This is a piece which quite frankly is not for everyone. Its very length may mean that it will need to be read over a couple of sittings but if you want to know what makes Sir Alex Ferguson tick through the eyes of a man who spent two years writing the newly released biography Football – Bloody Hell, it’s one that simply cannot be missed. Ferguson was a fresh faced 18 year old playing for St Johnstone when author Patrick Barclay first laid eyes on him fifty years ago and has followed his career ever since. Barclay is The Times’ chief football correspondent and his revealing interview with Sport.co.uk’s Sam Rider makes compulsive reading.
Morning Patrick. So much has been written about Fergie, what makes your biography different? – It is different because it’s independent. There has been so much written about him and he has written his own autobiography Managing My Life – which is more than a good read – but was published more than 10 years ago. Naturally there has been an awful lot that has happened since that needs to be caught up on.
To mention only four: Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, the Glazers and the various shenanigans that went on over the horse Rock of Gibraltar. With great men, politicians, sportsmen, musicians there is a great need for biography from other people to fill out the picture. When we look in the mirror we don’t always see an accurate reflection of ourselves.
How long has it been in the making? – It has taken two years. The project was actually suggested by my agent and like you I thought what more is there to say. I told him I first saw Ferguson when he was 18 believe it or not and he then outlined the fact that there was no one better positioned to write an independent account on the life of Sir Alex Ferguson. I warmed to the idea and I must say I became obsessed with the task. It kind of took me over but I really, really enjoyed it.
How did you go about accumulating the information? – I went to witnesses. Much of the stuff about his early life was in the public domain. I was able to measure it against newspaper interviews that he had given and conversations I’d had with him to get a more interesting picture. To look at it in the context of the times and locations was something I brought to it which gives an idea of the extraordinary fertility in football terms of the society he grew up in.
Anybody under the age of 50 would not be aware of how great the passion for football was in Scotland, particularly west central Scotland when he was growing up. With the role models of Jock Stein, Bill Shankly and Matt Busby who he succeeded at Manchester United, for somebody growing up in football there was no better place. How deeply ingrained football is in Scottish culture was something that I am rather proud I managed to convey in the early part of the book.
The main thing was to talk to football people he had grown up with including some opponents. To name but a few I spoke with Gerard Houllier, who he was friendly with but was obviously a deadly opponent in the United-Liverpool rivalry, and Jose Mourinho. Mourinho absolutely adores Ferguson and I was lucky enough to go out and have a long conversation out at Inter Milan’s training ground when he was managing in Italy. I also used interviews and conversations I had with Ferguson.
Was Sir Alex happy you were writing a book about him? – He started off very much against it when I pointed out that it would be a fair book. Being a fan of biographies himself he can hardly complain when somebody writes one about him. Anyway I made various arguments and he changed his mind but unfortunately he changed his mind again and the last I heard he was against it. The conversations I have had with him that do feature in the book all took place long before the project was thought of.
What is Ferguson like behind that steely exterior? What is he like away from the cameras? – I like him…I liked him. I find him less likable as the years go by. He is slightly intimidating but he is capable of great kindness, in particular with his time. He is always being advised don’t keep saying yes but on at least one occasion I would ring him up and he’d say he wasn’t doing any more interviews. Then he’d say “You’ll have to come early in the morning”. I’d say yeah that’s fine and he’d go “and I can only give you 10 minutes”.
So in the morning I’d go there and half an hour later people would be banging on his door saying boss, boss we need to get going and he’d still be talking. Those were fond memories but that wouldn’t happen now. Certainly not after this book which as I say for most of the time he’s been against which I’m very sad about because it is definitely not a hostile project, anything but. I’m not sure if I like him anymore but he is still a hero.
You said you first saw him as a fresh faced 18-year-old. What were your first impressions of him? – He was playing for St Johnstone in a match which is one of the most exciting I have ever seen. It was the final day of the Scottish league season, 1961/62, and I would have been about 14. It was St Johnstone against Dundee, my team, and we needed to win to be absolutely sure of winning the Scottish league championship.
That was the one and only time they did win it. Dundee beat them 3-0 and that confirmed St Johnstone, Ferguson included, would be relegated. So, I was there on the day Fergie was relegated and there are not many people who can say that.
Have you reminded him of that? – I’ve never quite had the guts. He was playing as a young centre-forward and he had another season with St Johnstone but eventually he went to Dunfermline and that was where his career really took off.
What were your first impressions of meeting him as a journalist? – I liked him immensely. At that time he was doing amazing things with Aberdeen. He won three championships with them, can you imagine them winning three now? And yet, with the background when he went to Aberdeen it was almost as difficult for a so-called provincial club to win the championship as it is now.
Now it seems almost ludicrous. He was already doing great things up there as a young manager having made a previous start to his career with St Mirren. So he was already well known then and Aberdeen were an iconic club a bit like Ipswich in England during Sir Bobby Robson’s time – very well run, family club – very well liked by people even if they weren’t fans of the club. The only people that didn’t like them [Aberdeen] were fans of Rangers and Celtic who had had their noses put out of joint.
