Alex Ferguson was terrifying - but we will miss him
It was one of those awkward moments when reality dawned that a line had been crossed and you had strayed blindly into a lion’s den.
The Manchester United press corps had just attended Sir Alex Ferguson’s first press conference of the summer in Durban, on the opening leg of the club’s pre-season tour of South Africa.
A table was chosen on the terrace of the Oyster Box Hotel, overlooking the Indian Ocean, to order coffee and breakfast. As the oil tankers drifted past, Ferguson’s press conference remarks were being discussed before a gruff voice from the adjacent table barked: “Are youse lot bloody spying on me?”
It was the United manager, sat with his wife Cathy and the couple’s South Africa-based family. Four journalists had somehow managed to plonk themselves next to him at breakfast in the team hotel.
“It’s magnificent, isn’t it?” Ferguson added. “All those boats, it reminds me of the Clyde.”
There are two sides to Sir Alex Ferguson and his disarming response to being faced with four people whom he would ordinarily march past without so much as a nod of recognition was the side that most rarely see. The other came 48 hours later, in the restaurant of the same hotel, when he was asked directly about his interest in signing Robin van Persie from Arsenal.
“No, we are just viewing it from outside the bubble,” Ferguson said. “There is no point discussing it because we are not in the market.”
A day later, Ferguson admitted to MUTV, United’s in-house television station, that a bid had been lodged for the Dutch forward, but he denied it again at his press conference in Cape Town until it was pointed out that his quotes confirming the story were already on the club’s official website.
Part of the attraction, and fun, of dealing with Ferguson was guessing which side of him would turn up on any given day. Would he unleash the hairdryer or take his audience aback with his human side?
When disgruntled United supporters confronted Ferguson at a Budapest baggage carousel in August 2005 to complain about his failure to resist the Glazer takeover months earlier, the manager’s response was to tell them, in colourful language, to “go and support Chelsea”.
He has also admonished reporters for attending press conferences at Carrington without shaving first, and greeted newcomers with disdainful comments about the value of an introductory handshake.
But losing the other side of Ferguson, the statesman, will create a huge hole when the club embark on their first pre-season tour without him this summer.
At times, following Ferguson around the world with United felt like being a White House correspondent deputed to shadow Barack Obama’s every move and utterance.
Clocks stop for Ferguson. They have done in Riyadh, Shanghai, Chicago, Seoul and beyond and he plays to the gallery.
United have toured with Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Rio Ferdinand and taken Ji-Sung Park to South Korea, but only David Beckham comes close to creating the fuss that follows Ferguson around.
In Kansas City, in the summer of 2010, the locals were so pleased to have Ferguson – and Sir Paul McCartney – staying at the city’s InterContinental Hotel that a platter of barbecue ribs and fries was delivered to the United manager just as he was about to take questions at a press conference.
As he fielded questions about Ferdinand’s injury setback before the World Cup, Ferguson munched on his ribs and fries to avoid a diplomatic incident in front of a bemused audience.
Behind closed doors, however, Ferguson has shown himself to be brutal to journalists who have questioned his decisions or his team.
On one occasion, Ferguson sent a collection of tape recorders flying across the room, forcing reporters to duck for cover. The Scot was furious with what he perceived to be the media’s role in Rooney getting banned for shoving Bolton Wanderers’ Tal Ben Haim in the face.
He has made lists of journalists at press conferences and ticked off each one to ascertain which of them ask the most questions. Many reporters have been banned, myself included, for a vast number of random reasons.
They have been banned for getting stories wrong and getting them right. Others have been exiled for writing books about Ferguson or making oblique references that have irked him deep within their articles.
Yet Ferguson’s departure will be mourned by those who are employed to report on United, regardless of the bans, the hairdryers and the flying voice recorders.
One sentence from Ferguson can carry more weight than a thousand words from his managerial counterparts – which can be a negative as well as positive quality – but being witness to the Ferguson years at United has been a rare privilege.
Even when he has been more likely to throw you out of the press room than reminisce about ships sailing up the Clyde.