Old Trafford nervous as Alex Ferguson prepares his new autobiography
Potentially explosive new book by their old boss has many at Manchester United on tenterhooks, writes Daniel Taylor
A few years ago Manchester United introduced a new rule that stipulated any player writing a book had to run it by the club first.
Roy Keane had been banned for a passage on Alfie Haaland's right knee that read more like a scene from a Guy Ritchie film. Jaap Stam had embarrassed Alex Ferguson with a number of revelations, among them that the manager encouraged players to dive. Enough was enough and the message came down from the top of the club that it was time everyone reverted to a bit of reassuring blandness.
Since then, the books emanating from Old Trafford have been vapid, to say the least. Cristiano Ronaldo's Moments has almost as many photographs as words, like a hardback version of Hello!, Paul Scholes's autobiography never gets any more controversial than revealing he doesn't like the team's blue away kit. Ryan Giggs starts promisingly, with an anecdote about punching Martin Edwards' son, but quickly settles into the usual formulaic stuff. It is all very different to the days when Stam described the Neville brothers as a pair of "busy c**ts".
Unfortunately for United, Alex Ferguson likes to go by his own rules. His new autobiography, 14 years since the last one, is out on October 24, with a press conference the previous day to launch it and a tour featuring theatre and music-hall dates in Manchester, Glasgow, London, Aberdeen and Dublin.
He might be gone but you will be hearing an awful lot about Ferguson over the next couple of months and it's probably no surprise that at Old Trafford they are wondering whether a storm of locusts is about to head their way. Or that one question, more than any other, is being asked: is Ferguson about to blow apart the Wayne Rooney peace process?
He can hardly ignore what has happened, the breakdown of their relationship, the transfer request, the cow looking into the next field and all that, and when Ferguson makes it his business to get in the final word it is a potent pot of poison in which he dabs his quill. Just ask Gordon Strachan and Brian Kidd, among others, after the literary kicking they took in his 1999 book. Or consider its account of finding out an old Rangers man, Willie Allison, someone he had come to regard as a mortal enemy, had been diagnosed with cancer. "I know it is a terrible thing to say," Ferguson writes, "but I did not have a crumb of pity for him."
The less-read 6 Years at United is possibly even more caustic. This is the book, to give you a flavour, in which Ferguson reflects on Emlyn Hughes' move into the media. "I don't know anyone in the game who has any time for Emlyn Hughes," he points out. "He is a disappointing character." Ferguson talks about Frank Stapleton "bordering on the morose". Tommy Docherty doesn't get off lightly either. "We all know about the Doc. He is what he is, a bitter old man." It is probably fair to assume Ferguson's latest epic, earning him a reputed £2m advance, is going to take up an awful lot of headlines next month and that the list of people he chops down in print will be considerable.
Keane is just one of them, bearing in mind Ferguson has never been through what was said in that infamous, never-seen episode of MUTV's 'Play The Pundit' and the precise reasons he drummed him out of the club. The fall-out with Ruud van Nistelrooy needs an explanation, as does the time Ferguson split open David Beckham's forehead with a flying boot.
Will Ferguson dare take on John Magnier and JP McManus over the Rock of Gibraltar affair? It would be a surprise if he goes too far into it. But consider all the words that might have been reserved for, in no particular order, Luis Suarez, Gabriel Heinze, Peter Kenyon, Owen Hargreaves, the Football Association, Mark Bosnich, Manchester City, Martin Atkinson (his least favourite referee), Carlos Tevez, Kia Joorabchian, Jose Mourinho, Rafael Benitez and many others.
Ferguson has been putting together his memoirs over the past four years. Just don't expect a forensic deconstruction of the Glazer family's takeover and any late admission that the fans were right, after all. On the contrary, if he goes after anyone from that saga it will be the supporters who set up FC United of Manchester.
But it is Ferguson's views on Rooney that threaten the most damage and it is easy to understand why, behind the scenes, United are worried about it undermining David Moyes and creating all sorts of new issues. Rooney, as if it needs recapping, has just spent the summer trying to get a move to Chelsea only for his current employers to make it clear he can think again.
Now they are going through the process of trying to convince Rooney he can start enjoying life at Old Trafford again, working on his ego, trying to demonstrate they still value him highly.
The situation is delicate enough without Ferguson providing another round of damaging publicity – but that's exactly what United expect. At the very least, he has to address the Rooney issue because the alternative is the book loses credibility. But, Fergie being Fergie, it is not a huge assumption to think there will be a warts-and-all version of why he thinks Rooney fell out of love with United and why, on his final day as manager, two men who had shared so many joys ended up looking like strangers on a bus.
Paul Stretford, Rooney's agent, might feature prominently, too, bearing in mind Ferguson has already described him as "not the most popular man" at Old Trafford. And it's not difficult to imagine why there are people at Old Trafford dreading it. The timing, two months into Ferguson's first season of retirement, could hardly be worse. With all the politics that are involved, it is the last thing United – and Moyes – need.
The book, ghosted by Paul Hayward, promises to be tremendous. Whatever Ferguson reveals, bear in mind he is not always the most scrupulous truth-teller – Kidd's response to his pummelling in Managing My Life memorably concluded that "Walt Disney is trying to buy the film rights as a sequel to Fantasia" – but it will be fascinating to know, among other things, whether he did regard Rooney as having fitness, attitude and weight issues, why he brought in Robin van Persie to take over as principal striker and what, in short, went wrong between manager and player. All good fun for the readers. Not, perhaps, for the people involved.
Could Ferguson maybe just have hung on a little bearing in mind Moyes is still feeling his way into the job? The book has certainly been rushed out with remarkable alacrity and Ferguson, lest it be forgotten, created a lot of the problems in the first place by going against everything he said he once stood for and announcing, live on television, that Rooney had been to see him for a private conversation and requested a transfer.
That has always been disputed and United now accept it is not quite how it went. But the damage was done and, all summer, Rooney's camp have cited Ferguson as the main reason why their player wanted to go, and that he still suspects his former manager has great influence at the club in his new roles as a director and ambassador.
Rooney and Stretford probably need their heads banging together, but they are entitled to wonder whether that television interview in May was Ferguson at his worst.
It is a mess Moyes could easily have been spared and it would certainly be strange, given Ferguson's affinity to the club and everything he has said about supporting the new manager, if he is about to throw another can of petrol on the flames and then stand back, admiring his work.