Saturday 20 January 2018

Revealing glimpses but other side of story stays untold

Tommy Conlon

By the time he'd finished his epic career at Old Trafford, Alex Ferguson by his own admission was all played out.

Judging by his new autobiography, he was all talked out too. In its telling he committed an offence that would not have been tolerated during his 27 years in charge of Manchester United. He coasted, he settled for mediocre, he went through the motions.

He went for the quick buck, too, and it has paid off. The book has broken all records for first-week sales in the non-fiction category. It sold over 115,000 copies, raking in £1.4m, during its first seven days.

But the end result lacks the depth of thought, or the reflections brought on by time, that might have churned up fresh soil beneath the old ground that's covered here.

There are tantalising glimpses. Ferguson at one point pulls the curtains back just enough to show the vulnerability he often felt. Then he closes them again and the moment is gone. But it's a surprise to see it at all, given the combative authority with which he governed.

"There is a fear of failure in a manager the whole time, and you are on your own a lot," he writes. "Sometimes you would give anything not to be alone with your thoughts. There were days when I would be in my office, in the afternoon, and no one would knock on my door because they assumed I was busy." But this potentially fascinating subject is not explored further.

The great recurring theme is the manager's need for control. He has preached it many times over the years, and hammers it home here again. Every perceived challenge to his authority had to be defeated. Every flashpoint seemed to be treated not on its own merits but as another crucial collision in his unending battle for control of the club. His actions were usually explained in this broader context.

In fact he has reiterated it so often in public that one wonders if his conscience is not a little troubled by the way he sometimes conducted himself in these situations. His perennial justification – that it was all for the greater good of the club – occasionally comes across as philosophical window dressing for the more belligerent side of his personality. Ferguson had a natural appetite for conflict anyway.

And many other great managers ran their clubs without ever labouring the point that they were the ones in control.

The Roy Keane convulsion in November 2005 gets a chapter and has re-opened old wounds. Ferguson's portrait of his former captain is undoubtedly vindictive. But it is, after all, his version of events and he is entitled to give his side of the story. To do otherwise would be to cheat the reader.

It is not Ferguson's opinion that's compelling here but the straightforward narrative account of the incidents that led to him pulling the plug on Keane's career at Old Trafford. The story has been fogged by rumour and speculation in the eight years since. Ferguson's account is now on the record and a seismic event such as this needed some sort of documenting from one of the main protagonists.

It is up to Keane to give his version of events, and to address the allegations laid out by Ferguson here. He needs to do so because he emerges from this account as someone who was causing havoc and going off the rails.

With the benefit of distance and perspective, one could argue that Keane's greatness on the field ultimately blurred his own boundaries. His awesome feats as a player had conferred on him an enormous moral authority. And he didn't carry it lightly. It seemed a burden to him, and it became a burden for everyone else in his orbit too.

He towered over his peers. And if they sometimes cowered before him, it was because he didn't do much to lighten the mood. Everyone deferred to him because his performances made him untouchable. When he spoke, everyone fell silent. Few could challenge him because few could do what he did on the pitch. Maybe he just got into the habit of behaving as he did, and saying what he pleased. He presumably was not in a happy place in his head either.

Whatever the factors, there seems little doubt that the infamous interview on MUTV which

triggered his departure went beyond the boundaries of what even he was licensed to say. Sir Alex, in this case, needed to come down hard.

But Keane is only one in the vast gallery of characters great and small who walk through the revolving door.

From the tea ladies to the superstars, Ferguson ushers them in and ushers them out through the pages of his life. Last May he finally ushered himself out the door, triumphant to the end.

If the last two weeks have proved anything, it is that he still loves being the centre of attention. He will probably hang around Old Trafford for years to come. The starlight from his achievements is bright and will linger long; it will always bring him a warming glow.

But he is yesterday's man and the show will move on without him, as well he knows. One hopes there won't be any sad desperation on his part to cling onto the control that is now ebbing away from him like a tide that will never return.

Sunday Independent

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