The A to Z of Sir Alex Ferguson
Yoga fan, wine connoisseur, racegoer, leftwinger and scourge of idiots. What else have we learned about Sir Alex Ferguson as he steps down today after 27 years at Manchester United?
IS FOR ABERDEEN
When Alex Ferguson became manager of Aberdeen in 1978, there was an unwritten law in Scottish football: "If Celtic don't win the championship, then Rangers will." The Old Firm, as the two rival Glasgow clubs are known, owned the best players, attracted by far the biggest crowds and annually filled their boots at the expense of lesser clubs. By 1980, with characteristic fury, desire, aggression and cunning, a 39-year-old Ferguson had broken that mould. Aberdeen became the first non-Old Firm club to win the title for 15 years. They also won the European Cup Winners' Cup in 1983, beating the mighty Real Madrid. Fergie had arrived.
IS FOR BON MOTS
On Italians: "When an Italian tells me it's pasta on the plate, I check under the sauce to make sure. They are the inventors of the smokescreen."
On the final crucial games of the season: "I call it squeaky bum time."
On star striker Wayne Rooney's desire to leave the club in 2010: "Sometimes you look in a field and you see a cow and you think it's a better cow than the one you have in your own field. And it never really works that way."
IS FOR CATHY
She was three years older than him and shared his leftwing politics. They met during a strike at the Glasgow factory where they worked in the 1960s. He was Protestant, she was Catholic – a controversial marriage for the time. It has been hugely successful, perhaps partly due to Cathy's ban on football talk at home. Ferguson called her "the key figure throughout my career … a bedrock of stability and encouragement".
IS FOR DRINKING CULTURE
Sir Alex likes a drink, particularly if it's red wine. But when he arrived at Manchester United in 1986, he discovered a club where an entrenched drinking culture was affecting results. According to Paul McGrath, an accomplished defender who later confessed to alcoholism, Ferguson confronted the issue in his first week: "He laid down the law in no uncertain terms," wrote McGrath in his autobiography, "eyeballing those of us perceived to be heavyweight drinkers". A new era of professionalism dawned.
IS FOR ERIC
Eric Cantona – "the King" for United supporters – inspired the club's first league championship victory for 26 years in 1993. An extraordinary character, the Frenchman allowed Ferguson to display his full range of man-management skills. The most dramatic episode came in 1995, after Cantona's kung-fu kick on an abusive Crystal Palace fan. The jaded player took off for France during his eight-month ban, vowing to leave the English game. Ferguson scoured Paris in search of his talismanic forward. He persuaded Cantona to return and play a crucial role in the 1995-96 double-winning season.
IS FOR THE FERGUSON CLAN
Ferguson has sometimes been portrayed as a Godfather-type figure and family connections have occasionally attracted unwelcome media attention. Fans were sceptical of the abilities of Martin Ferguson, Sir Alex's younger brother, who became Manchester United's chief European scout. His son Darren played 30 times in United's midfield. Darren's twin, Jason, became a football agent. When a Panorama programme in 2007 alleged he had exploited his father's position at United, Sir Alex began a boycott of the BBC that lasted seven years.
IS FOR GIBRALTAR
Rock of Gibraltar was the name of a racehorse part-owned by Ferguson and the subject of an incendiary row in 2003 between the Scot and an influential Manchester United shareholder, John Magnier. Ferguson sued Magnier, a former friend, claiming he had been cheated out of stud fees when the prizewinning horse retired. An embittered Magnier sold his shares to the Florida businessman Malcolm Glazer. Ferguson's love of horse racing has continued – in April his nine-year-old gelding If I Had Him was a winner in Jersey. But on this occasion, his love of the turf and appetite for a scrap was to have damaging consequences for United.
IS FOR HAIRDRYER
Ferguson's capacity for volcanic explosions of anger made him a feared figure within the game. The "hairdryer treatment" involved an expletive-ridden tirade, delivered at extremely close-range, allowing Ferguson's hot furious breath to blow back the hair of the chosen victim. At Aberdeen, in the early days, the players gave their frightening manager the nickname of Furious.
IS FOR IDIOTS
That would be the press – used, abused and mocked by Ferguson down the years. Football journalists have been routinely banned from United's Carrington training ground for asking the wrong questions and writing the wrong articles. Professionally reliant on access, most have toed the Fergie line. But when the wisdom of his purchase of Argentinian midfielder Juan Sebastián Verón was challenged in 2002, the manager revealed his low estimation of the fourth estate, shouting: "I'm no' fucking talking to you. Verón's a great fucking player. Youse are all fucking idiots."
