"He's gone on too long, he's like Maggie Thatcher," was one caller's contribution to a radio phone-in. Fortunately for the speaker's safety he was not within reach of Alex Ferguson at the time. The sentiment was bad enough, the comparison would have produced an explosion worthy of last night's firework displays.
"Don't compare me with that woman," he once scolded a reporter who had noted that, like Thatcher, he needed only a few hours' sleep. Ferguson's socialism runs deep. His recent appearance with Tony Blair at the Labour Party Conference was not a stunt - not for Ferguson anyway.
Even so, it was impossible not to think of Maggie when Ferguson said, when we met a few days ago, that "I can take another 10 years. I have no thoughts of retiring". Remember Thatcher proclaiming, upon her 10th anniversary: "I shall go on, and on, and on"? Within a year she was out. Could the same fate befall Ferguson, who today celebrates 10 years at the helm at Old Trafford? The widespread joy at United's recent slump would suggest he divides the country just as much as she did.
The reaction bemuses Ferguson. "Why do people hate us?" he said. "They never hated Liverpool. Last Monday morning I was listening to the news on Five Live and the guy says: 'What a weekend I had. I nearly crashed my car in delight when I heard the news - United losing six goals. Brilliant.'
"I laughed at it. Then I thought: 'What kind of message is that from the BBC news? It's right to hate United?'. . Kids could be listening."
Ferguson then conceded that the omnipresence of Manchester United plc "has something to do with it". "We're a threat to the nation," he added with sudden relish. "Public enemy No 1. Next there'll be posters of Kitchener saying 'Your Country Needs You To Rid England Of Manchester United'."
It was typical Ferguson, in turn defensive, reflective, passionate and humorous. It is, after the initial mutual wariness is conquered, an engaging mix, and the element which normally comes out on top is passion.
That emotion is channelled in two directions - football and winning. As a player it lifted an average talent to two seasons playing centre- forward with his boyhood heroes, Rangers. In that time he was sent off seven times - "an injustice every one of them" - but was still top scorer.
In management it has driven him to create two teams which have achieved success without sacrificing style. He spent eight years at Aberdeen, by far the most successful in their history. Then, in November 1986, Martin Edwards, the United chairman, contacted him. Nottingham Forest were top, Newcastle were bottom and that weekend's North-east derby was in the Third Division, where Middlesbrough were playing Darlington. More to the point, United were 20th.
"I could not see myself being here a decade," Ferguson said. "I did not think I would ever spend as long again at one club. My job when coming here was to win the League, that was my priority. I could not understand how United had gone so long - it was the 20th year - not winning it. I remember telling the press: 'I don't want it to go to 25 years'... I regretted saying that five years later."
By then, however, the recovery was on the way. But in 1989 it had looked as if Ferguson was not the man for the job. Having finished 11th the previous season, Ferguson had signed five players including Paul Ince and Gary Pallister, then lost 5-1 at Manchester City.
The low point was a December home defeat by Crystal Palace, who had earlier lost 9-0 at Anfield. Ferguson had dropped Hughes and the crowd, for the first time, had turned against him.
As he drove away from Old Trafford, Darren, his son, suggested he quit. When they got home the telephone rang - United had been drawn away to Forest in the FA Cup third round. "How," a reporter wanted to know, "did Fergie feel?".
"'Pass me the rope' is what I thought, 'wonderful' is what I said," Ferguson said. "I had begun to analyse myself. I thought: 'My team selection's good, my training and preparation's right, motivation fine, handling the press OK.' Yet we went eight matches without winning.
"I was not going out at night time. I was too depressed. At weekends, Archie [Knox, his then assistant] and Kiddo [Brian Kidd, then youth coach, now assistant] would say 'Come out'. I'd say no. I was doing a bit of trench- digging."
United went on to beat Forest and, five months later, Crystal Palace at Wembley. Ferguson was on his way. "Winning the Cup showed me exactly what was wrong with this club. The way the atmosphere built up as each round came along - the success was based on cup runs. The supporters were waiting for them rather than League wins. Now they get involved in League games.
"There is a different atmosphere now. There was a frustrated atmosphere when I first came, a 'they've lost the League again' thing. Now there is expectation."
Too much, one might feel. Yesterday, Five Live's morning phone-in was devoted to "Manchester United's crisis". On Six-O-Six a woman complained she had not bought an Old Trafford season ticket to see United lose.
To be fair, few long-standing United fans believe Ferguson has outstayed his welcome. They look at the youth system, the new training facility at The Cliff, the way all the first team, bar Eric Cantona, have signed contracts into the next century.
"What has happened in the last weeks is why you have 10 years here," Ferguson said. "You prepare to ensure you recover from that."
Ferguson's longevity is remarkable. Joe Kinnear, at four years eight months, is the next longest serving Premiership manager. Only Dario Gradi (Crewe) and John Rudge (Port Vale) exceed his tenure outside the Premiership. "To be successful you have to understand you cannot be everybody's cup of tea. You can only pick 11 players. I don't enjoy that bit but I never let it worry me. You're doing it for the team."
That strength of mind saw him leave Bryan Robson out of the 1994 FA Cup final, omit Steve Bruce for last May's final, and, hardest of all, Jim Leighton from the 1990 final replay.
Ferguson says the decison whether to keep Eric Cantona - "I could not see him surviving here" - was the hardest, but the way he talks about Leighton betrays him. Leighton had been his keeper at Aberdeen; Ferguson had brought him down to Old Trafford.
