Ian Herbert: Sir Alex Ferguson could be a bully, there’s hope David Moyes will run a more pleasant Manchester United
The Ferguson bans were arbitary, unfathomable and the victims of the sharp end of his tongue found it punishing
There was a glimpse into the future of the David Moyes press conference. There were the satellite TV vans, flung down into the ditch on Finch Lane; the heaving press conference room; the club official stepping in, two minutes before Moyes did, to move his chair two inches, lining it up with the sponsors' logos. His Friday lunchtime press conferences have always concluded with some conversation for press journalists in the sanctity of a room where no cameras are rolling. Now there was none. Everyone was in together.
Yet even this more straitened half an hour of Moyes' company revealed his potential to provide a more inviting and attractive face to his new club than the one we have come to know under Sir Alex Ferguson. Ferguson's accomplishments have led this week's The Economist to proclaim him as "The socialist international" who, in public-policy terms, has established a superb domestic education system and a liberal immigration policy but, amid all the retrospective glow about his war on journalists in the past few days, it shouldn't be forgotten that he was a bully and a dictator when he wanted to be – and that often felt less than pleasant.
The arbitrary, often unfathomable, bans included the one dished out to the reporter who asked about Ryan Giggs' importance to the team when there were to be no questions about the player's sex life. "We'll get him. We'll ban him," Ferguson said behind his hand to his press secretary in a clip which has been dusted off again this week. But the sharp end of his tongue was the worst of it and the victims of it – who asked the wrong question, the wrong question at the wrong time and, a particular Ferguson favourite, too many questions – found it punishing. It is always left to Sky News journalists to lead the line at his press conference, like the first men out of the trenches and over the top, and how some of their reporters were ravaged. A question at last October's press conference in Cluj, about Scotland's part in a spectacular Ryder Cup win, sticks in the mind. "This is a press conference about a bloody football match. You've got to go way over the top with your programme. I'm not answering that. We're here to talk about football. Christ…"
Those kinds of moments would elicit some nervous laughter, maybe just a deathly silence, and the problem was that no one, present company included, was prepared to say something to rescue the poor individual on the receiving end. The question of solidarity was raised by the Football Writers' Association's Christopher Davies, who in a good piece for the Association's website quoted The Times' European football columnist, Gabriele Marcotti, among others. "In Italy we have a strong newspapers and journalists' guild," Marcotti said. "People wouldn't stand for it. If a newspaper was banned in Italy I think what would happen is that people would boycott the next press conference. When Jose Mourinho was coach at Inter Milan he banned an individual journalist. At his next press conference the moment he sat down everyone got up and walked out. In Italy we tend to sink or fall together."
Moyes has tended to deal in a different way – and one which demonstrates that he is also hard as nails. When he didn't care for this newspaper reporting suggestions that Chelsea had added Leighton Baines to their wish list last January – stories about richer clubs looking at his players have always particularly infuriated him – he simply named us in a derogatory way in front of the satellite TV cameras. You feared for a more intimate type of interrogation when the cameras were off but he'd had his say. All done.
It might need to be a two-way street if the spirit of mutual understanding is to be maintained in the way it always has between Moyes – who would always turn up, willing to talk, at the FWA's Manchester managers lunch – and the media. Ferguson's mistrust, which verged on paranoia at times, set in because he discerned – correctly – that rolling TV news was a beast which had to be fed and that the newspapers were striving to keep a step ahead of it. Yesterday morning's papers delivered the Daily Star's front page splash "Moyes death threat terror" and suggestions elsewhere that he wants to boot out Wayne Rooney before he's even made the phone call to him which, as we report elsewhere on these pages, he intends to make. Moyes found himself publicly derided by the broadcasting fraternity before he'd even got down to talk yesterday, because of a decision not to discuss United. That's rolling news for you.
For a while, at least, Moyes' United press conferences will not be a place to go with a sense of fear and they are likely to make the discussion of the club the richer because of it. Ferguson had that incomparable way of conjuring journalistic gold dust out of thin air – the "cartoon cavalcade" defence of his, named after a 1950s Scottish children's TV show, was a relatively recent one – but at times it seemed like he had his script prepared and the individuals in front of him simply dictated the course of it.
United have become a more open club in other ways. The chief executive-designate, Ed Woodward, who starts his new job on the same day as Moyes, has gradually become willing to discuss the club on the record with the sports business news press corps, in a way which is good for the dissemination of the club's message – flogging the brand, as you might call it, which is all the more import now there is a share price to think about. Woodward is approachable, down-to-earth, relaxed and one "who talks to you on your level", according to a member of that fraternity.
Moyes has some acclimatising to do. Being filmed driving into training and mobbed by Japanese fans on pre-season tour are not part of the Everton job description. But when someone adhered to the ban on United questions yesterday with an opening gambit of "thoughts on facing West Ham United?" he exploded into laughter. Sincerity, honesty and levity ensued. Perhaps we may be about to experience a new face of Manchester United.
Peters, the master at understanding not all that's said matters
Thank goodness for Dr Steve Peters, whose thoughts on what might make Liverpool FC great once again made for one of the most engaging sports interviews I've done in the past few years, even though he's right out ahead of me in every way. Peters suggested a Facetime interview and my iPad signal failed to make it through.
Thank goodness for Peters, because this week he made the very significant observation about his client Ronnie O'Sullivan's claims that he's done with snooker: that people say so many things in the heat of the moment and don't mean them. Why do we attach such significance to these utterances?
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