James Lawton: Day my frosty relationship with Ferguson finally thawed

Ferguson had already got close enough to retirement to know there was nothing in it to stimulate his appetite

Sir Alex Ferguson was in his 15th year as manager of Manchester United when we had what could loosely be described as our first civil conversation.

It happened on a flight to Milan, where he was on duty as an official Uefa observer of the 2001 Champions League final between Bayern Munich and Valencia.

The cabin, in which we were separated by the aisle, was as frosty as one had come to expect since writing many years previously that maybe the man who had done such brilliant work in Scotland, who had brought the Old Firm of Rangers and Celtic to its knees from his remote bailiwick in Aberdeen, did not quite understand the nature of the challenge he had inherited from Sir Matt Busby.

If history had rendered the suggestion hilariously impertinent, Ferguson had never seen the funny side. About this strong suspicion the last doubt was probably removed when a young football writer with whom I share the same surname introduced himself as his newspaper's new representative on the Old Trafford beat and was told, "I hope you're not related to that tramp."

Yet Milan-bound, there was a rather stunning development. It was something of a thaw. He happened to have a copy of The Independent in which that morning I had written about the apparent impasse between the manager, who had turned the club from a business which was almost sold for around £13m into the richest club in Europe with a market value rocketing towards the billion mark, and the financial sub-committee which decided on salaries.

The one in question was the sum Ferguson was likely to receive as a club ambassador in the wake of his decision finally to walk away as manager shortly before his 60th birthday.

The piece concerned this latest classic evidence that big clubs would probably never quite understand the contribution of a winning manager, even one who had pushed back dramatically all of its horizons – and of course there was no shortage of citations: Busby before him at Old Trafford, Bill Shankly, who had died of a broken heart after leaving Anfield, and Jock Stein, who was offered a job in the Celtic pools office after his extraordinary, European-Cup winning reign at Parkhead.

There were any number of other examples that might have been thrown in – and one note of surprise over the fact that Ferguson had, after all his years on every rung of the professional game, apparently been shocked by a certain lack of boardroom generosity.

When the plane came to a halt, Ferguson tucked the paper into his briefcase, rose and bent over to say, "Not a bad piece – but you got one thing wrong. I always knew the bastards would try to do me in at the end." Of course Ferguson revoked his decision to retire soon enough and United once again became serial winners.

However, the incident from time to time flares in the memory for a singular reason. In one way it has always been Ferguson versus The Bastards, whether they are ingrate directors, toe-rag reporters, errant referees, or just any old poor sap who blunders into the way of his destiny to win, to keep on re-affirming the unassailable virtues of his way of seeing football and his way of creating footballers.

It is not a universally pretty picture. It is obsessive, intolerant – he admitted in his autobiography, Managing Football, that he could not voice a breath of compassion for a dire enemy who had been diagnosed with cancer because to do so would be a betrayal of his concept of honesty – and always it seems to be coloured by the need to gain some advantage, or settle some score, however petty.

Yet what lies at its heart is something that has created unparalleled success in English football, something that even now, with the noisy neighbours Manchester City flexing their strength after the recent crushing of United at Old Trafford and the sense that his team is maybe two or three players short of unfurling title-winning strength, would dissuade all but the clinically mad from dismissing his ability to come again this season.

It is impossible to overstate the polarisation he has created, to the extent that we know that to approve of his meaning as a manager, if not every facet of his style, is to brand yourself as some lickspittle in a shadowy corner of United preferment, if not their payroll.

On this occasion of his 25th United anniversary the speculation is the same that engulfed him when he landed the historic treble of 1999, and ran down the touchline of Nou Camp with the innocent joy of a schoolboy, or five years ago when he celebrated his 20th year with United under the shadow of Jose Mourinho's annexation of the Premier League title.

Then it was the wealth of Roman Abramovich that persuaded some that the curtain was about to come down on the Ferguson show. Now it is the largesse of Sheikh Mansour which some believe will kill off the last of Ferguson's ambition.

But then the Scot has already got close enough to retirement to taste it and there was nothing about it, he realised in good time, to stimulate his appetite. The taste was bland. It was gruel after the good Medoc and the single malt and and you have to suspect it will take more than one crushing defeat by City to put away the memory of how it was counting out the last days as the working chief at Old Trafford.

Sir Bobby Charlton was the first at the club to know that Ferguson had revoked his retirement decision. "We were standing at the bottom of the lift one morning," Charlton recalls, "and it was at that point that I knew I had to raise objections, point out that he was on the verge of a terrible mistake.

"It wasn't as though we were short of excellent candidates, people like Martin O'Neill and Marcello Lippi, but I kept thinking, who will ever know this club better than Alex Ferguson? There was the other point that I still believed he was at the peak of his powers. Well, before I could say anything, he just said quite casually, 'Oh, by the way, I've had a chat at home and I'm staying'."

The dotage could wait, along with the deprivation of that thing which, right from the start, had driven him forward. It was always the desire to win, to beat all the bastards, whoever they were and at whatever strength they came in their impertinent desire to spoil his life.

Fergie's finest: My best XI of 25 years

It says everything about the team-building genius of Sir Alex Ferguson that one of the most revealing indications of its strength is not so much in those players you include in the best team of his era, but the ones you are obliged to leave out.

In that latter category we have to place some of the most influential – and certainly celebrated – players in the history of United.

We have to give the thumbs down to that ultimately sound goalkeeper Edwin van dar Sar because not to do so would exclude the magnificent Peter Schmeichel.

You have to say no to such superb central defenders as Rio Ferdinand, Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister because for some time it was impossible to imagine more formid-able figures at the centre of defence than Jaap Stam and Nemanja Vidic.

Bryan Robson was a midfielder of the highest calibre, not least in the level of his moral courage, but in Ferguson's time was he as influential as Roy Keane? No.

David Beckham had masterfully practised skills – but would you want him in your team before Cristiano Ronaldo? Eric Cantona was a dynastic talisman but as talented – and as fertile a goalscorer – as Wayne Rooney? Perhaps not. Ruud van Nistelrooy was ultimately selfish, but then it is a tendency of the great finishers.

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