Football: United by the red legends

European Cup final: The links between heroes and eras grow ever stronger as history beckons; Andrew Longmore traces the uncanny parallels between the Busby and Ferguson eras
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THERE WILL be no argument, except in the mind of the man himself, about Alex Ferguson's claim to equal status with Sir Matt Busby if United bring home the European Cup from Barcelona on Wednesday. It is the only prize which separates the two. Sir Matt, Ferguson said last week, was the "bedrock" of Manchester United, a more powerful description than anything mustered by the BBC television documentary which purported to throw new light on the Busby legend.

The programme's mistake was to believe that anyone brought up in the mining quarter of Lanarkshire between the Wars, as Busby was, would somehow emerge from the experience without steel in his bones. So it was no real shock to learn from Harry Gregg that his loyalty bonus for nearly 10 years' service to Manchester United was not the pounds 1,000 traditionally awarded for a decade, but a precisely calculated pounds 732, nor to discover that players who crossed Busby were quickly shipped on. "There is no room for sentiment at United," said Gregg. Nor Leeds, Arsenal, Liverpool or any other club which has rigorous standards to uphold and a board of directors to appease.

Football is a rough, tough business and to expect anything less is to encourage disappointment and bitterness. Johnny Morris and Johnny Giles, perceived to be disruptive influences in Busby's dressing-room, were transferred; Norman Whiteside and Paul McGrath, whose drinking bouts Ferguson would track across town through calls from the public, did not last long after Ferguson's arrival at Old Trafford.

The parallels between Busby and Ferguson are becoming uncannily neat, right down to the date of the final which would have been Busby's 90th birthday. Busby was brought up in Orbiston, where mining was the natural trade and football the one means of escape. Ferguson is a Glaswegian, born in Govan, where in 1919 the government had to put tanks on the streets to block the establishment of a revolutionary Soviet in the shipyards on the Clyde. In Ferguson's time in the shipyards, men like Jimmy Reed were the natural inheritors of that radical industrial tradition.

With it came an understanding that you looked after your own. When "Hoppy", the kit man at Falkirk, who had been ill with cancer, received an invitation from Ferguson to come to a game at Old Trafford when he was better, the gesture was a natural extension of a solid belief in community. Similarly, the comforting phone call Ferguson made to George Burley on the Monday morning after his Ipswich side had been humiliated 9-0 at Old Trafford. Infringe that private ground and Ferguson will react with the protective instincts of a bulldog. With Ferguson, there is no grey. The line is drawn at any criticism of his players or his club, however justified, and crossing it can be as costly a business now as it was under Busby. Great managers seldom forget.

But while Busby, through Louis Edwards, the chairman he championed, had total control of the club, Ferguson's often uneasy relationship with Louis's son, Martin, stems from an inherent suspicion of anyone wielding authority without cause. Ferguson is more aware than Busby ever was what cynical forces drive a multi-national corporation like United.

At Falkirk in the early Seventies, when he was a free-scoring centre- forward and the players' representative of the Professional Footballers' Association, Ferguson's militant tendency brought the Falkirk players close to strike action over the non-payment of travelling expenses. Alex Totten, who played with Ferguson at Dunfermline and then at Falkirk, recalls that the issue was only resolved at a meeting at the Park Hotel in the town, two hours before kick-off.

Totten came to know his younger colleague on the drive from Glasgow to Dunfermline each morning. "He was the dominant personality in our dressing- room, even then," Totten, now the manager of Falkirk, says. "He was the shop steward off and on the field. He knew what it was like to work from seven in the morning to seven at night, not like modern players born with a silver spoon in their mouths. The way he was then and the way he manages now was shaped by his family, his childhood and his days working in the shipyards. He's never forgotten his roots."

Whether that could be truly said of Busby is a matter of debate. Of the four great Scottish managers - Shankly, Busby, Stein and Ferguson - Busby adopted the most cultured accent. While Busby was quite at ease wearing dinner jacket and tails and lecturing the great and good of the Manchester elite, Ferguson's address at the memorial service for the Munich air crash last year betrayed his nervousness. Ferguson is happier in the company of small groups of friends than attending the setpiece occasions demanded of the manager of such a glamorous club. He would far rather be at the Old Trafford stewards' dinner-dance than the directors' Christmas cocktail party. In that sense, he is still very much the boy from Govan.

Yet the qualities which made Busby the outstanding manager of his generation have a deep resonance in the extraordinary sequence of success Ferguson has brought to Aberdeen and Manchester United. When his old friend Totten started out in management with Alloa, his first call was to Ferguson, then the manager of Aberdeen. The pair met at Dunblane and talked for an hour about the principles of football management.

"Honesty with your players and loyalty to your players, those were the main things he told me," Totten recalls. "I've been a manager now for 20 years and the job is all about giving loyalty to those who do it for you. It's a ruthless profession. My mother always used to say to me, `Alex, if you please yourself, son, then at least you've pleased someone because you won't be able to please everyone'. That's football management, you're not there to be in the popularity stakes."

In entrusting the future of United to kids, Ferguson made the same calculation as Busby. As long as they are your kids, their loyalty will be unquestioning. "Where I came from, you depended on each other and that's been an important ingredient in my teams," Ferguson says simply. Dependence stemmed from the home. He has bought and bought well - Cole, Yorke, Schmeichel and Stam - yet the spirit of the United team on Wednesday night, just like 31 years ago, will be largely homegrown: Giggs, the Nevilles, Butt and, though he originally came from London, Beckham. Scholes too, if he was available.

"You can talk tactics for as long as you like," Ferguson said last week. "But if you've not got the spirit, the energy or the determination you're not going far." Busby would have understood that. The greatness of both Busby and Ferguson lies in their ability to marry those earthy, unteachable qualities to the sense of style that, since the era of Duncan Edwards and Tommy Taylor, United have demanded as a matter of honour. Success has never been enough for United, as Dave Sexton, one of Ferguson's predecessors, found out.

Where the pair differ most is in their style of management. David Meek, whose career as football correspondent of the Manchester Evening News, has straddled both eras, talks of Busby's "inner authority". Ferguson wears his emotions on the sleeves of his club blazer. No one, press or player, who has been on the wrong end of Ferguson's tongue would care to question either the authority or the expression of it. Where Matt's dressing downs would be headmasterly and paternal, Ferguson's are coarser and more dramatic.

"Nothing personal," as Ferguson once said to Meek after a particularly ferocious verbal assault. But everything is personal with Ferguson. No one ever heard Busby swear, a reflection of the times as much as the character. Busby's temper was slow burning, but effective nonetheless. Jaap Stam has been surprised by the force of Ferguson's temper, but only because it contrasted so sharply with the gentleness of the manager he first met. When Paddy Crerand was once late for the bus on the way back from a match Busby's simple response, delivered in that deep gentle baritone, was crushing. "Paddy Crerand, you must be a big man to keep the directors and manager of Manchester United waiting."

Busby's tribute to the Munich dead was paid in the currency he knew best, in the genius of the 1968 side of Charlton, Law and Best. That was his lasting legacy to the club and the game. Nothing stood in his way. If United are triumphant in Barcelona, the emotional undercurrents will not be as strong as they were at Wembley all those years ago. But that will not make Ferguson's own achievement any less valid.