So much to do and so little time. Horse racing is only part of the mental picture Sir Alex Ferguson has painted of what retirement will look like. He wants to travel more. "I'll even read history books," he revealed yesterday. "I'll study new languages. I did four years of German at school. It comes easy with the guttural accent of the Scots. I've been studying French for years. I could take on Italian... I already know a few sentences..." And then there is the enthusiastic piano-playing which has become a part of the Ferguson legend but which, we now learn, has come to something of a halt. "I've tried to do like my cousin in Canada who taught himself and is fantastic, but I need a tutor and time I have not got at the moment..."
And neither will he have – for the foreseeable future. The memory of how his father, Alexander, died 12 months after retiring from the shipyards has always stayed with him and was one he recalled when contemplating if the accomplishment of a second treble might just tempt him to make tonight's Champions League quarter-final first leg against Chelsea his last game at Stamford Bridge. "My father retired on his 65th birthday, and one year later he was dead," Ferguson said. "The worst you can do is put your slippers on. People say things like: 'I've worked for 45 years. I have the right to rest.' Not at all. One has the duty to keep active and in good shape."
He has provided the most positive message yet about Jose Mourinho succeeding him. "I'm a great friend with Jose, we often speak of his future and I can understand his desire to come back to England. Here there is more freedom." But Mourinho may have to wait. "It's a difficult one for me to tell him when this position will become available," he added. It was the 80-year-old Bernie Ecclestone who recently said people retire to die. "He's right," Ferguson said.
The Manchester United manager was speaking to La Gazzetta dello Sport's Giancarlo Galavotti, a view into his deeper thoughts now being the preserve of a diminishing number of mainly overseas journalists. His belief, as he told Galavotti, that the English media "source a problem where there's no problem" and "create a sensation just to counter the challenge of Sky [Sports] and the internet" is one he returns to repeatedly these days. It is why his offering at last night's pre-match press conference was so miserly. "I'm no giving youse anything," as he told journalists a few years back.
The talk of his father serves as a reminder, though, that it has always been him against the world. Ferguson Snr's death coincided, in May 1978, with the conclusion of a tribunal at which Ferguson alleged he had been unfairly dismissed by St Mirren and demanded £50,000 compensation. Just before the verdict, which went against him, his father went into the Southern General Hospital in Glasgow. "My father was desperately ill," he wrote in his memoirs. "He faded badly after hearing the news."
The rage burnt no less intensely yesterday as Ferguson weighed up the double blow of Wayne Rooney's ban and his old ally Harry Redknapp – the same Redknapp who told a Sky interviewer to "fuck off" for calling him "a wheeler-dealer" earlier this season – weighing in over the striker's outburst at West Ham on Saturday.
But if age has changed one thing in Ferguson, then it appears to be his propensity for patience. He has no time for the age of multi-millionaire players with the entourage of agents and hangers-on – "you have to deal with agents of this world today which is difficult. The players are no problem but some agents are difficult" – but he does believe in waiting for the prodigies to mature into young men. He thinks Rooney has already made that progression and, rather surprisingly, says the world should wait for the same development in Manchester City's own chaotic young talent, Mario Balotelli.
"He is a very emotional boy, like other young players," Ferguson said, when asked what Balotelli looked like from his own seat. "Rooney when younger was like that, an explosive nature, so much desire to win, sometimes he overexceeded himself. Now at 25 he's more mature. But it takes time."
His advice to the Manchester City manager, Roberto Mancini, on Balotelli? "You need a lot of patience with him. We have a couple of youngsters like that in our youth team, talented but highly emotional. You have to wait, wait. Because the character has been like that from very early on, one cannot mature in one year. It gets to be a problem only if it impacts negatively on the dressing room. But the players can also be positively influenced by the presence of such a quality element, albeit different."
It is the reason why Ferguson, and the Football Association, will wait for 18-year-old Ravel Morrison, who was recently handed a suspended sentence for witness intimidation after he threatened a mugging victim to stop him giving evidence. The Govan shipyards taught him all about the raw, untamed energy of souls like Rooney, Morrison and Balotelli. Few in the shipyards knelt in prayers of supplication before a match but Ferguson attributes Javier Hernandez's success to the place he has come from, too.
