Alex Ferguson, faithful son of Govan
However famous he became, the Manchester United manager never forgot the Scottish community where he was born
It remains the highest accolade a working-class community can confer on a successful son: "He never forgot his roots." Even in an age where short-term gain and immediate gratification have replaced hard graft and just recompense, some older values still prevail. On countless occasions during these last 25 years Sir Alex Ferguson has turned his car once again on to the M6 north to quietly honour the community that reared him.
Many of these were unheralded and unchronicled: another presentation to the Harmony Row Boys Club in Govan, which continues to provide hope and opportunity in an area blighted by unemployment, poverty and gang warfare; the funeral of a former footballing comrade, where his presence provided comfort to a family who were simply glad that he had remembered.
As the online tributes rolled following the announcement of Ferguson's retirement, it was the little bouquets of poison here and there that reminded you how shallow and spiteful the world of Premier League football is. A profanity-strewn squabble with bewildered old John Motson was trotted out; Fergie time; the hairdryer treatment; the intimidation of some match officials; the trackside battles with Wenger and Benitez. The praise from supporters of other clubs and some commentators was grudging and qualified. Yes he was a great football manager but, oh dear, he was nasty, bullying, aggressive and belligerent. Laid out head to foot these incidents would barely fill a single day of Ferguson's life over 27½ years. Yet many who have never met the man in person still chose to define his character with them.
Like many other old, urban working-class neighbourhoods, the burgh of Govan, on the western side of Glasgow, has been diminished by the failure of Tory and Labour administrations to step in when help was needed most. The area has never been considered affluent, but when the shipyards were in full spate and the men were building Britain's navy, there was reasonably paid employment and something approaching community. People "belonged" to Govan, even those whose only acquaintance of it was merely to be born in the old St Frances maternity home.
Now it hosts the headquarters of BBC Scotland and Scottish Television and something called The Hub, which seems to be a honeycomb of "units" and "pods" for people who want to make animated short films and radio advertising jingles. There is decent employment to be had here, but few from the surrounding streets will ever see inside.
The handsome red sandstone tenements remain and there is an unquenchable spirit in organisations such as the Harmony Row Club. A walk through what passes for a shopping centre in Govan, right next door to the underground, can be a depressing experience. Then you happen on a large notice board festooned with flyers and cards, many offering help, companionship and solidarity to those who have been deemed surplus to the requirements of consumerism. There is leadership here; they are standing their ground, refusing to back down. They provide a link to the community values of old Govan, and it is within this tradition that Ferguson was reared.
These streets have bred leaders. As Ferguson was taking his first steps in football management, the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders sit-in was taking place and Jimmy Reid, another son of Govan, was having his finest hour. Reid's oratory and leadership helped orchestrate one of the last victories of workers over owners and humbled a Tory government. Reid, like Ferguson, had few academic qualifications but educated himself in one-man tutorials in Govan library. His address to the students of Glasgow university on being elected rector some years later was reproduced in full by the New Yorker, an accolade for which every gilded Scottish newspaper journalist would sacrifice the rest of his career.
In 1915, a few decades before Ferguson was born, and just a few streets away, a woman called Mary Barbour led a rent strike against rent-racking landlords who were trying to exploit them while their men were fighting for Britain. Her belligerence and intimidation of the opposition (she and her followers debagged sheriff officers before they could serve eviction orders) won the day and David Lloyd George was forced to pass the Rent Restrictions Act. Ferguson was lit by the same passion.
Govan though was no different in character and outlook to many other poor urban communities in lowland Scotland. The same values characterised the mining towns and villages that produced Jock Stein, Bill Shankly and Sir Matt Busby. Neither is this to suggest that these places were working- class Gardens of Eden where everyone was greeted with a cheery salute and a tip of the cap and lived out a noble and higher existence based on collectivism and the works of Charles Dickens.
They were simply fiercely loyal to their family and to those with whom they worked and prided themselves simply in being around when help was needed. These places bred strong and patriarchal figures simply because a rough discipline was required to keep a community together in the face of hardship .
Society has long been done with robust patriarchs laying down community martial law and so, yes, we will never see the likes of Ferguson again. I have no inside track on how discipline was maintained in the Manchester United dressing-room, but it probably wouldn't have been too complicated: defend your players and colleagues at all times, treat everyone else like the enemy and keep all sanctions in-house. The Duke of Wellington was lauded for it; the Lord of Stretford has been vilified for it.
My favourite Ferguson story, apocryphal or not, concerns Wayne Rooney and Rio Ferdinand. It occurred five years ago when Clyde FC, a fine old Glasgow club now reduced, was celebrating the 50th anniversary of its 1958 Scottish Cup triumph – its last major trophy. Ferguson brought a strong Manchester United XI to play in a commemorative match and raise funds for his beleaguered hosts. The players had arrived by coach, but after the game Rooney and Ferdinand forsook the community-style transport and hired a limo. A furious Fergie ordered them both to train on their day off for breaching the precious club ethos.
I've never met Ferguson, but he did render me a kindness when he was manager of an all-conquering Aberdeen team. I had travelled with friends to watch Celtic humiliated yet again at Pittodrie by a team inspired by Gordon Strachan, Willie Miller and Alex McLeish. Drowning our sorrows in a city centre bar after the game we were told that the next, considerably large, round of drinks had been paid for by the gentleman exiting with his wife. It was Ferguson and he had simply wanted to show compassion in his hour of triumph. In a moment he had ceased to be "that bastard, Ferguson" and was a kind, thoughtful man.
Filed under: Euro 2012
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