Tuesday 28 January 2020

In football, he lived as few have ever lived

Dion Fanning

Nobody ever looked at Sir Alex Ferguson and said it must be lonely at the top. Ferguson led with such furious willpower that, most of the time, it was impossible to imagine him overcome with self-doubt or paralysed by neuroses.

Every story of the bully and the autocrat, every exclusion of every journalist helped create the image of the fearless and feared leader. Even those who opposed him, who complained about his power and hinted at conspiracy ended up serving his purpose by furthering this image. If you took him on, he won. If you backed down, he won. He won no matter what. Victory was all that mattered.

In what turned out to be his final days as Manchester United manager, Ferguson was asked to explain his longevity. "You really need to win all the time," he said. It was that simple. Victory was the high concept to which he dedicated his life and he pursued it with a relentlessness that nobody in football has ever been able to match.

Plenty of managers have been power-mad and sought absolute control but not one in the history of the game has acquired all that Ferguson did while showing no appetite to surrender.

Ferguson provided an example of leadership from which self-doubt had been removed, at least publicly. Like all great leaders, he was also a great actor.

In 1989, Manchester City beat United 5-1 and Howard Kendall was being linked with the United job. (Kendall last worked in 1999. He is five years younger than Alex Ferguson.) In the aftermath of that derby defeat, Ferguson told Hugh McIlvanney of his shame when he saw a United supporter. "Every time somebody looks at me I feel I have betrayed that man." He said his wife Cathy came home to find him with a pillow over his head and there was "a sense of guilt".

In his autobiography, Ferguson wrote that he asked himself what he was doing wrong. "I had worked hard at making sure my worry was not manifesting itself in the dressing room and I felt my demeanour was good."

At that time, Ferguson developed the practice of retreating into what he called "a cocoon of self-examination".

This was one of the few glimpses of the complexity. For the most part, it was turned outward, into a furious and bullying anger which achieved its objective.

In his darkest moments, he came to appreciate the therapeutic benefits of action. In the autumn of 2005, Ferguson was being abused by Manchester United supporters and his captain was castigating his team. Ferguson hid his anxieties from the public, telling the press that this was to be expected at "the biggest club ever, in the planet, the universe."

As United headed for a group stage exit in the Champions League, Ferguson made another big decision. He discarded Roy Keane – who had criticised his team-mates on MUTV – as Manchester United's season headed into a crisis from which many felt Ferguson could not return.

In This Is The One Daniel Taylor's extraordinary portrait of Ferguson, Taylor recalls the manager's mood on the day Keane left during a press conference which contained no mention of his captain's imminent departure. "Ferguson was full of bonhomie and good humour. It is difficult, in fact, to remember him in a better mood at any time in the last year, and that is just crazy."

He was energised by conflict but he knew when to fight which may be the hallmark of the bully but it also helps achieve longevity.

Ferguson's unpredictability is why all those who have tried to imitate him have failed. Last week, many lined up to recall that Ferguson had given them advice when they started out in management which was always a variation on his words to Dave Brailsford – "get rid of the c***s."

Ferguson was too complex to think that this was all there was but those who attempted to copy him lacked his smarts.

He was always more unpredictable and less one-dimensional. He was manager of his first club East Stirling for 117 days. In his first competitive game, his new side were 3-0 down at half-time. His players expected the worst. "Already he terrified us," East Stirling's winger Bobby McCulley told Ferguson's biographer Michael Crick. "I'd never been afraid of anyone before but he was a frightening bastard from the start."

Yet at half-time, the manager calmly told the team that they had played well. "And another thing – you can win the game." East Stirling came back to draw 3-3.

Of course, Ferguson could explode when players least expected, telling a TV interviewer after Aberdeen had won the Scottish Cup that it had been a "disgrace of a performance" and "I'm not going to accept that from any Aberdeen team".

Ferguson kept people close to him and seemed to know nothing of "the cold and barren reaches of unlimited success". Perhaps this was because he always felt the next success was the most important which made all that had preceded it limited and unsatisfactory. There was always more to be achieved and this may have prevented him from wondering how it could be done again.

When he retreated into his private cocoon, his wife would say that he was in "another world". Ferguson came to feel this retreat was essential.

"For 22 years I was utterly obsessed with the game and if I had continued to be as blinkered, my efficiency would definitely have been eroded," he wrote in his autobiography. "When you are in a job that makes severe daily demands on your nervous energy, you have to find a way of surviving the strains. I think it is now essential in management to cut yourself off from the hectic activity around you and create a quiet time for thinking, a period of isolation . . . Sometimes I retreat into myself while in discussion with my staff, and they have the impression that I am not listening to them, but part of my mind is recording what they are saying. If something important is said, I snap out of my reverie and make a response."

Everything he did had the objective of renewal rather than retreat, although the pursuit of wealth has been the other great theme of his life.

