One of the defining moments of Sir Alex Ferguson's glorious but often contentious career as manager of Manchester United came in February 2000 when David Beckham, his star player, failed to report for training. Beckham said his baby son was ill, and that he needed to be at home with him. Fair enough. But when Ferguson discovered that Beckham's wife Victoria was out shopping at the time, he hit the roof.
According to someone who knows him well, the publicity machine that surrounds the Beckhams has always been intensely irritating to him. Now, by his lights, Beckham was letting the side down, and in Ferguson's book there is no greater sin. For the next match Beckham was kicked out of the team. He wasn't even a substitute. It seemed unthinkable to drop Beckham – to put a personal squabble, as some saw it, before the interests of the team. But Ferguson had done it.
What the incident really betrayed was a clash of cultures – a 21st-century, new-man touchy-feeliness on the one hand, and on the other, the hard, man's world that shaped Ferguson, growing up among the Scottish working class in the 1950s. It certainly wasn't one in which wives have the definitive say in their husband's lives, which is ironic in the light of what lay behind last week's news that, far from retiring at the end of this season, as had previously been announced, Ferguson will remain at Old Trafford for another three years. Though no great lover of the game, Ferguson's wife Cathy knew what it meant to him, and could still mean, and she perhaps didn't relish the prospect of having this great, brooding figure about the house with no outlet for his footballing energies.
No matter that he has achieved everything at United – the European Cup, seven Premier League titles, four FA Cups and one League Cup – or that he turned 60 at the end of 2001. Cathy Ferguson could see that there was plenty left in him, and her intervention was crucial. Why not carry on? "As Cathy says, 'retire when you feel tired'," Ferguson said last week. "And I feel strong, young, and fit."
Family has always been important to Ferguson, and so, by extension, have the wider roots of his upbringing. In his case, that was Govan, the Clydeside district on the south-western edge of Glasgow, where his father, Alex snr, was one of 100,000 or so men who built ships. The sense of community in which Ferguson grew up was palpable, and as a young toolmaker in a Glasgow factory, he was soon involved in the union.
Full-time professional football did not come until he was 22, when he joined Dunfermline. Spells at three other clubs followed. He ran a pub in Glasgow before taking up his first managerial post, at St Mirren. But it was as the manager of Aberdeen, from 1978 to 1986, that Ferguson made his mark, breaking the hold over Scottish football enjoyed by Rangers and Celtic, before moving to Manchester.
United was a club on which the past bore down. With both the Munich air disaster of 1958 and the triumphs of the late 1960s, it had a unique legacy that it was struggling to live up to. Since the retirement, in 1971, of the great Sir Matt Busby, a succession of managers had come and gone with little to show. Would Ferguson do any better?
In the early years, it was touch and go whether he would survive. But he bought some time by winning the FA Cup in 1990, and the elusive championship, the club's first for 26 years, finally arrived in 1993, in the inaugural Premier League season. Since then, United have been almost unstoppable, as both a footballing and a commercial force. Ferguson's achievement has been to withstand the pressure that goes with running the world's biggest club, and at the same time maintain the attacking tradition of the United sides of old. Even United's detractors – the club is fiercely resented for its stranglehold on the English game – have to admit that, under Ferguson, domestic football has been raised to breathtaking new levels.
If such erudite Continentals as the England manager, Sven Goran Eriksson, and Arsène Wenger of Arsenal seem to represent a new studiousness in football, then Ferguson might be seen as a throwback to an age when the sort of men to whom he is heir – tough fellow-Scots such as Bill Shankly and Jock Stein – seethed with a passion for the game, and exuded a sometimes terrifying authority.
But you don't get to be the towering figure that Ferguson has become without the shrewdness, attention to detail and profound understanding of players' personalities which no powers of intimidation can make up for. It's just that, unlike Eriksson and Wenger, Ferguson has been known to go into rages in which tables have been kicked and teacups thrown.
"There's a difference between old-style and old-fashioned," says Alastair Campbell, the Downing Street press chief who has welcomed Ferguson as a staunch Labour supporter. "Yes, he's old-style in that he's disciplined and he leads from the top. But what people perhaps don't understand about Alex is that he has an incredibly acute intelligence. He was one of the first to appreciate the importance of diet and training regimes for players. At the same time he understands that United is a huge business. I'd say all that puts him in the 'new manager' mould."
Few managers form bonds with players as Ferguson does. He has regarded the Welsh winger Ryan Giggs almost as a son ever since he broke into the team as a gifted 17-year-old. In Roy Keane, United's irresistible Irish midfielder, Ferguson sees many of his own formidable qualities. And with Eric Cantona, Peter Schmeichel and now the brilliant Dutch striker Ruud van Nistelrooy, Ferguson has found his faith in individual genius, with all its attendant pitfalls, spectacularly rewarded.
"Ferguson's probably the last manager who can use fear as a weapon to deal with players," says the sportswriter Ken Jones. "That's very difficult today because the players have so much money that they can just turn round and tell you where to go."
When loyalty to players is not returned, Ferguson does not easily forgive. Likewise when he feels press criticism is unjustified. This season has seen a low point in his often turbulent relationship with reporters, with Ferguson cancelling press conferences and haranguing people when he does agree to turn up. One of Ferguson's three sons, Jason, is also his agent, and the questions raised about this arrangement have seriously rankled with him. Does Ferguson bear grudges? "It's more that he always has to have the last word," says someone close to him.
Of course he has mellowed over the years. As the owner of some top-class horses, he derives huge pleasure from racing, often turning up on the gallops early in the morning after a match the night before. There was a time when he felt undervalued at United. What mattered to him about the big pay increase he secured a few years ago was not what it could buy him but what it said about his worth. At £11m over three years, Ferguson's new contract makes him comfortably Britain's highest paid manager. By the crazy standards of the footballing economy, it is money well spent.