'You couldn't meet a nicer man, or more down-to-earth fella'
JOE Corcoran, Manchester United's Republic of Ireland scout for 41 seasons, lamented the retirement of Alex Ferguson, the man he was proud to call "a true friend."
Dubliner Corcoran has sent many players to Old Trafford since he succeeded Billy Behan as United's scout in March 1972, but of the managers since then he said he had only become close to two of them.
Both were Scots, fiery and passionate men – Tommy Docherty, who managed the club from 1974-77, and Ferguson. And just like everyone else, Corcoran was taken completely by surprise by Ferguson's exit.
"I was absolutely surprised because I was in contact with him yesterday. I had a text from him because his horse, Butterfly McQueen, was running at Chester today. I never suspected anything," he said.
"I think maybe they were going to announce it next Sunday but it looks as if a whisper got out, and with the Stock Exchange involved, it may have changed those plans," said Corcoran.
Ferguson has been portrayed as an angry, intimidating character who isn't shy about venting his spleen on referees, opposing managers, media people or players he felt transgressed against his beloved United.
Corcoran, however, saw a far more rounded character, a man he described as "an absolute gentleman".
"He's a very close friend of mine. He sent me a letter in 1986 to say he'd been appointed manager, and that every time he'd be in Dublin, he'd be in touch with me. Every time he came to Dublin, he rang me and brought me to where he was going – horse racing or whatever he was going to.
"He likes the Irish a lot and knows a fair bit about Irish history. I was with him when he visited Dublin Castle and Kilmainham Jail and the Royal Hospital in Kilmainham."
John O'Shea, Paul McShane and Robbie Brady are among the players Corcoran sent to Old Trafford, and Corcoran recalls that Ferguson was instrumental in the then teenager O'Shea going to United.
"We were lucky to get John. He was about to sign for Celtic or Leeds when we got him. I flew out on a Saturday night to Manchester with his mother and father, and we spoke to him on the Sunday morning and signed him.
"That's the manager for you. He gets close to people. He's friendly. You can trust him. He cares for the staff. He cares for the club.
"It's an honour to work for Manchester United. Anyone would love the job but to work for him and have him as a friend is great."
Ferguson could have been forgiven for putting on airs and graces once he had his knighthood but Corcoran says he has never lost the common touch.
"You couldn't meet a nicer man or a more down-to-earth fella. There's no flash, no big-time stuff. A friend of mine went to a United match at Blackburn Rovers a few years ago and I got him tickets. The manager knew him, because he'd met the friend with me in Dublin.
"Anyway, Sir Alex happened to meet my friend by accident when they were coming out of the ground after the Blackburn match, and invited him to stay that night in his house. That's the kind of man he is.
"My partner Eileen and I were in the Conrad one night and he was in there playing the piano. And then he's down in the house eating fish and chips out of the paper bag.
"He's not the way many people take him to be. He has a great sense of humour, he's great company and he's very knowledgeable on a whole range of subjects – a great man to have on your side in the quiz."
Corcoran also had the thrill of leading in Ferguson's horse What A Friend when the Paul Nicholls-trained animal won the 2009 Lexus Chase.
This race was scheduled to be run on a Monday but fog forced a 24-hour postponement, and with United playing West Ham on the Wednesday night, Ferguson could not attend.
A final word on Ferguson? "He's a football legend and probably the greatest manager of all time. I hope he has a nice retirement."