior playing career with Queen’s Park. He was also an awestruck teenage spectator on its then vast terraces when Real Madrid defeated Eintracht Frankfurt 7-3 in the seminal 1960 European Cup Final.
He has no doubt the old lady of Mount Florida will provide an ideal stage for the three group matches and one last 16 tie which it will host at Euro 2020.
“I had no hesitation agreeing to be the Uefa ambassador, being a Glaswegian and having seen all these great finals. Glasgow has always been a great venue for any big game. I’ve seen all the European finals at Hampden, apart from the last one in 2007 when Sevilla played Espanyol in the Uefa Cup final.
“But I saw the Cup Winners’ Cup finals in 1962 [Fiorentina-Atletico Madrid] and 1966 [Liverpool-Borussia Dortmund], the European Cup final in 1976 when St Etienne were unlucky to lose to Bayern Munich, and of course the 1960 final when I was in the schoolboy enclosure. I remember watching Eintracht in the semi-final against Rangers at Ibrox. They won 12-4 on aggregate and we were thinking Eintracht were Gods. They were unbelievable, but then lost 7-3 to Real!
“My first game at Hampden as a player was for Govan High School under-13s against St Patrick’s from Dumbarton in the Scottish Shield final. It was 0-0 with ten minutes to go, then our goalkeeper was carried off injured and we lost 4-0. My last game there as a player was the 1969 Scottish Cup Final for Rangers against Celtic and that was another 4-0 defeat!
“But I had a lot of happy times at Hampden, especially with Queen’s Park. It was a great club with some great characters. I had two years there and probably left too early, to be honest. My first game for them at Hampden was against Alloa when I was 16 and I scored in a 4-2 win. I’d made my debut the previous week away to Stranraer and I’ll never forget it. They played me at outside right for some reason and I was up against a left-back called McKnight who really got stuck into me. The Queen’s Park coach was Jackie Gardiner, who I didn’t really know as I’d come from the youth team into the first team. We were losing at half-time and he was shouting at me, saying ‘What’s up with you, you’re meant to have this bloody big reputation’.
“I sat there and said ‘but the left-back bit me’. He just said ‘well bite him bloody back!’. It was a battle in the second half and our centre-half, a great character called Charlie Church, was sent off along with one of the Stranraer players who then got into a fight with a Queen’s Park supporter at the tunnel. The fan turned out to be a member of the blind party!”
When a day trip back to Glasgow evokes such a rich stream of recollections from Scottish football’s most successful manager, it is easy to see why he believes more special memories can be created when the city joins London, Dublin, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Brussels, Bilbao, Munich, Rome, Bucharest, Budapest, St Petersburg and Baku in staging Euro 2020.
“We have got four games here and it will be great,” he added. “It is a warm city, there’s no question about that, and anyone coming here, wherever they are from, will be well looked after and warmly received. Hampden isn’t as big as it once was, but it still has an aura about it. It will be great for Scotland and I’m looking forward to it. I hope Scotland can qualify for the tournament and that they have better luck than I did in 2002.”