Alex Ferguson: A tireless force of nature

Sir Alex Ferguson turns 70 today but, says the man who brought him to Old Trafford, he has the same will to win as when he started out at United... and it shows no signs of fading

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The Independent Online

Now Alex Ferguson has reached 70 years, maybe the football world will examine a little more closely his body language and fighting instincts.

Some, no doubt, will look even more keenly for evidence that a lifetime's passion and driving commitment may be losing some of its intensity and that, perhaps, the flame is beginning to dwindle. All I can say is "good luck".

I've been doing it regularly since, as a new director of Manchester United, I threw my support behind Ferguson's appointment a quarter of a century ago.

You might as well search for that needle in the haystack. When I see him now on a winter's morning, when the competition he faces has never been more pressing, I know I'm looking at the same man who was just the other side of the fence from my broadcaster's position in a World Cup game in Mexico back in 1986. He was in charge of Scotland following the death of his hero, Jock Stein, and one impression was overwhelming. It was of a man who had an extraordinary force of personality. When he spoke, or when he danced up and down on the touchline, his players took notice. It was a ferocity I knew we needed at Old Trafford to prevent the legacy of my old boss, Sir Matt Busby, simply ebbing away.

There was some division in the boardroom when we came to replace Ron Atkinson. This was because there was another outstanding candidate: Terry Venables. I respected Terry. I saw him as a football man who also had the great gift of touching players with his ideas about how the game should be played and how much ambition should be brought to it. But I couldn't see beyond Ferguson, who had made such a name for himself in Aberdeen, who had created a swell of support which stretched well beyond the football ground.

Some time earlier, I found myself in Aberdeen. I was there to open a garage but what struck me so strongly was the panic I could detect in the voices of the local people who asked, "You haven't come for Alex, have you?"

Plainly, he had the same emotional force of his fellow Scot, Bill Shankly, a man I long admired, not just for his knowledge of football but his ability to transfuse his feelings for the game into the bones of a great city like Liverpool.

Although I have always disputed the widely held theory that Ferguson was on the point of being fired before a Cup victory at Nottingham Forest, it was true enough that, for some years, his phenomenal success with United did not look guaranteed. But I saw the work he was doing with the young players, how he had resurrected one of the club's classic strengths and the authority he displayed every day he came to work – and I always insisted that it was just a matter of time.

One current theory is that, with the challenge of such as Manchester City so strong, and so well-resourced, and with United's exclusion from the Champions League, we may indeed be approaching the time when he is more in a mood finally to stop managing and smell the flowers.

The argument is that, one day, he will wake up and ask himself, "Do I need this any more? Is there something more relaxing I might do with the rest of my life?" I just can't see it, no more than I could when he announced a few years ago that he had decided it was time to step down.

At that time, I was convinced he was merely flirting with the idea and hadn't really thought through all the implications of the decision. But then the situation did drag on and each day I read of a new candidate to replace him. There were men, including Martin O'Neill, who had formidable reputations but I found it hard to imagine the place without Ferguson at the centre of everything. I decided I had to intervene, at least make the case that it was madness, given his nature, to walk away when he was still clearly in possession of all his powers.

It was thus a great relief when we arrived at the foot of the Old Trafford lift at the same time one morning. We exchanged a few pleasantries and then he said, "Oh, by the way, we've had a chat at home and I'm staying on."

I resisted the urge to say, "Surprise, surprise". Of course, it is right that priorities can change in any life. But when I hear people say, "One of these days, even he is going to say enough is enough," I have to be sceptical.

As long as he feels fit enough to do the job the way he wants, as long as he believes he would have a certain emptiness if he was no longer involved in the day-to-day battle to stay at the front of the race, I just cannot see an abdication on the horizon. Whenever I'm asked about it, I say I just cannot see the day when he puts down the drive to go on and on, fighting the battles in the way that first convinced me he was the man United needed above all others, accomplished managers who were already plying their trades.

In this case, I suppose my first impression is the one that has proved most enduring. It came in 1983 when I flew to Gothenburg to see Aberdeen play Real Madrid, then managed by Alfredo di Stefano – the footballer I most admired as a young player – in the final of the Cup-Winners' Cup.

Aberdeen, who, under Ferguson, had turned Scottish football upside down with their successful challenge to the historic might of Celtic and Rangers, won 2-1 in extra time. I vividly remember the impact of the Aberdeen manager. He seemed as much as anything a force of nature – and it was something I remembered many years later when he ran down the touchline in Barcelona after the win over Bayern Munich in the Champions League final.

This was the man in whom I had put such faith when arguing his case in the Old Trafford boardroom. This was the man who apparently never tired of the battle, never wearied of the challenge of being the best. This is also the man I still see every morning when I go to the club. They say old soldiers never die, they just fade away. This is one who will, I suspect, have to be forcibly removed – assuming anyone ever has the nerve to try it.

Sir Bobby Charlton was speaking to James Lawton

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