IS FOR JOANNA FAIRHURST
Poor Joanna. In 1992 she was going out with an 18-year-old Ryan Giggs, who had fallen under the partying influence of the slightly older Lee Sharpe, another winger at the club. Ferguson got wind of unacceptable high jinks. Arriving to confront Sharpe at his home, "Furious" discovered another party in full swing. He ordered Fairhurst and the other young women present out of the footballer's house and gave them all a dressing-down, calling them "silly schoolgirls". Giggs was fined a month's wages. And that was the end of Joanna and Ryan. "I really liked Ryan," she would say later. "But Alex ruled the roost and I never stood a chance."
IS FOR KIDS
In 1995, Alan Hansen,the former Liverpool player turned the Match of the Day pundit, leaned back in his chair and said: "You never win anything with kids." Manchester United had lost 3-1 on the season's opening day with a team containing stars of the club's brilliant youth team. But the "kids" – including David Beckham and Paul Scholes – went on to win a League and FA Cup double. Ferguson's faith in youth was one of the most attractive features of his reign.
IS FOR THE LABOUR PARTY
During the mid-1990s, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown could hardly believe their luck. The biggest winner in British sport was a staunch Labour supporter. Ferguson's socialism was inherited from his father and the shipyards of Govan in Glasgow. He has donated to the Labour party, helped out with promotional events and counts Alastair Campbell as a personal friend. As reported in Michael Crick's biography of Ferguson, The Boss, when a journalist observed that he shared an ability to survive on little sleep with Margaret Thatcher, he replied: "Don't associate me with that woman."
IS FOR MALCOLM GLAZER
When Malcolm Glazer, a Florida businessman, launched a debt-fuelled takeover of Manchester United in 2005, many fans hoped Ferguson would lead the campaign to stop the deal. Instead, he chose to adapt to the new constraints on spending. Five subsequent league championship triumphs and a European Cup are testimony to the genius of his management. But ticket prices have gone up at Old Trafford by close to 50% since the takeover, and the club has paid out more than £500m in interest on the debt. Many hardcore fans regret that Ferguson did not use his huge prestige to take a stand in 2005.
IS FOR NOTTINGHAM FOREST
After the first three Ferguson years, Manchester United had failed utterly to challenge Liverpool, the dominant club in English football in the 1980s. One United fan unfurled a banner at Old Trafford stating: "Three years of excuses and we're still crap. Ta-ra Fergie." Soon after, in January 1990, United's season rested on a difficult away Cup-tie against Nottingham Forest. There was intense speculation that Ferguson would lose his job following a defeat. Instead, United won 1-0 with a now-famous goal from Mark Robins and the good times began to roll.
IS FOR OMERTA
An iron rule of Ferguson's dressing room has been "no leaks". No matter how violent the exchanges or deep the rifts, all disagreement and conflict at Manchester United was to remain "in-house". By and large, to a remarkable degree the code of silence was maintained, to the benefit of both players and manager.
IS FOR PIANO
Ferguson has always been keen to cultivate a hinterland away from football, and has long cherished an ambition to learn to play the piano well. Cathy bought him a piano for Christmas in 2008. For a while he stubbornly attempted to teach himself, but eventually confessed that to progress he would need expert tuition and, most importantly, time. An assault on the keyboards is expected to be one of the principal activities of his retirement.
IS FOR QUEIROZ
Carlos Queiroz, a former Portugal manager, was Ferguson's number two for two spells during the 2000s. Differing relationships with number twos have been a feature of Ferguson's 27 years in charge. Queiroz was sophisticated and urbane, adding a continental lustre to the club, as it sought to dominate Europe. Walter Smith (2003-04), was an old Scottish pal. Brian Kidd (1991-98) was a former United player who got frustrated with playing second fiddle and struck out on his own. The current incumbent, Mike Phelan (2008-), is much-mocked for his insistence on wearing shorts at all times.
