Ken Early: A cold anger fuelled Alex Ferguson’s unparalleled success

‘Never Give In’ traces Fergie’s formative years in Glasgow through to the Treble

It can’t have been easy for the Ferguson boys to hear people laud the Dad they seldom saw as a “father figure” to a generation of United superstars. Photograph:  Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

It can’t have been easy for the Ferguson boys to hear people laud the Dad they seldom saw as a “father figure” to a generation of United superstars. Photograph: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

 

Some of the most stirring moments of Never Give In, a new documentary film about Alex Ferguson directed by his son Jason, consist of sweeping archive footage of the Clyde shipyards set to swelling strings. We hear the familiar growl of the famous trade union leader Jimmy Reid: “No establishment honour can compare with the privilege of belonging to the Scottish working class.”

Ferguson is well placed to know. It looks as though he’s come a long way from the teeming streets of post-war Govan to the leafy lanes of Cheshire’s millionaire belt, but in his 80th year it seems the shipyards loom larger in his imagination than knighthoods, racehorses and wine.

When Ferguson suffered a brain haemorrhage in May 2018, he was appalled at the realisation that a banal circulatory malfunction could result in his memories being lost, like tears in rain. This film is an attempt to preserve some of what Ferguson deems most precious.

One tough question when you set out to make a 105-minute film about the sprawling multigenerational epic of Ferguson’s career is: what do you leave out? The answer turns out to be: everything after the Treble. It seems that for Ferguson at least, the final “imperial” phase of his career, when he racked up an unprecedented trophy haul and set himself decisively above all his predecessors in football management, was less memorable than the years of struggle towards the summit that came before.

The film relives some of the days when it seemed as though Fergie must have done a deal with the devil. How else could you explain the night at Pittodrie when Aberdeen scored two goals in one minute to beat Bayern Munich 3-2 in the Cup-Winners Cup quarter-final?

Or the fact that this would prove to be only the second most famous instance of a Ferguson side winning a historic victory by scoring twice in a minute against Bayern?

What about the day in December 1963 when, as a disillusioned 21-year-old reserve striker whose career was going so badly that he was contemplating emigrating to Canada, he was unexpectedly called into the St Johnstone first team for a match against Rangers, and became the first visiting player in history to score a hat-trick at Ibrox?

That stunning performance made his name overnight and led, ultimately, to the fulfilment of his childhood dream, when he joined Rangers for a Scottish record transfer fee in 1966. The move was a disaster that became the emotional springboard for everything that followed.

Angry

Gordon Strachan remembers thinking, when he first encountered Ferguson at Aberdeen: “there’s something going on here, there’s something inside this fella that’s making him angry and driving him”. The thing that was making him angry was what happened at Rangers, and more than 50 years later it is remarkable to see how angry Ferguson still is.

He hates Rangers because they unfairly scapegoated him for their 4-0 defeat to Celtic in the 1968 Scottish Cup final, in front of the largest crowd ever to watch an Old Firm game, and made him train with the youths before selling him into obscurity at Falkirk.

He bluntly states that he was bombed out for sectarian reasons: “I can only assume it was because of Cathy being a Catholic. I’m sure of it.”

It turns out that he gave that infamous TV interview after Aberdeen beat Rangers 1-0 in the Scottish Cup final, bizarrely castigating his own players in the moment of victory, because they had failed to inflict the humiliation he’d hoped for. “I wanted to put the knife in them,” he says.

Most of all he hates to remember how he compromised himself for Rangers. When Ferguson signed for Rangers a director asked him if it was true that his wife was a Catholic, and whether they had been married in a chapel or a registry office.

“I should have told him to f*ck off,” Ferguson says now. “But having supported Rangers as a boy, having the opportunity to sign for Rangers... you’re prepared to take nonsense. I let myself down there. I let my wife down, which was the most important thing.”

That resonates with a major theme of the movie: Ferguson’s guilt at pursuing his obsession with professional success at the expense of his family. “He was never there,” his son Darren observes frankly.

“It was the nature of my job,” Ferguson says, but he knows it was also his choice. This, it appears, was the real Faustian bargain underpinning his career.

In 1989, during his worst run of results with United, his sons had even pleaded with him to stop. “Dad, it’s not working,” the then-21-year-old Mark told him. “You’re not going to succeed here. It’s killing us.”

Needless to say, Ferguson proved them all wrong.

Father figure

It can’t have been easy for the Ferguson boys to hear people laud the Dad they seldom saw as a “father figure” to a generation of United superstars. Neither was it easy for the superstars.

Ryan Giggs: “It was definitely that father-son relationship. Sometimes that was good. Sometimes that was bad, because he felt that he could say whatever he wanted.”

We see Ferguson, lean and mean in the early 1990s, telling ITV’s Elton Welsby “you have to be much harder on young players”.

“Harder on them?” says Welsby, evidently surprised.

“Oh yes. They’re facing, for the first time in their lives, media attention. And you don’t get any criticism from journalism for young boys. It’s all praise.”

“Do you feel like a bully?” Welsby asks.

“No, no. I think they realise it’s for their own good.”

Anyone who saw Ferguson’s teams knows they were characterised by a feverish intensity that mirrored the Ahab urging them on from the sideline. Gordon Strachan: “Deep down inside us there’s a devil that drives you on. For whatever reason he could make that devil materialise for a game of football.”

Why was Ferguson so good at summoning those devils? One favourite technique was to connect the present with the past: “I would talk about miners, shipyard workers, welders, toolmakers. People who’ve come from poor backgrounds. And I used to ask them, what did your grandfather do? What did your father do? I had to get the feeling inside them that what their grandfathers worked for, and their grandmothers, is part of them, and they have to display that meaning.”

This is the purpose of all that romanticised and intensely nostalgic footage of the lost heavy industries of Glasgow. At the film’s climax we see Ferguson standing anxiously on the sideline at the Nou Camp, it’s 1-0 to Bayern and the referee’s assistant indicates three minutes of injury time. Suddenly we are transported back to the shipyards, watching workers crawl like ants over a giant hull that towers over the city.

“Self-sacrifice, determination, I had to get that working-class feeling into people” Ferguson says, as Beckham places the ball for the corner.

Intensity

Weaponised nostalgia wasn’t Ferguson’s only tool for drilling down into his players’ emotional magma core. He provoked them with angry tirades that questioned their character.

“We’d all had kind of, rollickings or bollockings before,” Strachan says, “but this was an intensity that wasn’t about that game or something, it was... everything. Where you want to go, what you want to do with your life.”

Some couldn’t take it, and were cast aside. Of those that could, some are still counting the cost of what they gave to win those trophies for Ferguson.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.