Fergie still hooked on the 'drug' at 70
Published 31/12/2011 | 05:00
It is approaching midnight in Basel, on the eve of Manchester United's doomed Champions League date with destiny earlier this month, and Restaurant Grill25 within the Swissotel Le Plaza is deserted except for three figures deep in conversation around a small table.
One of them is Alex Ferguson, who appears to be catching up with two old friends, long after the waiters and waitresses have clocked off for the night.
The group are visible from the street outside United's team hotel, but what is clear is that no one else is around and the man with boundless energy, who is approaching his 70th birthday, has seen off his younger colleagues once again.
They say that time waits for no man, but in Ferguson's world, the reality is that time must keep up with him.
The 70th birthday which appeared no more than a dot on the horizon while Ferguson sat in Basel has now arrived, but business is business and, with three points and a place at the top of the Premier League at stake against Blackburn today, there was no misty-eyed reflection on his milestone when the subject came up at the United manager's press conference yesterday.
"I'm not getting into that," Ferguson said. "I'm not getting into the question. I'm fed up with birthdays. Wait until you get to 70 and you will understand what I'm talking about."
Ferguson, of course, had told anybody willing to listen three years ago that he would only be celebrating his 70th birthday as the former United manager.
"I won't be doing a Bobby Robson and be a manager when I am 70," Ferguson said in October 2008. "But football is a drug which is difficult to give up." Three years on, the Scot is clearly still hooked and his most recent pronouncement on his planned retirement date hinted at "another three or four years yet".
But the only true pointer to Ferguson's age is his birth certificate and, once that is taken out of the equation, you have a man who appears to be in his managerial prime, one who appears more vigorous, hungry and effervescent than rivals even half his age.
Whether it is 3.0am and he is at passport control at Manchester Airport following a European tie, or 9.20 on a Friday morning, 10 minutes early for his own press conference, Ferguson always appears more alert and eager to move on than those around him.
One psychological barometer of a man's character is the measure and forcefulness of his stride.
Men of power and purpose march powerfully and quickly, often with their subordinates trailing behind, and Ferguson, even at 70, continues to stride with intent rather than amble along like a pensioner five years beyond retirement age.
But this is the man who continues to embody the myth of arriving at United's Carrington training ground before the birds have even started tweeting.
He may no longer unlock the gates, but he expects his daily synopsis of the back pages to be delivered to his desk no later than 8.30am each day.
Ferguson's day is growing whiskers before many have even tackled their cornflakes, but he is as active at dusk as he is at dawn, with no second thought given to a scouting trip at home or abroad or an appearance at a tribute dinner for a contemporary who has long since beaten him into retirement.
"You say to yourself, 'what happens when you retire? What do you do?'", Ferguson remarked earlier this year. "I'm at the stage now where I say that retirement is for young people. My pals in Glasgow, one retired 10 years ago and he travels all the time, which is terrific.
"But you can do something else when you're younger because you have your youth. Retirement is such a difficult thing. I made a mistake some years ago because I thought my 60th birthday was a good time to retire and maybe it was time for a younger manager.
"But there are no plans for me to retire. No plan. I hope my health stays as it is so that I can carry on."
Ferguson claims to have "always had good energy" and, having tasted life outside football as an apprentice toolmaker in the Govan shipyards prior to running a Glasgow pub, his work ethic clearly stems from his formative years.
But at 70, his DNA remains the same as ever and it will not change, just as he explained in a dressing-room address to his United players last season.
"He just started talking about how people had been saying he was going to retire," Patrice Evra recalls. "He asked us if we seriously thought he would just be sitting in his house watching the TV and doing nothing.
"He said: 'No chance. I have worked all my life and I will work until I die'. For a moment he laughed. And then he said: 'This is my victory. I cannot walk away from this.'" (© Daily Telegraph, London)