At the same time Jim McLean, the manager of Dundee United, who Ferguson actually studied coaching with, was also doing well so it had turned Scottish football upside down. I met him through that. I was one of the journalists who travelled with the Aberdeen party to Gothenburg in 1983 when they won the Cup Winners’ Cup sensationally by beating Real Madrid – I actually drank Champagne from the cup. Don’t think a journalist would be drinking from Ferguson’s cups these days – so I got to know him there and I must say liked him greatly. He was very popular with journalists.
I remember when he came down to Manchester and there was a lot of initial scepticism about whether he could succeed. He took several years to convince Old Trafford that he was the man. I was arguing with everyone saying “Don’t worry this Ferguson is a brilliant manager, he’ll be fine.” My English colleagues would say yeah that’s fine in Scotland but not the league down here and in the end I think I was proved right.
What made him choose to go to Manchester United? I heard other clubs repeatedly came in for him throughout the 1980s. (Wolves, Arsenal, Tottenham) – Yes, Aston Villa as well but he didn’t fancy working under the allegedly autocratic chairmanship of Doug Ellis. That was the problem there. Wolves also failed their interview. He went down there and he was very unimpressed with the lack of atmosphere around Molineux and with some of the questions the directors asked him. Arsenal wanted him in 1986 but he felt that he wanted to take Scotland to the World Cup that year.
Jock Stein was his friend and appointed him as assistant with Scotland but Jock died almost in Ferguson’s arms in the final group qualifying match in Wales in the October and Fergie felt he had unfinished business on Jock’s behalf. He was going to make a decision on his future after the World Cup but that wasn’t early enough for Arsenal. They appointed George Graham and didn’t regret it. He was actually successful in winning a title in England considerably before Ferguson, two in fact [1989 and 1991]. I think Arsenal had the idea at one stage of having Ferguson and Graham working together.
At Tottenham he had a meeting with Irving Scholar, the then chairman of Spurs. He liked him a lot. They are both mad about trivia and quiz questions, they would have got on like a house on fire but again he just didn’t feel the time was right. He did actually want to win the European Cup with Aberdeen and follow on in Jock Stein’s footsteps in that respect but time ran out on that ambition.
So was it a case of right place, right time that led him to Old Trafford? – Gordon Strachan told me that during that 1986 World Cup he had said to him it was either Manchester United or Barcelona. Those were the clubs he would like to leave Aberdeen for. As it turned out Manchester United came in. This was a bit of an embarrassment to Strachan because ever since he had left Aberdeen for Old Trafford Fergie had been keeping in touch with him.
He would tell him about the booze culture and the main culprits so when Ferguson went to the club and attacked that culture and kept tabs on the likes of Norman Whiteside, Paul McGrath and Bryan Robson, Strachan was almost demonised as a sort of spy. In actual fact it was perfectly innocent as he was just keeping up with his old boss. I’ve got a lot of Strachan in the book. He was very helpful and had a lot of fascinating stories like that.
Ferguson and Jose Mourinho appear to have forged a close bond. Given the difference in age and football background how do you explain their relationship? –Mourinho gave me one fascinating insight into Ferguson’s personality. He told me about the Champions League 2004 quarter final at Old Trafford between Porto and Manchester United – they won a little luckily given Paul Scholes had a goal chalked off for offside even though he was on – and there was that famous scene of Mourinho running along the touch line, punching the air in that coat that later became famous.
What Mourinho told me is that when the Porto players had got back into the dressing room and they were jumping around as if they had actually won the Champions League, they were so elated for snatching victory and there was a knock on the door. Mourinho opened the door and there was Ferguson and Gary Neville. They walked in and they said well done lads, you deserved it and they went round shaking every player’s hand and said good luck with the rest of the tournament.
They walked out again and Mourinho told me the dressing room went silent. For months afterwards they said that was just so impressive and is an estimation of Manchester United and those two individuals. I think that behaviour by Ferguson naturally induced respect from Mourinho and I think although you wouldn’t expect Ferguson to warm to a coach who’d never played – football men usually are both – there was mutual respect between them both. He liked that Mourinho would cock a snook at everybody else but it was always “Sir Alex, you’re the king, you’re the boss” and I think he actually called him boss at one point.
I think sometimes you can actually get on better with someone a generation apart because you’re not actually in direct competition. This is purely a personal theory but I actually think if Manchester United wanted Jose Mourinho as their manager they could get him working alongside Ferguson and that would be the ideal thing. Those two seem to shelve their egos when they’re together; it’s a quite touching relationship.
Arsene Wenger and Ferguson’s relationship has been one of the most absorbing facets of the Premier League’s history. How do they really get on? – I think Wenger and Ferguson are in one sense, peas in a pod. They’re fanatical in that they treat their clubs as their ego and I don’t mean that in a critical way. They treat the club as almost their property. When they spend their club’s money it’s almost as if it is coming out of their purse. Now apart from Wenger, he’s the only manager talking about value. They are both fooball-holics or workaholics so they have got a lot in common. It doesn’t surprise me that they have now become friends and they were probably OK all along.
