Saturday 1 October 2016

'Ferguson has a fiery reputation but I only encountered a humorous man who was generous with his time'

Published 22/09/2015 | 13:41

Alex Ferguson
Alex Ferguson

It may have seemed as if there was nothing more intimidating than preparing for a private audience with Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson, yet the figure who offered me his hand in friendship was anything but the tyrant many warned I may be confronted with.

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At the tender age of 21, I received my first invitation to conduct a one-on-one interview with the figure whose fearsome reputation could have given me a sleepless night before I tentatively made my way towards our 9am summit at United’s old Cliff training base back in 1996.

As I shuffled nervously outside his office awaiting for the call to enter, it seems as if an appointment with an angry dentist would be more appealing, but Ferguson’s bark turned out to be far more brutal than his bite.

In my role writing content for match day programmes for Wembley Stadium, Ferguson’s office became a regular stopping off point due to United’s relentless success in the second half of the 1990s, yet I need not have worried that my fresh faced naivety would be used by the most dominant manager of the all as an excuse to dismiss by presence.

Even though he was a man capable of fraying the nerves of the most placid of visitors, the Ferguson I was greeted with was welcoming, charming and humorous.

He was great company, with my novice reporting status seemingly acting in my favour as he went out of his way to help me on my way.

Alex Ferguson with Kevin Palmer in 1996
Alex Ferguson with Kevin Palmer in 1996

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As former United players and staff will readily confirm, Ferguson has the capacity to be both generous with his time and charming to nervous newcomers, which was my experience back in the day when I was a regular visitor to his kingdom.

“Right, let’s get on with this as I’m a busy man,” would be his regular start to our chats, with every subject be open for discussion as he treated me with the sort of respect seasoned reporters rarely seemed to be afforded.

Talking at length about what makes him tick, his relationship with players and the media and his burning desire to succeed, Ferguson's enthusiasm to give me an interview that would enliven my FA Cup Final programme surprised me.

Contrary to popular reports, Fergie was one of the good guys after all.

His assistance did not end when I turned my tape off and left his office. Ferguson would then help me in setting up interviews with his star players, though he was less than certain when he found me chatting in the corridor with David Beckham, who granted me one of his first ever interviews after my pal Gary Neville pulled him out of the dressing room to talk to me.

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“Did I tell you it was okay to talk with him,” Ferguson asked me, inspiring me to offer a bumbling and incoherent response.

With that, Fergie’s face broke into a broad smile as he chuckled at my discomfort and gave me an assuring tap on the shoulder. My interview with 20-year-old Beckham not interrupted again.

It was to be the first of many trips to interview Ferguson, with the most notable encounter coming ahead of the 1997/98 season, as our chat was interrupted when the great Sir Bobby Charlton was welcomed into the room.

What followed was a half an hour chat two football Gods and little ole me. What a moment it was for a star-stuck kid to spend some time in the company of Ferguson and Charlton, with both listening to my views as if they were as valid as their own. I still hold on to the dictaphone tape from that memorable exchange to this day to confirm it actually happened.

We also had an example of the mind games Ferguson played with his players, with Gary Pallister knocked on the manager’s door and popped his head around the corner mid-way through one of my chats with the United boss.

“I know what you want Pallister,” bellowed Ferguson. “We’ll talk about that later, now get off,” he followed up, before the England defender scuttled away without getting a chance to speak to his manager.

When I asked whether he did know what his central defender wanted, he broke into laughter before muttering. “Of course I don’t. But he will go away now thinking he's going to get a telling off later. Ah you’ve got to love it.”

In truth, Ferguson didn’t need to be so helpful to a rookie reporter who must have been an annoying visitor to his kingdom, yet he was more than keen to help me on my way as the image of this scary monster rapidly melted.

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You can only judge a person after meeting them in the flesh and those who portrayed Ferguson as a bully who used his position throw his weight around would be wise to consider this alternative character assessment.

The Scot has a reputation for having a brief temper but I only encountered a man who was always generous with his time both for charities and with youngsters who have long been star-struck in his presence.

It is a side of Alex Ferguson that was rarely reported and on the day when the greatest manager of them is back in the news following the release of his latest book, those of us fortunate to spent time in his company are grateful to shared moments in the presence of a true sporting legend.

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