Comment: One knight's stand as a media luvvie

Only Ferguson will discover in time whether his honesty has been at too expensive a price, says Nick Townsend
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The Independent Online
THE TWELFTH of August may not be an auspicious day for some game birds; but on Thursday night it could not have been more glorious for one particular old grouse. "I'm black and white, not a grey man," Sir Alex Ferguson's rasping tones reverberated around the packed Windows Restaurant of London's Park Lane Hilton. "Anybody in this room who's not fallen out wi' me, please step forward. And I'll fall out wi' you."

His roguish riposte to those who have found his pronouncements on them in his newly-published memoirs not entirely to their liking was the kind of acerbic humour honed in the Govan shipyards and perfected at St Mirren, Aberdeen and Old Trafford. And on the top floor of one of London's swishest hotels, selected presumably as a suitable symbol of his progress, the assembled celebrity supporters, jockeys and racehorse trainers along with those football managers with whom the Manchester United manager hasn't fallen out, roared their approval.

From football manager par excellence to media luvvie and honorary member of the literati was never going to be the smoothest of transitions. But Ferguson had them eating out of his hands, when they weren't quaffing champagne and consuming canapes on an evening more suited to the pages of Hello! magazine than sports supplements. He mingled between those who came to worship him, from Gordon Ramsay the failed footballer, now successful chef, to retired racing commentator Peter O'Sullevan, from Ian MacShane to Richard Wilson - who presumably greeted United's treble with a rendition of "I don't believe it" - like a seasoned veteran. "Oh, I can handle all this," Ferguson chortled. "Tomorrow morning I'll be back for training at the Cliff as normal."

Word has it that, if he did make it (and there are reports Walter Smith was serenading his select post-party gathering with rock 'n roll songs into the wee hours), his players might have been just about winding down. You wonder what the United chairman Martin Edwards, who apparently expressed fears last summer over Ferguson's commitment to the job, would make of it. Once you are in the hands of publishers, particularly ones who have advanced an unprecedented pounds 1m, their demands are relentless.

This month is traditionally open season for football autobiographies, the time of year when certain footballing personalities, who have hitherto regarded a journalist's notebook and tape recorder as offensive weapons, suddenly profess themselves "delighted if you could join them for drinks and a chat".

Michael Owen's (the first of a trilogy) will soon be upon us; so too the revised Bobby Robson memoirs. This week, on the basis of two years, admittedly impressive ones, at the Stadium of Light, Sunderland's Kevin Phillips exchanges scoring feats for fables about his life. We've also seen the publication of The Lawman (Denis Law) and John Aldridge's My Story. But in blockbuster terms, Sir Alex's rather uninspiringly-titled Managing My Life is Danielle Steele meets Geoffrey Archer, with a Booker Prize quality injected by his collaborator Hugh McIlvanney thrown in.

Though an estimated pounds 350,000 has reportedly been recouped by the publishers Hodder and Stoughton from serialisation in the Sun and the Times, they will have to shift an awfully large quantity of this hefty tome if they are to profit from their investment. As a rival publisher told me: "I'd be surprised if they get their money back."

From Asda in Dumplington to Eason's in O'Connell Street, the away fixtures come thick and fast on the the signing tour, which extends into next month, the only respite, and a temporary return to normality, being the 4-0 home win over Sheffield Wednesday in midweek. By Thursday night he had already signed 2,500 copies at eight bookshops in London and Manchester.

Publishing an autobiography makes a man vulnerable. Those who prefer to distance themselves from hyperbole that surrounds sport sudenly find themselves in the hands of publicists and at the mercy of pundits. It means that when the horseracing aficionado appears on Channel 4's The Morning Line the likes of a Newcastle hat-clad John McCririck, can demand to know which of the less fashionable clubs could prosper this season. In football, his interrogators treat him with a degree of caution, few prepared to fall foul of the great man. The bombastic McCririck, though, will not kow-tow to anyone and pursues him until Ferguson, looking a trifle uncomfortable, eventually elects Middlesbrough.

He can live with TV interviews, press conferences, book signings; even reading extracts on Radio 5 Live was not too great an ordeal. Yet many will wonder whether he can live with his withering assaults on those who once considered him their ally.

His former assistant Brian Kidd will be, to many people, Ferguson's most surprising target, though neither Gordon Strachan or Paul Ince escape an acid bath from their former manager. "Deep down I would have had serious reservations about him [Kidd] becoming manager of Manchester United," writes Ferguson. "I suspect the constant demand for hard, often unpopular decisions would put an intolerable strain on his temperament."

Ferguson is unrepentant. "If I've created controversy it's not something I've set out to do," he said. "I just have to be honest." The more cynically- minded might suggest that "honesty" merely sates the appetite for lurid serialisation headlines (the heading which relates to his condemnation of Ince - "All this `guv'nor' nonsense should have been left in his toybox" - filled half a page in the Sun) while the Daily Mail's Ian Wooldridge, who devoted a column to explaining why he wouldn't be attending Thursday's shindig, describes the book as "disturbing", and does not intend that particular adjective as a compliment.

Ferguson's ghost, McIlvanney, will have none of it, replying that he "resents implications that Alex did the book for mercenary reasons or to settle scores" and maintaining, to the contrary, that Ferguson has "a compulsion to tell the truth".

The problem is that candour is a commodity which is in short supply in football. Invariably, it tends to open wounds and the festering sores which result can take an eternity to heal. Only Ferguson will discover, in time, whether his honesty has been at too expensive a price.

The autobiography itself is as comprehensive a work as anyone could demand. Indeed, an acknowledgement, a dedication by Ferguson and an introduction by McIlvanney extends to eight pages before you start. They must thank more people than Gwyneth Paltrow did at the Oscars. The one question that remains slightly mystifying is: why McIlvanney? By all means employ the doyen of sports writing to pen a magnum opus about his friend Ferguson, but it should have been an observation - not as his ghost.

Too much of it reads like the author and not the subject. Ferguson recalls those two Champions' League final winning goals at the Nou Camp in May: "Put starkly, two David Beckham corners led to two goals by substitutes Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer... is about as adequate as saying the Battle of Hastings was settled on a cut-eye decision." But this is typical McIlvanney, not Ferguson. As another publisher said: "When I read it, I just didn't hear Fergie's voice."

Still, one can only admire the author, not least for his fortitude in suffering through the season. Having on more than one occasion sat next to a man who smote every ball with the venom of Beckham, flexed his muscles with every tackle by Roy Keane and celebrated each United goal with the gusto of the most hardened Old Trafford regular, one can't help but be pleased for him. For his own state of mind alone, one must just be truly thankful that players contrived to obtain the result the manager's ghost so desperately desired.