"Not everybody can come to Manchester United and be a star," he said. "These talented youngsters need to become involved gradually, as we did with [Cristiano] Ronaldo. But "Chicharito" has a great advantage. There are many father and son relationships in football, but in his case it is grandfather, father and son, all three having played in the World Cup finals [for Mexico]. It gives a tradition to the family which he does not want to fail and pushes him to give his best – with an incredible goal-to-shot ratio." The ratio is 34 per cent in the league, to be precise.
Ferguson's desire for patience encompasses another Italian from across the fields at Carrington. Mancini, whose club's training ground virtually backs on to United's, has been subjected to "an unfair focus on the money spent" at his club, his adversary believes. It is a surprising assertion, though Ferguson's relationship with City is more civil than is widely appreciated. He penned a polite reply recently when the City chief executive, Garry Cook, wrote congratulating him on surpassing Sir Matt Busby's longevity as United manager. "Roberto is only at his second season, but if he manages to win his first trophy all will settle in for him," Ferguson added. "[Rafael] Benitez at Liverpool won the Champions League in 2005, and they left him alone for five years." Note the shift of address for the Spaniard – one of the few men to come close to threatening him in recent years and hence, still a foe. The Internazionale side who may await United in the Champions League semi-finals are "quickly getting back to being a great side" now Leonardo has succeeded Benitez, Ferguson added. "Maybe Benitez did not get all the players linked [in] the way Mourinho does. But I know Leonardo. He's a really nice person, a really good character. I believe that, above all, it is his human qualities which have put Inter back in synch." Ouch.
Carlo Ancelotti is a more immediate and dangerous foe, judging by the crushing 3-0 semi-final elimination of United in San Siro he masterminded for Milan in 2007, which changed the way Ferguson's side approach matches on the continent, plus his three wins out of three over United in the Premier League. Ferguson, of course, will always argue referees had a say in the latter. "It's incredible for Carlo, he won the Double last season [so] I don't know where all the criticism comes from," he said. "I'm sure Carlo is addressing it in the right way, too. You have to dismiss these things, you cannot allow the media to impact on your decision-making, your philosophies or your mental state. He is a really nice person. As well as lucky. Last year he beat us with an offside goal, last month in London David Luiz should have been sent off. But all the winners have a bit of luck on their side. I just hope luck changes sides."
That might include Fernando Torres not finding his feet "for a few more games yet, until we've played Chelsea". "Of course he'll score again," Ferguson added. "When Chelsea signed him, everyone was saying, 'What a great signing'. Now because he has not scored yet, he is a bad signing. Ridiculous. Maybe he's just settling in from the Liverpool to the Chelsea system."
Ferguson has told the British press that a treble is far less likely for United now than in 1999, because of the injuries which have beset his squad. But now, as the momentum builds and that period of the season which he spends long summers dwelling on finally arrives, he is prepared to utter the "T" word. "In the past I said to myself many times that to win just one thing would be great. But we have to take the chance of winning all three. It's 14 games in two months. At United we are used to this kind of thing, to our advantage. We can repeat the treble of 1999."
All of which makes Ferguson's wine cellar the only outside interest he can focus on. The French wines are the best in the world, he has always felt, but he reels off Piedmontese and Tuscans, not to mention Chile's Concha y Toro Don Melchor, the Argentine Malbec and – perhaps most appropriately – the Screaming Eagle vintage of California's Napa Valley. "I've read a lot of books to know the best vintages and the best houses, [but] by smelling and tasting it's quite easy to know," he said. Ferguson has the scent of a treble, too. The piano tutors of south Manchester will have to wait.
Ferguson's trophy cabinet... so far
St Mirren (1974-1978) 1977 Scottish First Division
Aberdeen (1978-1986) 1980 Scottish Premier Division, 1982 Scottish Cup, 1983 Scottish Cup, European Cup Winners' Cup, Uefa Super Cup, 1984 Scottish Premier Division, Scottish Cup, 1985 Scottish Premier Division, 1986 Scottish Cup, Scottish League Cup
Manchester United (1986-) 1990 FA Cup, 1991 European Cup Winners' Cup, Super Cup, 1992 League Cup, 1993 Premier League, 1994 Premier League, FA Cup, 1996 Premier League, FA Cup, 1997 Premier League, 1999 Premier League, Champions League, FA Cup, Intercontinental Cup, Fifa Club World Cup, 2000 Premier League, 2001 Premier League, 2003 Premier League, 2004 FA Cup, 2006 League Cup, 2007 Premier League, 2008 Premier League, Champions League, 2009 Premier League, League Cup, 2010 League Cup
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