VIDEO: Ferguson's flame burning bright as ever
United boss plots next 'golden generation' as he reflects on glorious quarter-century at helm of record title winners
Published 05/11/2011 | 05:00
Even now, 25 years on, Alex Ferguson has not forgotten the ignominy. Even now, 37 trophies on, he grimaces at the memory. "Of course I can remember my first day,'' he recalls. "We f***ing lost. Two nil.''
Defeat at Oxford United came shortly after Ferguson was named manager of Manchester United on November 6, 1986. To the manor born? It didn't seem so at the time. "I said to myself: 'Oh, Christ almighty, I've picked a job all right.'''
Yet it was Ferguson's determined reaction to that loss, tackling the drinking culture at the club, improving fitness, recruiting leaders such as Steve Bruce and nurturing home-grown winners like the Beckham generation, that helped him begin the ascent to the lofty position he holds today.
Some position. Some reign. Of his 1,409 games in charge of United, Ferguson has won 843, drawn 314 and lost 252, with 2,578 goals scored and 1,189 conceded. What should worry his rivals is that Ferguson sounds far from finished.
He is working hard on the next generation, on the next 25 years. Sitting in the academy building at Carrington, Ferguson gazed at photographs of a teenage David Beckham and Ryan Giggs, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes and the Nevilles, even Robbie Savage in pre-sequin days. Savage was released, but that crop served Ferguson magnificently.
"Was that a one-off? No, it's not. It's going to happen again. You can't think that Manchester United could have only one cycle of players as good as that. We will always keep chasing the dream. We will get a bunch like that again. We have got to.
"When the academy system changes to what it should be then we are capable of getting five or six through at one time again. There's progress being made on that front. It's ridiculous that in 2011 you can only coach a boy from within an hour and a half of Old Trafford. Absolutely ridiculous. Barcelona have just signed a player from China, one from Japan. It sums it all up."
In the Klondike of youth talent, Ferguson still prospects for gold. He has one gem, a very rough one in Ravel Morrison, the most naturally gifted youngster in the country held back only by serial waywardness. If anyone can mould Morrison it is Ferguson. Footballers are usually inspired by his aura. Players want to play for him.
Some have resisted his overtures, including Glenn Hysen, Paul Gascoigne, John Barnes, Alan Shearer and Wesley Sneijder, and Ferguson has also made some spectacular mistakes in the market. For every Eric Djemba Djemba, so bad they named him twice, there's a Peter Schmeichel for £500,000, Eric Cantona for £1m, Cristiano Ronaldo for £12m (and sold for £80m) or Bruce for £800,000.
Bruce returns with Sunderland today, prompting Ferguson to reflect on what a key signing the centre-half from Norwich City proved. "When Steve had his medical the doctor wasn't sure he should pass it. (Then chairman) Martin Edwards said: 'His knees are not that good.' I said: 'For Christ's sake, he hasn't missed a game for five years!' Sometimes you've got to dismiss these medicals.''
Bruce was a leader, a player who demanded the very best from his team-mates however fierce the winds of adversity threatening to blow them off course. The concept of pain was for losers.
"He used to rub his knees and carry on playing,'' said Ferguson. "We went to play Liverpool and Steve had done his hamstring the week before. On the Friday we were ready to pick the team, doing our drills and he was rubbing his hamstring saying, 'I'll be all right'. I said: 'Don't be so stupid, there's no way you can play with that.' He said: 'I'll play with that. Don't you worry, I will...'
"And he played against Liverpool at Anfield with a hamstring injury. Quite amazing. It's that kind of character that makes you better than the rest."
He respects those like him -- strong characters. The late, great Bobby Robson was always held up as a managerial icon by Ferguson because of his passion for football. "Bobby was a remarkable person in his love for the game,'' said Ferguson.
"Bobby had all his health problems for so long but it never stopped him. Right to the very end, wanted to come back into management. That sort of enthusiasm is incredible. That's a gift. People don't understand it's not easy to work hard at 70-odd years of age and to keep that enthusiasm.''
Hurtling towards his 70th birthday next month, Ferguson retains that appetite. He admires Harry Redknapp, the 64-year-old Spurs manager who has just undergone heart surgery.
"Once Harry backs a couple of winners he'll be back on song, don't worry!'' smiled Ferguson. "I think I've been blessed with good health. I've been lucky through the years. That really helps you. I've always had good energy."
It has been remarkable recording Ferguson's energy. Five little snapshots give a small picture of a man of many hues. Firstly, walking with him once from the short-stay car-park at Manchester Airport, sensing his pace quicken as he neared a swarm of middle-aged autograph-hunters, who sought signatures on photographs to sell on eBay. Ferguson was almost running as he swept past them. They wouldn't be making money out of him. No chance.
Secondly, talking to him about Ryan Giggs's epic slalom through Arsenal's defence in 1999 and him excitingly comparing it to Diego Maradona's dribble against England. Ferguson's love of football's magic-weavers shone through.
Thirdly, receiving a phone-call shortly after 7am to discuss a foreword for a book. In the morning's race to work, it is a photo-finish between Ferguson and the lark.
Fourthly, taking his recommendations of three museums in Glasgow to visit with the kids. He was patron of two. Ferguson's curiosity for life, let alone football, is extraordinary.
Fifthly, encountering him outside Mestalla's away dressing-room 90 minutes before kick-off, being challenged to guess his line-up, getting only eight right and being ridiculed for having the temerity to try to read his mind.
He is complex. Ferguson believes many referees and media types plot his downfall, yet he is the first on the phone to them in times of trouble.
He is stroppy, generous, obstinate, engaging. Above all, he is a winner.
Contemplating the challenges he has faced over the 25 years, from Liverpool to Leeds, Blackburn to Arsenal, Chelsea to Manchester City, Ferguson shrugged.
"The challenge is always here, in this place, no matter who you are up against."
Bring it on. Ferguson had spoken enough. "Right,'' he said, climbing to his feet. "Hasta la vista."
There were players to train, trophies to win. Oxford blues lingered.