Perhaps the day Fergie has dreaded most of all
Published 09/05/2013 | 05:00
Now for the rest of his life, and the hope that he will be able to fill it – because for all of the talk about his eclectic interests, it is hard to avoid the impression that the day is soon upon us which has filled Alex Ferguson with dread.
He declared a few years back that he would travel more – New York has become an increasing part of his life in the international breaks which he has used to rest – and would "even read history books". There would be languages to study, because the passage of time had made him rather sentimental about the four years of German he studied at school. "It comes easy with the guttural accent of the Scots. I've been studying French for years. I could take on Italian... I already know a few sentences..."
Spoken with the certainty of a man who has commanded his own environment for so long, who also says he feels he needs a piano tutor to enhance his self-taught ability.
As the list went on and on, these felt like the words of an individual trying to convince himself that there was so much to do and so little time, though the memory which most seemed to haunt him was, in fact, that of his father, Alexander, who retired on his 65th birthday and was dead a year later.
An 80-year-old Bernie Ecclestone's assertion that people retire to die struck a chord. "He's right," the soon-to-be former Manchester United manager once said.
His long-planned role in appointing David Moyes will give him a sense of entitlement to remain involved in the club which has been defined by him – and it will be natural for him to cast back to his early United years when the pipe smoke drifted out of Matt Busby's office and the former manager called him in. Theirs was a cordial relationship and the club's owners, the Glazers, will encourage Ferguson to guide Moyes and make it a transition in more than name. But he will not be the manager.
He will be free, of course, to attend the racecourses which have become a passion, even though the announcement of his retirement seemed to have contributed to his absence yesterday from the big May meeting at Chester. It meant that he missed his runner in the fifth race.
Butterfly McQueen finished a promising second, and so volunteered herself as one future distraction for a man notoriously lacking many outside football. More auspiciously still, Ferguson also has a share in a colt named Telescope, which won his final start last year impressively, has been burning up the Newmarket gallops this spring and goes on trial for the Derby at York next week. These horses run on the Flat, but last month Ferguson also had an interest in two in the Grand National.
But it would be a mistake to conclude that the man from Govan is any kind of big player in horseracing – or that he has any particular desire to become one. Trainer Paul Nicholls is fond of invoking his patron as an inspiration and source of advice, but only in terms of the common challenges they face as leaders.
The fact is that Ferguson still talks of his horses in the same artless vernacular you might hear in a Govan betting shop. During Rock Of Gibraltar's record spree of seven consecutive Group One wins, in 2001 and 2002, he persevered in referring to the colt as "it" rather than "he". By confining himself only to a share of various horses – reckoned to be up to 20 in all – Ferguson distances himself from the obsessive standards he applies to matters under his control.
One of his trainers does divulge that Ferguson once made a discreet telephone call at half-time, when he had a runner during a match. But his interest remains unpretentiously rooted. He has a bet most days, finding it "a great release and outlet" – as it once was for his father when earning £6 a week on Clydeside. "My dad loved his racing," he says wryly. "But he was a bad judge."
It's the relaxation he finds there which has created his well-known love of the Turf, albeit it was once interrupted by the Rock Of Gibraltar affair, when a dispute arose with the colt's co-owners concerning his stud career and fees.
"One of the reasons I like racing is that, largely, people leave me alone," he said once. "And when they do talk to me, it is likely to be about what is going to win the 3.30 rather than football." That was when he was a genuine part of football and when everyone wanted a piece of him.
As Ferguson pondered the future yesterday morning, he received a text message from Michael Owen, tipping his own yard's 9/2 winner, and Owen hopes to nurture their mutual interest by encouraging him to have a horse in the stable.
So many ways of filling the time. So few to fill the vast hole in his life. (© Independent News Service)