The United Irish come to praise at the altar of Fergie
IT WAS something of an unnerving sight for the hall full of Manchester United fans who had grown up with one particular image of Alex Ferguson.
That of a fearsome choleric figure muffled in a Parka, pacing the pitch, glaring at hapless linesmen, barking at refs, gesticulating fiercely at players, all the while murdering a wad of chewing-gum.
But here was post-battle Fergie, smiling widely, clad in smart dark suit, white shirt and (naturally) red tie, reclining in a seat on a stage of the National Conference Centre in Dublin, telling tales of his remarkable reign in Old Trafford.
A reign which saw his team place 38 pieces of gleaming silverware, including 13 league trophies, in the stadium cabinet.
He has a new autobiography to sell, and many, many tales to tell.
The conference room was a sell-out, with over 2,500 fans - many sporting their colours - forking out €40 for the hour-long questions-and-answers session with broadcaster and avid United supporter Eamonn Holmes.
(Though for the steep price of admission, there was a signed copy of the Fergie book for every member of the audience).
Though this is a chap who is more than accustomed to public speaking, this was a bit of a different fixture for Fergie.
Instead of speaking at an after-dinner event where the chat would be flying, this audience sat in the sort of near-reverential silence usually reserved for jazz guitarists or wispyvoiced chanteuses.
Some of the more avid fans were even able to quietly mouth along to Sir Alex's stories like the familiar choruses of a song.
And thus Alex was on his best behaviour. The hairdryer has been decommissioned. There was no swearing or rants.
"I think when you grow older, you mellow," reflected the 71-year old (who in the flesh looks younger, and in fact little changed from the Glasgow native who first appeared on the Old Trafford sidelines in the club's dog-days in 1986).
He denied that the hairdryer had been omnipresent at every game, and revealed that he often said nothing to the players in the runup to the whistle.
"Once I do my final team talk, I don't talk to them again," he explained. At the start, he spoke about management in the first person, as if he was still getting his head around the new reality of exiting from the centre stage of the Theatre of Dreams.
Inevitably the chat soon turned to every football supporter's favourite topic of the moment, the Marmite man, Roy Keane - loved and loathed in equal measure across the country. Alex hasn't spared him the boot in his new book, and his criticisms of his once-beloved son were splashed right across the pages of newspapers for days.
Perhaps mindful that he was now on Keano's home turf, Alex was more circumspect with his version of their turbulent relationship.
"It only went wrong in the last year," he said, recounting how Roy had complained about pre-season training facilities in a Portugal resort. "Roy wasn't having it," he said. "I challenged him, saying, ‘Roy, this is ridiculous, you've got to be one of the boys'. Then he criticised the team."
Alex defended his decision to let Keane go from Manchester United. "I can't say it was wrong - it was the correct thing to do. That was a tough, tough call but I had to keep stability at the club right. I had to let the boys know you can't go around criticising your teammates. There was no other way to deal with it."
Though he tempered this by declaring that the Corkman's new job as assistant coach to new Ireland manager Martin O'Neill is "terrific for Roy". This was mellow Fergie, who preferred to dwell on the good memories.
His fondness for some of his past pupils was evident, in particular the French genius Eric Cantona who lit up Old Trafford in the 1990s.
He recounted a story of how one year the 23 players of the first squad decided to divvy out the proceeds of the players' pot by pulling a name from a hat and the winner would take the entire amount - £23,000 - rather than each player taking home £1,000 a-piece.
Some of the younger, more broke players such as David Beckham and the two Neville brothers objected, and were given their one-grand share. But their young team-mates Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes insisted that their names be left in the draw.
Alex explained that when the winning name was pulled from the hat, it was that of the Frenchman.
"He walked across the room and gave all the money to Scholes," said Alex. "When we asked him why, he simply said, ‘Because they have balls,'" he laughed.
Only once in this carefully choreographed interview did he really give a glimpse of the hidden passion in the hard man. He was talking about their team's last-gasp victory in the Champions League in 1999 - "my greatest ever moment" - when United won with two late goals.
"That was determination. That was Manchester United down to the very last drop that they had. That was the character of the team, and people say 'you were lucky'. It was not luck - they deserved it," he declared with a flash of the Fergie fierceness.
Applause rose around the room. Luck is all very well, but it sure as hell doesn't keep you for 26 years at the top of the football tree.