Sunday 23 September 2018

Ferguson will have plenty of Irish support for this battle

Alex Ferguson with Dubliner Kevin Grogan on the day he signed for Manchester United. Photo: John Peters
Alex Ferguson with Dubliner Kevin Grogan on the day he signed for Manchester United. Photo: John Peters
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

When the news of Alex Ferguson's sudden illness broke over the weekend, an old radio interview did the rounds on the internet.

It was a fascinating discussion with the much-missed RTÉ reporter Colm Murray back in 2010 which veered onto the subject of Ferguson's interest in Irish history.

Ferguson showing delight with Roy Keane after beating Arsenal in 2004. Photo credit: Martin Rickett/PA Wire
Ferguson showing delight with Roy Keane after beating Arsenal in 2004. Photo credit: Martin Rickett/PA Wire

Through his wife Cathy, who has Irish roots, he had read up extensively on this nation's battle for independence.

Indeed, it was the politics of the Civil War era that particularly interested him. Ferguson was from the school that believed Michael Collins went to London for treaty talks knowing that the outcome would seal his fate. Eamon de Valera's decision to stay at home was, in the opinion of Ferguson, a calculated move. "Think about it," Ferguson said, "(It's like) I'm going to sign Eric Cantona and I send Mike Phelan (his then United assistant) to do the deal. I think he knew he couldn't win."

It's an interesting piece of audio that shines a light on Ferguson the person as opposed to Ferguson the football man, a world removed from the caricature of an intimidating figure prone to dishing out the hairdryer treatment.

The reality was very different, of course. He's a more nuanced character who has used his time out of football to try and broaden his education in other areas - he has a natural curiosity about history that shone through in that piece with Murray.

Alex Ferguson in training with John O’Shea. Photo by Manchester United
Alex Ferguson in training with John O’Shea. Photo by Manchester United

Enjoyment

Ferguson would also go on to discuss his enjoyment of the Ken Loach movie, The Wind That Shakes the Barley, and how it had moved him. The one-time Rangers striker also wondered aloud what might have happened if De Valera had accepted an offer from the British government to end partition and create a united Ireland in return for joining in the World War II effort. He implied that he might have considered it.

Ferguson did have a strong connection with Ireland through his work for very obvious reasons. It goes far beyond his fractious relationship with Roy Keane, which is a sad episode given the success they enjoyed together.

One of his closest Irish friends was the United scout, Joe Corcoran, who passed away in 2015 after 41 years looking for talent in these parts. They met when Ferguson was appointed United boss and they became good friends, with a shared passion for horse racing. Text messages - often related to equine matters - were exchanged no matter how busy Ferguson was.

Indeed, in 2013, Corcoran said he was taken by surprise when Ferguson's retirement was announced because he had been in contact the previous day about a horse of his that was running at Chester.

In an interview on these pages, Corcoran expanded on Ferguson's relationship with Ireland. "I was with him when he visited Dublin Castle and Kilmainham Jail and the Royal Hospital in Kilmainham," he said.

"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."

The Scot was unable to attend Corcoran's funeral due to commitments in the United States, but he penned a letter that was read out from the altar.

It was Ferguson's personal touch that played a big part in United's recruitment on these shores. He made interventions that helped to get individuals such as John O'Shea and Robbie Brady signed up. They retained an affection for him that lasted beyond their time under his watch. Clearly, Ferguson was not a man to get on the wrong side of, but players that did their best for him received generosity in return.

Keith Gillespie tells a story about his departure from United for Newcastle in 1996 as part of the deal that brought Andy Cole to Old Trafford.

Ferguson actually ended up negotiating Gillespie's wage with Newcastle and managed to bump up the salary of the Northern Irish winger by telling a creative tale about his United wage.

When other ex-United players fell on hard times, Ferguson was there to help. The talented Dubliner Kevin Grogan lives in America now, with knee injury preventing a gifted player from fully delivering on his potential.

He has made a living for himself as a coach, and his old gaffer helped him along the way by using the power of his reputation.

Disappointments

Ferguson helped Grogan with his visa application by writing a letter that endorsed Grogan and complimented his work ethic.

His sign-off included the admission that Grogan's misfortune was one of his biggest disappointments in management. The visa application was successful and Grogan subsequently met with Ferguson on trips to America where he dished out advice to help him with the next stage of his life.

Those are the type of gestures that helped to cement the legend; it's certain there are many more stories of a similar nature that haven't been told. And it helps to explain the outpouring of good wishes in the aftermath of Saturday's shocking developments.

He will have plenty of Irish support as he faces into his toughest battle.

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