Wednesday 16 October 2019

Fergie a true disciple of beautiful game

Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson and Roy Keane
Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson and Roy Keane
Billy Keane

Billy Keane

We were young men when the middle-aged Scot took over at Manchester United. Over the years he swapped the tracksuit for creased pants and we grew older together.

When the word came through that Alex Ferguson was retiring, 27 years of our lives went from living history to archive in an instant.

I've been a Manchester United fan since I was six, the age of reason, when kids choose their teams.

We were lucky to follow Manchester United and to live in the Ferguson era of attacking football when his teams played with the enthusiasm and vitality of small boys in the park. Kids never pass back. There's only one gear and it's not reverse.

Man U played, always, as if they loved every minute of every game and hated it when mam and dad said it was time to go home for the supper.

Millions of us cuddled up under blankies on black winter Monday nights with our kids. Curfews were ignored. Crisps and sweets were sent flying when United scored one of those famous last-second winners.

Somehow you can picture him there in the operating theatre, sawing away at the bone and using his skills as a fitter's apprentice to fit the new hip into the old leg. I'd say he hates the idea of being unconscious and out of control. Maybe Roy Keane will call to the orthopaedic ward asking for the hip bone for one of his four-legged friends.

We hope young Ferguson keeps well and we hope, too, he makes friends with Roy and the players he moved on.

Jaap Stam and Ruud van Nistelrooy will play in a charity game at Old Trafford in June. There's no need to keep up the hardened attitude anymore. Now he can indulge his players like an old grandad. There's no giving out, either, or mind your manners young man or what were you doing out until four in the morning. He can spoil the kids for a while, safe in the knowledge, he can hand them back.

The huge egos of the big players on more money than the boss had to be kept in check. It was something, I'm sure, even the devout socialist in him could never quite fathom. How can the workers be on more money than the boss?

A priest who served Old Trafford told me Ferguson was very patient with his players. It hurt him when good lads became battle weary and he had to give them the bad news, but such is sport at its cruellest, yet fairest. There were no rash decisions and he always tried to work things out.

In the end, the manager did what he thought was best for Manchester United. Which is as it should be.

Yes, there were times when he was truculent, but, from the fans point of view, he was as human as the rest of us. Poet Paddy Kennelly from Bally wrote a few lines in the voice of a woman who praises her husband. "He loves me even when I'm wrong."

And so we did. But I'm sure Ferguson knew a fan's allegiance is dependent on winning, for such is the conditional nature of football loyalty. And he made sure he won.

Strong

Was he a bully then? I would say no. You have to be very strong to manage Manchester United and sometimes tough calls have to be made.

There is no managing by the collective. It's a one-man job and if a player crossed the demarcation line, persistently, he was sold on. His obstinacy and at times, unmitigated unreasonableness served as a shield and thwarted the prospect of future attacks.

Ferguson's sense of humour often evicted his tempers. I was held up outside the toilet in Old Trafford. The cleaning lady was hard at work.

When we both concluded our respective bits of business, the nice lady told me of the day she kept Alex waiting outside the gents just down the hall from the Players' Lounge. The United strikers had missed about eight open goals, against Liverpool, to make matters even worse, and the great man was fuming.

"I'll bet it was our bloody strikers who messed up the toilets. They've got a terrible aim."

She emptied the bucket and sat on it, such was the fit of laughing.

The woman who made his tea told us Alex was a gentleman who had a kind word for all the staff and treated everyone equally from the lady cleaning the toilets to the star strikers.

Old Trafford is the friendliest of stadia and that friendliness comes from the top down. Alex was effectively in loco parentis to young lads who were so far away from family. Just because you are on 30 grand a week doesn't make you a mature man. Ferguson made Old Trafford a home away from home.

The style and pattern of the weave came from him too. United always stayed true to their tradition of playing attacking football.

Yes, there is a sense of loss. Life has moved on almost imperceptibly. For us, the Ferguson fans from the beginning of his campaign, it brings us to the realisation life is but a dream.

The manager's 27-act dramas made life go too fast, but the memory of the glory days eases the sorrowful inevitability of his endgame.

He's going to miss being the boss of Manchester United. It's hard to imagine him pruning roses and pulling weeds. How is he going to pass the time?

Maybe the great man sees the process as part of the natural order. It could be he is at peace with himself and accepts the inevitable process of gradual decline. But I see him more like Yeats' old man.

"An aged man is but a paltry thing, A tattered coat upon a stick, unless Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing."

I'd say if Fergie does sail to Byzantium, they'll have to make him skipper.

There was another old boy who used to sing 'My Way' every year at Listowel Races. Ah man but did he put his heart and soul into the singing of that song. Especially the bit where he ate it up and spat it out. You'd need an umbrella to shield yourself from the spray.

But the poor man didn't spit it out in real life. He was married to a torment of a wife who made him wear plastic bags on his shoes when he came back home after working 14- hour days for a bully of a trainer, who treated his horses better than his staff.

The oldest stable boy loved Fergie. "He's afraid of no one," he said. "Even the big lads." It was as if Alex was brave for him.

He did it his way, did Fergie. One of the very few. He had belief in himself and his ways. And he saw it through, for 27 years.

His achievements are many, but the beauty of the football he composed and conducted will be Alex Ferguson's most enduring legacy.

Irish Independent

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