Victory mattered most of all. In the chase for it, he has become a great cultural figure in British life. David Cameron paid tribute to him last week but he struck the wrong note, talking about his contribution to British football when his contribution to public life was much greater than Cameron's will ever be.

Some have mocked the outpouring of emotion for a man they didn't know but all that mockery does is trivialise sport. For Ferguson and for the people who depended on him, football was not a hobby.

At the funeral of his friend, the great Scottish trade union leader Jimmy Reid, Ferguson remarked that "some people can change in their life and move away from their purpose". Ferguson was talking about his friend's unwavering devotion. He spat out the words because he may as well have been talking about betrayal.

He never strayed from his path and it is why retirement seems such a curious decision and in its suddenness took many at Old Trafford by surprise. He had lost nothing of that ferocity or, if he had, it had been well concealed. To hand over to David Moyes now makes it even more remarkable. Only one man in world football has been as committed to victory as Ferguson and he will be manager at Stamford Bridge next season.

United gave Moyes a six-year contract but it will make no difference if he doesn't win. There was a reluctance to go for a 'hired gun' and Mourinho, apparently, was also overlooked because of his ability to create controversy which is amusing as Ferguson wasn't exactly an ascetic, aloof intellectual. After matches, he could behave like a delinquent 10-year-old and that was when Manchester United won.

Ferguson never concealed his obsession with winning. "I am passionate and want to win all the time," he said as he explained United's great achievement in dislodging Manchester City this season. He added words which could yet haunt his successor. "It is the only way you can fulfil the expectation and avoid the criticism."

Manchester United have appointed a man who will bring stability and the patience shown towards Ferguson has been put forward as an example of how Moyes will be treated.

In his first full season in English football, Alex Ferguson's Manchester United came second – albeit nine points behind Liverpool.

United disappointed in his second and his third was heading towards calamity when Manchester City beat them 5-1. Once United won the Cup that summer, everything changed.

Moyes takes over at the league champions, not a drinking club, so he will be judged to a higher standard. Yet, he also takes over a team that failed in Europe again this season and there is little evidence that he can repair that. Moyes shares characteristics with Ferguson and it may be that he will surpass his achievements as Bob Paisley did when he took over from Bill Shankly.

But a seamless transition at Manchester United will only be seamless if the team keeps winning. Moyes' knowledge of the club may be the best way to achieve that. Yet the six-year contract will be worthless if Moyes fails. Then there will be no dynasty.

Moyes is made in Ferguson's image which may not be the most helpful thing when times get tough and the similarity will only invite further comparisons with the old manager, although they are inevitable no matter what.

Moyes' greatest challenge will be to retain the inevitability of victory that Ferguson gave Manchester United. "This team never loses, it just runs out of time," Steve McClaren said while he was Ferguson's assistant.

That strength came from the manager. Only Alex Ferguson could have held the club together during his own war with Cubic Expression, the Glazers' arrival and the mutiny from players like Rooney and Keane.

Moyes will have to deal with Rooney and he will have to win the battles and the football matches to silence the disquiet from some United supporters at his appointment.

United feel they have made the safe choice but they may regret not appointing a larger personality if it becomes clear that United were held by the force of one great man and, in his absence, the club begins to resemble a post-Tito Yugoslavia.

No manager was ever less powerless, no manager was ever less reasonable than Sir Alex Ferguson. He leaves appearing as strong as he ever has been which may be why he decided to retire but it still makes the decision an uncharacteristic one.

Perhaps he didn't want to appear vulnerable as he would have during his recovery from the hip replacement or, perhaps he had, as Fabio Capello suggested, been worn down by stress. He goes out at the top but Alex Ferguson always gave the suggestion that he wanted to go on at the top.

Adrenaline got him out of bed in the morning, sometimes it got him out of bed in the middle of the night as he went in pursuit of victory, always waging war.

He goes out with those times of vulnerability seeming like a distant memory and he made it easy to forget that it was not inevitable he would overcome those crises. Without him, United would be more vulnerable no matter who had taken over. Alex Ferguson is 5/1 to be the next Manchester United manager.

At Jimmy Reid's funeral, Ferguson told of a time when Reid wanted to write about him before the 1983 European Cup Winners' Cup final. He agreed to catch up with Reid the morning after the Football Writers' Dinner – "a heady affair". Ferguson recalled that he had breakfast with Archie Knox and headed to the lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel to meet Reid.

"There is the great man with McIlvanney, the two McIlvanneys, Hugh and Willie McIlvanney. We sat there that day, Archie Knox and I and we were saying to ourselves, 'This is unbelievable'. How they spoke about their lives, what influenced them, their political agenda. Going to London to work. I said to myself, 'Have we lived?'"

At Old Trafford today, he will say goodbye to a crowd that will explode with gratitude for all that he has done. In the faces of 75,000 people, in a ground that he built, he will see the answer to that question.

He lived all right. During his time as a football manager, he lived as few men have ever lived.

Irish Independent

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