IS FOR RETIRING TOO EARLY
Quite why he announced he would retire at the end of the 2001-02 season is something of a mystery, given the subsequent 11 seasons of trophy-filled activity. But Ferguson now describes the timing of the decision as an "absolute disaster". As players speculated about life after Fergie, the team's form plumbed the depths. By February, Ferguson was assuring the dressing room that if players thought he was leaving a mess like this behind him, they could think again. Privately, he had agonised about the empty days ahead after leaving football. He was also worried that Cathy "would soon be fed up with me around the house".
IS FOR STALIN
Journalists loved spotting the great footballing dictator with a copy of Simon Sebag Montefiore's Stalin: the Court of the Red Tsar in his hand a few years ago. Ferguson has an abiding interest in the lives of great leaders and dictators. Another favourite was Team of Rivals, the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, given to him by Alastair Campbell.
"What was fascinating" he later said of that book, "was how he held together all these big personalities to make sure they stayed roughly on the same track. I am a manager of a football team. But I can learn about the art of team building and team management from all sorts of places".
IS FOR TALES OF THE UNEXPECTED
If Manchester United's manager of 27 years had to pick a single virtue that characterised all his football teams down the years, it would probably be, "They never know when they are beaten". It is a quality that led to many remarkable comebacks, most famously in 1999. Bayern Munich deservedly led United 1-0 as the European Cup final that year moved into injury time. Then two substitutes, Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, scored. It was the most dramatic turnaround in the competition's history.
IS FOR U-TURN
Ferguson has a justifiable reputation as an authoritarian, unyielding manager. But he is also an arch-pragmatist. Eric Cantona's importance to the team was such that he was allowed continually to break the club dress code, much to the frustration of fashion-conscious teammates, who were obliged to wear suits. One night Cantona turned up at a black-tie event wearing a cream jacket and red trainers. According to a teammateat the time, Andrew Cole, Ferguson told Cantona he looked "wonderful".
IS FOR VENDETTA
Fergie pursued dangerous rivals across the pages of national newspapers with unmatched vigour. In particular he took against Arsène Wenger, the Arsenal manager, who in the late 1990s created a team that threatened to surpass Ferguson's side. Wenger has a somewhat professorial air, which Ferguson, son of a Glasgow shipyard worker, chose to resent. Commenting on Wenger's supposed intellectual prowess, Ferguson told journalists: "Intelligence! They say he's an intelligent man, right? Speaks five languages. I've got a 15-year-old boy from the Ivory Coast who speaks five languages." As Wenger's teams threatened less, the enmity duly diminished.
IS FOR WINE
Sir Alex's emergence as the leading oenophile in British football has been well documented over the past decade. All managers are invited to share a post-match glass of red wine with Ferguson and Wenger obtained a black mark for declining the offer early in his Arsenal career.
At one point after he retiring as a player, Fergie ran a fairly rough Glasgow pub. Those days are now a distant memory. As with the horse-racing world, Ferguson has single-mindedly developed his understanding and appreciation of fine wines, at one point comparing Cristiano Ronaldo to a Petrus 1961. Pretentious, Fergie?
IS FOR EXES
When you fall out with Fergie, there's usually no going back. David Beckham's glitzy lifestyle alongside his Spice Girl wife grated with Fergie, who believed he the player was losing focuson his game. After an incident when a flying football boot launched by Ferguson struck him above the eye, Beckham was off-loaded in 2003. No player has ever been invulnerable. And when United's fearsome captain Roy Keane savagely criticised teammates on Manchester United's television station in 2005, he had broken the cardinal rule of keeping disputes behind closed doors. He was gone within a week.
IS FOR YOGA
While not known to be a practitioner, Ferguson's relentless attention to detail and pursuit of excellence has made him one of the nation's biggest yoga advocates and the club's training complex is a yoga-friendly area. Ryan Giggs nearly 40, and Rio Ferdinand, in his mid-30s, have both prolonged their careers using the discipline. On Giggs, Ferguson has said: "We used to think he had spasms in his hamstrings, which were related to his back. When he started doing the yoga, all that disappeared."
IS FOR ZERO
That's the number of first-team Manchester United games (out of 939) that Giggs has played under another manager. The twin longevity of player and manager is unlikely to be repeated in top-class football. "I remember the first time I saw him," Ferguson once said. "He was 13 and floated over the ground like a cocker spaniel chasing a piece of silver paper in the wind." Nearly three decades later, Giggs acknowledged the debt he owed Britain's most successful football manager, saying: "He's been the biggest single influence on my career. He's a great manager and a great person."
Filed under: Euro 2012
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