Ask him about that decision and there is a long pause, a very long pause. Then he says: "It really crushed Jim. It's still going on. Jim took it badly, but it was the right decision. Yet, if I knew then the way it would affect Jim I don't think I would make the same decision. It was the right football decision but it wrecked his career and cost him two years of his footballing life. The easy decision was to play him, the hard decision won us the Cup."
It was a salutary lesson. Ferguson is a father figure to United's young players, but he keeps his distance. "You have to be close, but not too close. I have a game of cards on the bus, I enjoy that, a bit of laughter, but I never go out for a meal. The one time we did it we lost the League. We had three games in six days and I decided to take them all for an Italian. We lost them all. It must have been the pasta."
We have been talking in the privacy of the directors' room at Old Trafford. It is all soft upholstery and deep pile carpet. There is a discreet bar and an impressive honours board. Among the plaques and scroll is an incongruous one, from Uefa, congratulating United on their "contribution" to the success of the 1994-95 Champions' League. You may recall their "contribution" ended in failure at the hands of Barcelona, Gothenburg and Galatasaray.
Europe brought Maggie down; it may yet do the same for Fergie. Equally it could lift him that last rung in the pantheon of great managers, up there with Sir Matt Busby.
He may not be team manager when it happens but he will be at Old Trafford, probably alongside Kidd or Robson as a more hands-on director of football than Kenny Dalglish ever was. Ferguson does not envisage retirement. "That's the problem with this country," he says. "People have to retire at 65. That should be against the law."
An epitaph? "People who know their football have admired what we've done. Even Liverpool supporters recognise we have tried to do it the right way. We have played good football."
OLD TRAFFORD'S NEW ERA
MANCHESTER UNITED'S FULL RECORD UNDER FERGUSON
Season League FA Cup League Cup Europe
1986-87 11 R4 R3 -
1987-88 2 R5 R5 -
1988-89 11 R6 R3 -
1989-90 13 W R3 -
1990-91 6 R4 RU CWC - W
1991-92 2 R4 W CWC - R2
1992-93 1 R5 R3 UEFA - R1
1993-94 1 W RU EC - R2
1994-95 2 RU R3 CL - Grp
1995-96 1 W R2 UEFA - R1
1996-97 6 - in R4 CL - in Grp
KEY - CL: European Cup Champions' League. CWC: European Cup-Winners' Cup. EC: European Cup. R4 etc: Fourth round. RU: Runner-up. UEFA: Uefa Cup. W: Winner.
FERGUSON'S FIRST SIDE AND WHERE THEY WENT
v Oxford United (away). Saturday 8 November, 1986. Lost 2-0.
1 Turner Sheffield Wed pounds 175,000 1988
2 Duxbury Blackburn Free 1990
3 Albiston West Brom Free 1988
4 Moran Sporting Gijon Free 1987
5 McGrath Aston Villa pounds 450,000 1989
6 Hogg Portsmouth pounds 150,000 1988
7 Blackmore Middlesbrough Free 1994
8 Moses retired 1988
9 Stapleton Ajax pounds 150,000 1987
10 Davenport Middlesbrough pounds 750,000 1988
11 Barnes Manchester City pounds 50,000 1987
MAJOR TRANSFERS IN
(over pounds 170,000)
Player From pounds
Anderson Arsenal 250,000
McClair Celtic 850,000
Bruce Norwich 800,000
Sharpe Torquay 180,000
Leighton Aberdeen 450,000
Pallister Middlesbro 2,300,000
Donaghy Luton 650,000
Hughes Barcelona 1,600,000
Milne Bristol City 170,000
Phelan Norwich 750,000
Ince West Ham 2,000,000
Wallace Southampton 1,200,000
Webb Nottm Forest 1,500,000
Irwin Oldham 650,000
Parker QPR 2,000,000
Kanchelskis Donetsk 650,000
Schmeichel Brondby 550,000
Dublin Cambridge 1,000,000
Cantona Leeds Utd 1,200,000
Keane Nottm Forest 3,750,000
May Blackburn 1,400,000
Cole Newcastle 6,250,000
Coton Manchester City 500,000
Solskjaer Molde 1,500,000
Johnsen Besiktas 1,200,000
Poborsky Slavia Prague 3,500,000
Van der Gouw Arnhem 200,000
Cruyff Barcelona 1,000,000
MAJOR TRANSFERS OUT
Sivebaek St Etienne 227,000
T Gibson Wimbledon 200,000
Turner Sheff Wed 175,000
Olsen Bordeaux 375,000
Davenport Middlesbro 750,000
O'Brien Newcastle 275,000
Strachan Leeds Utd 300,000
Whiteside Everton 750,000
McGrath Aston Villa 450,000
Robins Norwich 800,000
Webb Nottm Forest 800,000
Leighton Dundee 200,000
Carey Leicester 250,000
Wallace Birmingham 250,000
Ferguson Wolves 250,000
Martin Celtic 500,000
Dublin Coventry 1,950,000
Gillespie Newcastle 1,000,000
Kanchelskis Everton 5,500,000
Walsh Middlesbro 250,000
Ince Internazionale 7,000,000
Hughes Chelsea 1,500,000
Coton Sunderland 350,000
Sharpe Leeds Utd 4,500,000
THEN AND NOW
Turnover pounds 6.6m pounds 53m
Non-playing staff 114 296
Estimated wages pounds 2.5m pounds 13.4m*
Avg attendance 46,322 54,895
Members 42,000 145,000
Cost of replica kit pounds 26.99 pounds 70.00
* 1995 figures
after six League games in 1996-97
Membership scheme started in 1987 and is now fully subscribed.
Compiled by Danielle Berthfield and Kevin GroganReuse content