Ferguson turns from titles to tinkling ivories

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The Independent Online
It is not often that Alex Ferguson opens his heart to the television cameras, being generally as fond of media attention as the average Getty. Last week, however, no doubt mellowed by the weight of silverware in the Old Trafford trophy cupboard, he was rarely off our screens, playing three roles: pundit, poacher and - unlikely, but true - pianist.

Punditry first. Alex joined a luminous line-up on Euro '96 - The Countdown (ITV). Ferguson, Glenn Hoddle, John Barnes and Ally McCoist sat in front of a studio audience to be grilled by Bob Wilson. Actually, that is a little misleading. Wilson's interrogatory technique is more like warming-over than grilling: if he were a toaster, the bread would come out damp.

He has tremendous trouble asking people questions, which is a bit of a drawback in a TV interview situation. This, for example, is the exact text of an enquiry he addressed to John Barnes: "John, England played against, er, Switzerland quite recently, and won, so I mean that, that, in itself, is that, that, going to be, er, I mean, they won't look at it, it's a different thing when it's come to, actually Euro '96."

Poor John Barnes. If this had been Channel 4's version of Countdown, he could at least have responded "Could I have a consonant, please, Bob?" Instead he decided that since he had caught the word "Switzerland" in there somewhere, it would be safe to talk about them for a while. We may safely assume that the letters "QC" will never appear after Wilson's name, unless they are to stand for "Quite confusing". Fortunately, the programme's format allowed the studio audience to ask their own questions.

Ferguson's contribution was amusing and perceptive once he had got over an entirely understandable tendency to confuse Ajax and Holland. He also expressed admiration for the Liverpool player Jamie Fowler, which leads one to suspect that he may be planning to buy both him and his useful young colleague Robbie Redknapp.

Ferguson did reveal that he had attempted to buy Paul Gascoigne when the midfielder was a chubby 18-year-old. But it was his swoops on even younger players that concerned Greg Dyke in the first programme of the new series of Fair Game (Channel 4).

To follow the spirit of the programme's title and be fair to Ferguson, it was not suggested that he was personally responsible for Manchester United's acquisitive attitude towards teenage players who had been educated by other clubs. But he was Head Honcho at Old Trafford when United wooed David Brown, Oldham Athletic's most talented youngster.

Oldham's chief scout, Jim Cassell, said that he found this kind of behaviour on the part of big clubs "disruptive, demoralising and very, very disheartening", but under the present rules there is very little they can do about it. What they have done is to adopt a suitably juvenile attitude and taken their ball away: they no longer play United at junior level.

Dyke's typically hard-hitting programme compromised itself somewhat by focusing on Sonny Pike, a smug 12-year-old whose ringleted coiffure makes him look like a pampered Regency princeling. Sonny's Dad, Micky, has modest ambitions for his son: "I'd like him to have the skill of Pele, the strength of Cantona, the style of John Barnes, and the manners of Gary Lineker." Sonny, who has apparently already acquired the modesty of Prince Naseem Hamed, confided his personal ambition: "I want to get the golden boot." What he needs, in fact, is a perfectly ordinary boot, strategically applied.

Micky, despairing of the authorities, sought counsel for his son from Eric Hall, which is a bit like seeking veterinary advice about your sick goldfish from a fishmonger. "It comes to something," Dyke clucked, "when a Dad is looking for an agent, rather than the FA, for advice about his son's career." What it comes to is this: one pushy Dad.

The other slight flaw in the programme's argument is that the struggling club to which Sonny is affiliated is Leyton Orient (prop: B Hearn, Esq). Anyone going poaching down east London way had better have some pretty useful lawyers.

Encouraged, perhaps, by the kid-glove treatment accorded to Eric Cantona by Desmond Lynam on Cup Final day, Ferguson agreed to be interviewed by the moustachioed smoothie for Sportsnight (BBC1).

Lynam is a wonderfully relaxed - and relaxing - interviewer, able to get the best from the most recalcitrant subject. The key to his success is the humorous inflection he gives his questions, a kind of verbal wink that says "Come on, unwind, this is just between the two of us". Thus he got Ferguson to reveal that his secret ambition is to learn to play the piano which his wife bought him for Christmas, and which now sits chez Ferguson "with three candles on top". Who needs a libero when the manager is a budding Liberace?