It's a day of firsts for me – my first newspaper column, after 34 years in football management – so it seemed right to start with the manager who has been first on so many occasions. My relationship with Sir Alex Ferguson has not always been a smooth one, as he and I both know. How would I describe my attempts to persuade Alex that Wayne Rooney's metatarsal injury had healed enough for him to play for me in the group stages of the 2006 World Cup – or in any stage of the 2006 World Cup for that matter? "Ouch" might be one way to put it!
They were big discussions that we had. Difficult discussions. Alex is world-class at defending his interests at Manchester United. He would sell his life for that club, and that is an enormous strength. But it wasn't always easy to be philosophical from our World Cup base in the Black Forest when I was trying to persuade him that playing Rooney was no risk. In the end, it became a clash. I'll never forget the day when we were in the middle of a phone conversation one minute, and the next minute the line had gone dead!
Alex had sought some expert opinion to support his case. It was a professor of orthopaedic surgery who United used and who said that Rooney should not play until after the group stages. That wasn't the view of my fitness coach, Ivan Carminati, or the doctor of the England team, whose advice I went with. It was quite a disagreement but, as I said a few days ago, players like Wayne are match-winners. The real risk is leaving them behind.
I didn't encounter Alex particularly early in my career because when I toured clubs to get a better understanding of training systems, as a young manager at Gothenburg, I didn't get to Old Trafford. I did go to Ajax. I also met Bob Paisley, though it was the late Joe Fagan that I knew best at Liverpool, who were my boyhood favourites. I visited Ipswich: the wonderful Bobby Robson. It was when my assistant, Tord Grip, and I were at Lazio that I sent Tord to United for a week and understood the lengths to which Alex will go to help you. To Tord's amazement, Alex turned up at the airport to pick him up, in his car. He showed him the club, the structure, everything.
My first night in competition with Alex came around about that time, too, when Lazio played United in the European Super Cup in Monaco in August 1999. They had won the Champions League against Bayern Munich and we had won the Cup-Winners' Cup against Mallorca. We won 1-0 but we talked before and after the game and I'm not sure that either of us would have thought that we would be managing clubs 100 miles apart, 12 years later.
I read what Alex said recently before meeting Chelsea and Andre Villas-Boas, about how there is no substitute for experience and how young managers' time will come. In one sense, he's right. Experience is one thing you can't buy or take a course in. But I wouldn't say you should not take young coaches like Chelsea have. Your track record is always more important than your age.
In some ways I see something of my own arrival at Benfica, as a 35-year-old in 1982, when I look at 34-year-old Villas-Boas (above) at Chelsea now. He has that Europa League trophy behind him with Porto and I would never have made it at Benfica if I hadn't won the Uefa Cup with Gothenburg. When I arrived at Benfica I had a couple of players who were older than I was – the goalkeeper, Manuel Bento, was one of them – and they told me many years afterwards how they'd felt when I pitched up. From Sweden? Young? No experience of pro football? They told me that the captain, Humberto Coelho, and some senior players had said: "Well, he has won more than we have; let's listen to him." So they made an agreement to give me a chance.
Alex has had his challenges too and I'm sure that one of the important, and maybe underappreciated, aspects of his success is that he is very good man-to-man with his players, understanding them as individuals. Without that he wouldn't have stayed where he is for so many years, with so many strong individuals. That's a very difficult thing to do.
I've won every time my teams have met his but there is a reason for that. We've only been up against each other three times! Anyhow, congratulations Sir Alex, you are one of the true greats of the game.Reuse content