Yet Wenger doesn’t believe in all this convivial after match stuff and Ferguson does. He likes to feel that he is the host and offer the glass of wine after the match. Wenger has no interest in that. He doesn’t do socialising. That is the main difference between them.
Ferguson is a very keen socialiser and convivial person when things are going his way. Everything is on his terms and he does deserve a certain patronage over football. It is a very interesting phenomenon. An awful lot of people who appoint managers go to him. He’s a sort of godfather of football.
Which past players helped you understand more about Ferguson? – I particularly wanted to speak to United players when he arrived. Two players that were particularly helpful were Gordon Strachan, who has got a fascinating brain, as indeed has Mark McGhee who was his first signing from Aberdeen. Those two contributed hugely to the book with their ideas and reminiscences.
Another one who was able to cross over between the late Aberdeen, Scotland and United period was Arthur Albiston. The international left back was eventually released under Ferguson but didn’t have a bad word to say against him. He told me some fascinating stories about how the players realised the warnings Strachan had given them about Ferguson’s volatility were coming true. There was an incident at Tottenham when they won after ignoring Ferguson’s instruction to watch out for a particular Spurs player and everybody got a coating that day including Bryan Robson and that was unusual because Ferguson used to pay due respects to the skipper.
You identified the incident involving the Rock of Gibraltar racehorse being a fundamental moment in Ferguson and Manchester United’s history. How so? –Introducing investors John Magnier and J.P. McManus to the club coincided with his interest in horseracing. Having become friendly with Ferguson they bought a few shares in the club. Then as the dispute with Ferguson over the ownership of the racehorse Rock of Gibraltar intensified they started buying more and more shares and it snowballed.
By the time they had built up a stake that was around 30 per cent they were feuding with Ferguson and questioning the board over his role and the role of his son Jason. Then suddenly they sell that block of shares to the Glazers. So indirectly Ferguson was responsible for the Glazer regime at Manchester United and of course he has been a staunch supporter of the owners over the years and remains so.
Do you feel the problems between Liverpool’s Texan owners and RBS was an indictment of modern day club ownership? Do you think a similar fate awaits the Glazers and Manchester United with Ferguson caught in the middle? – I think by the time the Glazers day of reckoning arrives, like how Tom Hicks and George Gillett’s has arrived, Ferguson will almost certainly be gone. Certainly in terms as an executive role although who knows, he might have an ambassadorial or presidential role at the club. By 2016 or whenever the bond comes to be reassessed goodness knows what the debt will be.
It will be gargantuan and it will make Liverpool’s debt look like chicken feed. The sums just simply do not add up. There is certainly a time bomb ticking away at Old Trafford coming on top of the inevitable decline of Ferguson’s regime that will put Manchester United in what I would consider to be a pretty unpredictable state of affairs. Although I don’t think the decline will be as bad as last time when they ended up in the second division.
You recently were talking about how journalism has changed, and how you used to be able to call Fergie up at his home on a Sunday afternoon, waking him up, to ask about his squad’s injuries for the upcoming fixture. How has the industry changed during your career? – Oh, enormously. I remember when Liverpool were at their peak and Joe Fagan briefly took over as manager before Kenny Dalglish. I met Joe and said I’d really like to do an interview. He said: “Yes that would be fine lad. My number is in the book.” So I looked in the Liverpool telephone directory and under Fagan J was his number. It was extraordinary.
That’s an extreme example of how it’s changed and bear in mind that was only 25 years ago but of course because of the online media these days it is very difficult for people to have a relationship with everybody. Of course some managers are still friendly with some journalists and not with others but the access has changed completely. I mean I don’t think I know a single current player. That’s because of all the layers of responsibility, the agents. It has definitely changed.
Managers have too much to do with their time so that the lunches and drinks sessions don’t really exist anymore. Of course there is also a big gap in income between journalists and those involved in the game which tends to drive the two apart. It all comes down to make things very different. In many ways football journalism is as healthy as ever I think but it is not as much as a little community as it used to be.
Finally, who is the most exciting young Englishman that you would tip to be a world beater? – I’m going to give you a real boring one. I’ll give you a boring one and then a left-field one as well. Jack Wilshere closely followed by Kieran Gibbs. Not Daniel Sturridge…he’s not going to make it. Oh yes, the one who excites me most personally is Sunderland’s Jordan Henderson! He’s Beckham plus, believe me. I don’t know what he’s like off the field, I don’t know if he dresses up like Beckham but he’s got a wonderful touch and intelligence and vision.
He knows exactly what he’s doing and has been compared with Frank Lampard but I can see a lot of Beckham in him. I think he’s going to be a very big asset for England as the years go by and the style becomes more technique based and I think he’s got a very good chance of being a key part of that.
It’s hard to know what our readers think about that interview because opinions can vary so much. It has to be agreed however that while the old boy may be a cantankerous old bastard, nobody can possibly come anywhere near Ferguson when the greatest of the greats amongst modern day football managers are discussed.
Is Jose Mourinho the most likely man to succeed Ferguson at Old Trafford?