Football: Ferguson the king of contradictions

The Manchester United manager's story not only settles old scores but also displays a natural warmth
Click to follow
The Independent Online
OF ALL the lessons Alex Ferguson has absorbed in the half-century since he first kicked a football, perhaps none has proved more valuable to him than the early experience of playing for Drumchapel Amateurs, run by one Douglas Smith. On Saturday mornings the boy Ferguson would play for his school, Govan High; in the afternoons he turned out for Drumchapel. In between the two matches Smith would take him and his team-mates for lunch at Reid's Restaurant in Gordon Street, Glasgow. "It made you feel a cut above the boys you played against," Ferguson writes in his new autobiography, Managing My Life*, "and, however foolish that may have been, it did not hurt your confidence on the pitch."

Life is about coping with contradictions, and over the course of his long and illustrious career Ferguson has proved himself the master of such pragmatic strategies. He is the lifelong socialist who accepted a knighthood, the former trades union activist who became a millionaire, the man committed to the team ethic who learnt the importance of having the keys to the biggest Mercedes in the club car park and who has come to understand that "talent is not democratic".

Beyond question Ferguson's 13-year campaign to bring glory back to Manchester United has put him in possession of the richest and most enthralling story in post-war British sport and although managers' memoirs are usually a waste of time, particularly when their careers are still in train, this is certainly an exception. While the latest telling of his story inevitably contains plenty of "we lost a thriller 4-2 in extra-time" passages, it also includes enough revelation to justify the hype.

No one following the story from a modest Clydeside childhood to the glittering epiphany in Barcelona could fail to share some of the exhilaration as dreams become real. The stories of triumph are well told, from his playing and managerial years in Scotland through his often painful conquest of English and European football, although even a book of almost 500 pages is hard put to provide enough space for everything there might be to say about the night of 26 May, when the European Cup monkey was finally lifted from Ferguson's back. But, of course, the triumphs alone are not enough.

A notoriously bad loser with a short fuse and selective vision, Ferguson seldom shirks a confrontation. And, naturally, he seizes this opportunity to justify his sometimes controversial behaviour. If his accounts of the dropping of Jim Leighton for the 1990 FA Cup Final replay, the mind games with Kevin Keegan, the selling of Paul Ince, and the departures of both his Old Trafford assistants, Archie Knox and Brian Kidd, clearly represent just one side of the story, then that is because a football manager cannot afford to spend too much time contemplating the other man's view.

Scores are briskly settled with those who have displeased him, including the likes of Alan Hansen, David Elleray, Gordon Strachan and Brian Clough who, he writes with a cutting elegance, "provided ample proof that he was one of Britain's greatest football managers. That he was almost certainly its rudest is perhaps another distinction he is proud to claim. He is welcome to it." But his natural warmth suffuses the portraits of Jock Stein, Eric Cantona and others, while a few eyebrows will be raised by the words of unstinting praise for Arsene Wenger and Gianluca Vialli, his fiercest current rivals in the English league.

Some of the stories, including the disaster of Scotland's 1986 World Cup campaign and the ruthless clear-out of the Old Trafford drinking club, have been aired once or twice before. The retelling benefits immensely from the assistance given to Ferguson by Hugh McIlvanney, whose skill ensures that the tone of Managing My Life rises above the clunk of its title.

The art of the ghost writer is to recreate the subject's voice in prose, which is not as simple as it might seem, and is certainly more than a matter of dotting the narrative with shared vernacular ("the wee man was in one of his nippy sweetie moods"). McIlvanney's intimate knowledge of Ferguson's roots helps to give the early chapters the authentic texture of a vanished world in which little boys spent their time kicking a ball in the street and professional footballers aspired to run pubs. But occasionally it is hard to resist the impression that, while the thoughts may be Ferguson's, the deliberate rhythms and sonorous clarity of the prose are familiar from another source. On Ince's last days at Old Trafford: "His strong suit was defending but he refused to accept that reality." On Cantona heading for retirement: "Seeing the dullness in his eyes, and the changing outline of his physique, I had to acknowledge that perhaps he was ready to terminate his career before blatant decline became an insult to the fierce pride that burned in him." Couldn't have been better put, really.

The skimpy treatment of Ferguson's experiences as a union man, both during his time as a Clydeside toolmaker and as a member of the national committee of the Scottish PFA, is disappointing, and throughout the book discussions of philosophy are subordinate to narrative detail. The half-page on why men, not tactics, win football matches is fascinating and could have been increased by a multiple of 10 or more.

Most of all, more light could have been shed on his definition of loyalty, which he describes in the book's concluding sentence as "the anchor of my life". The ambitious young player who promises Matt Gillies on page 106 that he will sign for Nottingham Forest and then goes to Falkirk instead ("`Look, Alex, I'll give you anything you want,' Willie said") turns, 300 pages later, into the apoplectic manager who berates Paul Gascoigne for changing his mind about joining United. In the end this is a book that invites you to draw your own conclusions about a man whose deeds have dominated the last 10 years of English football, and who may not be done with it yet.

*Managing My Life (Hodder and Stoughton, pounds 18.99)