Remembering days of Moyes and men like the incomparable Alex Ferguson

Interviewing both Ferguson and his successor at Manchester United always left an impression

Alex Ferguson: puts his success down to luck and hard work. A lot of managers work hard but don’t amass so many major trophies in first Scotland, then England and go on to conquer the continent’s aristocrats in European finals.

Alex Ferguson: puts his success down to luck and hard work. A lot of managers work hard but don’t amass so many major trophies in first Scotland, then England and go on to conquer the continent’s aristocrats in European finals.

 

Strange, the details you remember when there must be far more important things forgotten. But there was definitely an old-fashioned telephone handset on the slim, dark desk. It rang and it was the voice of Aidan O’Brien on the line. There was an early Christmas card from Rangers among paperwork on the table and the preliminary smalltalk focused on the former Blackpool goalkeeper and Dunfermline manager George Farm.

December 1999, and on Irish Times duty I was in Alex Ferguson’s office at The Cliff, Manchester United’s old, humdrum training ground. The knighthood was yet to arrive but this was formerly Matt Busby’s office and Ferguson would soon join him in being called ‘Sir’.

Behind Ferguson was a floor-to-ceiling window that overlooked the primary training pitch. It was amazing to think that from here Busby had stared down on Duncan Edwards and George Best and that two decades later Ferguson had observed Bryan Robson and Eric Cantona. It was a window onto football history.

Ferguson was in fine form. He liked, and continues to like, the odd Irishman in the building. He was researching his family tree and talked about his grandmother coming from Newry and his father’s time in Belfast in the 1930s working at Harland and Wolff and playing part-time for Glentoran.

It had been a good year. The Treble Year. It was ending with a frisson of controversy, though, due to delays in a new contract for Roy Keane and United’s involvement in the World Club Championship in Brazil, as opposed to the third round of the FA Cup. “I’m a traditionalist by instinct,” Ferguson said.

The trip to Rio de Janeiro, allied to the Treble and ongoing success had prompted articles on ‘Planet United’. By 1999 the club had accumulated 1,670 employees of differing status. At a later date Ferguson would use the term “corporate monster” to describe the club. (Compared to today, with United valued at £2.3bn by Forbes magazine, it was actually a corporate pygmy).

Cubic Expression were at the ‘interested’ stage of their involvement at United and Ferguson talked them up. Rock of Gibraltar and those 99 questions came along later.

How different it had been around six years earlier when the telephone rang one afternoon at a house in south Manchester. Again, some memories stand out, others must fade, but you cannot forget as a cub reporter hearing: “Hello, it’s Alec Ferguson here.”

As a wannabee freelance, I’d written to Ferguson requesting an interview with Keith Gillespie for the Belfast Telegraph. On a Friday afternoon of all times, Ferguson had called to say it was too early in Keith’s career, but maybe something could be organised on down the line.

What struck then, and strikes now, was not just Ferguson’s good nature, but that he had not passed this task on to a minion. There may not have been one. It says something about the small scale of Manchester United six years before they had more than 1,000 employees.

A lot of people will claim a major role in that development - including Old Trafford’s jump in capacity from 45,000 in 1992 to 75,000 now - but one man above all deserves the credit.

Ferguson, however, would acknowledge United’s history. It cannot be ignored, not then, nor this week.

In between those two happy episodes, was a less agreeable one. There have been plenty of players, officials and journalists recalling the Hairdryer treatment this week and while this blast was not of the volcanic nature some received, it was loud, sweary and interesting.

Interviewing Gary Pallister for The Guardian in the stairwell underneath that Ferguson office at The Cliff around 1996, Ferguson appeared unannounced and was not happy.

“Who’s this?” he demanded of Pallister.

Pallister panicked. “He’s from the Daily Telegraph,” he muttered, as if to say, ‘he’s a broadsheet ponce and I’m saying nothing.’

Ferguson turned to me. There were expletives involved. “You must write to me if you want to do an effing interview,” was his gist.

“I did write,” I said, unconfidently.

“Did you?! Oh. Get on with it, then.”

Pallister, a 30 year-old England international and once Britain’s record transfer, looked perplexed.

A poor interview ensued.

Years later there would be other sit-downs, one-on-ones in the parlance of reporting, including the day Ferguson transformed the word “perch” into a jibe.

Many, many reporters know him much better and saw much more of him. Yet even these few meetings over a long period confirmed accepted impressions of Ferguson as a man of relentless energies, enthusiasms and fanaticism. Re-reading old interviews with various outlets over the past decades “hard work” and “luck” stand out as explanations from Ferguson as to why, on his retirement from frontline management, Thursdays papers produced supplements.

That does not seem adequate. Quite a lot of managers work hard but not all amass 38 major trophies in first Scotland, then England and motivate Aberdeen to beat Real Madrid, managed by Alfredo Di Stefano, to win the European Cup Winners’ Cup. Aberdeen had eleven Scotsmen on the pitch that night in Gothenburg, and five more on the bench.

Whereas that office at The Cliff was small and crammed with history, his new one at slick Carrington is the size of a tennis court. It is crammed too - letters, memorabilia, more paperwork. And where in 1999 he spoke of Arsenal, Leeds United - “the coming team” - by 2004 it was Abramovich, Chelsea and “the bottomless pot”. He’s seen them all.

Co-incidence meant that visit came a month after one to Bellefield, home of Everton’s training ground. David Moyes had been there 2½ years and already acquired a Ferguson-like reputation for ferocity. So much so, in fact, that his opening gambit in an interview based on the notion of a changing man at a changing club was: “I didn’t say I was getting mellow, I said I was getting a little bit less intense.”

Almost a decade on you can feel the friction. Moyes shares the “creative aggression” which formed part of the headline for that Ferguson Irish Times interview in 1999. That characteristic remains in both men. They really are very alike.

Moyes was 41 in 2004 and had started to turn around a club that had one top-ten finish in the ten seasons before he arrived to one that has had nine top-ten finishes in his eleven full seasons. That is an under-rated achievement.

Again it is strange what you remember. Downstairs in Bellefield’s reception, the players were being asked to support a literacy campaign by naming their favourite book. One said: “Barney”. James McFadden said “Of Mice and Men”.

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