Now for the rest of his life and the hope that he will be able to fill it – because for all of the talk about his eclectic interests it is hard to avoid the impression that the day is soon upon us which has filled Sir Alex Ferguson with dread.
He declared a few years back that he would travel more – New York has become an increasing part of his life in the international breaks which he has used to rest – and would “even read history books”. There would be languages to study, because the passage of time had made him rather sentimental about the four years of German he studied 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...” Spoken with the certainty of a man who has commanded his own environment for so long, and who also says he feels he needs a piano tutor to enhance his self-taught ability. As the list went on and on, these felt like the words of an individual trying to convince himself that there was so much to do and so little time, though the memory which most seemed to haunt him was, in fact, that of his father, Alexander, who retired on his 65th birthday and was dead a year later. An 80-year-old Bernie Ecclestone’s assertion that people retire to die struck a chord with Ferguson. “He’s right,” the soon to be former Manchester United manager once said.
His long-planned role in appointing David Moyes will give him a sense of entitlement to remain involved in the club which has been defined by him – and it will be natural for him to cast back to his early United years when the pipe smoke drifted out of Sir Matt Busby’s office and he called him in. Theirs was a cordial relationship and the Glazers will encourage him to guide Moyes and make it a transition in more than name. But he will not be the manager of Manchester United.
He will be free, of course, to attend the racecourses which have become a passion, even though the announcement of his retirement seemed to have contributed to his absence from the big May meet at Chester, where he tends to be a fixture. It meant that he missed his runner in the fifth race. Buttterfly McQueen finished a promising second, and so volunteered herself as one future distraction for a man notoriously lacking many outside football. More auspiciously still, Ferguson also has a share in a colt named Telescope, who won his debut impressively last year, and has been burning up the Newmarket gallops this spring. He goes on trial for the Derby itself at York next week.
These horses run on the Flat, but last month Ferguson also had an interest in two outsiders in the Grand National. But it would be a mistake to conclude that the man from Govan is any kind of big player in horseracing – or that he has any particular desire to become one. The top jumps trainer, Paul Nicholls, is fond of invoking his patron as an inspiration and source of advice, but only in terms of the common challenges they face as leaders in their field.
The fact is that he still talks of his horses in the same artless vernacular you might hear in a Govan betting shop. During Rock Of Gibraltar’s record spree of seven consecutive Group One wins, in 2001 and 2002, he persevered in referring to the champion colt as “it” rather than “he”. The sport’s defining uncertainties themselves offer this compulsive winner a kind of relief. In the same way, by confining himself only to a share of various different horses – reckoned to be up to 20 in all, whether through blue-chip syndicates of the type that owns Telescope, or in partnership with friends like Ged Mason, a Manchester businessman – Ferguson distances himself from the obsessive standards he applies to matters under his control.
One of his trainers does divulge that Ferguson once made a discreet telephone call at half-time, when he had a runner during a match. But his interest remains unpretentiously rooted. He has a bet most days, finding it “a great release and outlet” – as it once was for his own father when earning six pounds a week on Clydeside. “My dad loved his racing,” he says wryly. “But he was a bad judge.”
It’s the relaxation he finds there which has created his well-known love of the Turf, albeit it was once explosively interrupted by the Rock Of Gibraltar affair. “One of the reasons I like racing is that, largely, people leave me alone,” he said once. “And when they do talk to me, it is likely to be about what is going to win the 3.30 rather than football.” That was when he was a genuine part of football and when everyone wanted a piece of him. As Ferguson pondered the hinterland beyond United he received a text message from Michael Owen, tipping his own yard’s 9-2 winner, and Owen hopes to nurture their mutual interest by encouraging him to have a horse in the stable, under the trainer Tom Dascombe, now he has more time on his hands.
Perhaps Ferguson will agree. Perhaps he will also stock that wine cellar with more of the French, Piedmontese and Tuscan vintages which he so loves. He reckons he’s read a bit on that, too. So many ways of filling the time. So few to fill the vast hole in his life.