Tuesday 26 March 2019

Ferguson’s illness offers reminder about a proper giant in our midst

Great Scot was never a pal but that doesn't cloud my appreciation for his sheer genius

Alex Ferguson is a winner to his very corerich. Photo: Mike Egerton/PA
Alex Ferguson is a winner to his very corerich. Photo: Mike Egerton/PA

James Lawton

Football's reaction to the disorienting health crisis of Alex Ferguson had millions of personal echoes.

Amid the shock and the concern there were, no doubt, some quite complicated emotions. Love-hate was inevitably a significant factor.

That love, or at least deeply expressed respect, turned out to be the winner, easing up, may have been a surprise to those who had absorbed uncritically the image of a hard and ruthless operator ­­- a man who, at times, seemed to take any setback as an outrageous personal affront.

Yet some men, a very few it must be agreed, have the capacity to grow ever stronger with their wounds, so resolute indeed that even their vices become part of a broader, more favourable picture.

I cannot say precisely when it was this version of Alex Ferguson became fixed in my mind, but it was certainly some years after our working relationship started on a note, I should be honest, somewhat approximate to mutual loathing.

Looking back, that was the least I might have expected after offering publicly the opinion that for all his outstanding success in Scotland with Aberdeen, he was not, by any means, a natural-born successor to the maker of the Manchester United legend, Matt Busby.

He was too rough in his manner, too unmindful of the delicate balance of emotion and style - and, when necessary, ruthlessness - of the man who made the club what it was.

His reaction was unambiguous. I was pointedly snubbed at some grand football affair in London.

When a young colleague on the national newspaper whose surname was also Lawton was appointed northern soccer correspondent - i.e. United reporter - he introduced himself to Ferguson, who told him that all would be well if he did his work honestly and was not related to that other Lawton, who was a journalistic "tramp".

Not a great footing to share with the most significant football manager of his generation, one who moved so inexorably from the shaky ground of his first years - when I made my big, wise assertion - to a body of work stunning in its force, consistency and ambition.

There was a thawing, but it came slowly. By 1999 a little of the ice was melting.

Like many colleagues at the Camp Nou I had to file my report, for deadline purposes, some minutes before the final whistle, when officials were pinning the colours of Bayern Munich to the Champions League trophy and United were still to redeem so dramatically a less than awesome performance.

The bulk of the report dwelt on Bayern's tactical superiority, under a bare last-second line that a miraculous recovery had occurred.

The re-writes were of course rich on glory, and not least the extraordinary sight of Ferguson's almost boyish dance along the touch-line, when it seemed every fibre of his body went into his celebration of a bone-deep belief that you must play, really play, until the last of the hope has gone.

A few days later, at an Old Trafford celebration, reporters thronged the great leader, but he held up his hand and said: "Forget the congratulations, I read the first editions."

Two years on, I found myself across the aisle from Ferguson on the plane flying to Milan for the Champions League final between Bayern and Valencia. Ferguson was a UEFA observer.

It was that time when, on the approach of his 60th birthday and after a record three straight defences of the Premier League title, he first announced his intention to retire from the battle.

He saw the coming birthday as some kind of line in the sand to which he had donated so much blood and sweat and raw passion while winning seven Premier League titles, four FA Cups and the Champions League.

The plan was for him to become the ambassador of the club he had so spectacularly returned to its old power and mystique.

But negotiations were going badly, Ferguson was angry and even suggesting he might stomp away from Old Trafford.

In that morning's column I had recorded the fact and its implication of monumental ingratitude in the boardroom.

There was a thinnish greeting exchanged on the plane before Ferguson opened his briefcase and settled to the morning papers.

One of the pieces he read was mine, and I was a little intrigued when he returned the page to the briefcase.

As he left the plane he turned and said, "Aye, you're right, I always thought the bastards might get me in the end…"

But then, of course, they didn't. He marched through more than another decade, winning six more Premier League titles, another Champions League; he was no longer merely guarding the legacy of Busby but hugely enhancing the one which has so far proved not so much a challenge as a burden to David Moyes, Louis van Gaal, and even Jose Mourinho.

His final gift was another title win in 2013. Some said it was a little streaky and that the squad he left behind was less than guaranteed to prolong the glory.

They were perhaps overlooking the sheer value of his physical presence, his genius for pursuing a win on his own congenitally competitive terms.

The impact of his illness has been profound and not least on his fierce rival Arsene Wenger, who once declared that he could not bear to hear his name.

This was soon after United had ended Arsenal's 49-match unbeaten run, Wenger had told United striker Ruud van Nistelrooy that he was a cheat, Ferguson had angrily intervened and was then rewarded with a slice of pizza thrown in his face by Cesc Febregas.

Yes, this is old rancorous history consumed by a vast welling of tribute for a man who for so many came to be seen not only as a superb football manager, but a force of life. Tough, extrovert, winning life.

I know I was not alone in feeling a sharp sense of dislocation with the news of his emergency.

I did not fear the loss of a bosom pal - he was never that, though I was touched by his kindness to my wife as she fought off a serious illness and honoured to be invited to the bash at the Dorchester in London when he was given a lifetime award by his peers - but something that in its way ran quite as deeply.

It was the reminder that some of us fail to recognise properly a giant in our midst.

Irish Independent

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