Every reporter who covered the Manchester patch during the Sir Alex Ferguson era has their story, so we might as well start with mine. Having worked there from 2002 to 2005 as The Daily Telegraph’s football reporter in the city, I did not witness as many trophies as others did but it was an era particularly rich in rows and recriminations. And there was a lot of shouting.
The day that Ferguson launched his “youse are f****** idiots” rant at the representatives of the daily newspapers in May 2002 is a fond memory. In the past, older generations of reporters would have taken the bollocking and moved on. As a much younger group for whom Ferguson had little regard, most of us decided to report the whole shouting match and it caused a bit of a stink.
It seemed to make Ferguson a bit more intrigued by the prospect of dealing with a different kind of reporter. That summer when the club went on a low-key European tour we were summoned to the Amsterdam Hilton, scene of John and Yoko’s bed-in, where he ordered tea for us and gave chapter and verse on where his players had failed in the previous title race. The thawing of relations did not last long into the season.
The only occasion I got the hairdryer on my own was in the baggage claim area of Lyons airport ahead of a Champions League tie in November 2004. It related to an innocuous story about Wayne Rooney which Ferguson must have read on the flight over. We were all on the same club charter flight and the arrangement was that we would speak to him on arrival. As I waited for my bag I noticed him beckoning me over.
Once he started, I tried to argue the toss before deciding, like others before, that it would be simpler to let him vent. He claimed I had quoted him inaccurately. I had not quoted him at all. He ended by saying, “You’re out of here”, which meant the briefing. I knew that if I protested too long he would walk out and no one would get to speak to him – and there was a bond among the papers that we should not do that.
There was one problem. Behind him I could see my tatty travel bag slowly trundling around on the carousel, the last item. By now everyone was looking at me: club directors, players, reporters. I walked to the exit. Ferguson turned away, satisfied. I glanced over my shoulder and doubled back. As Ferguson turned to talk to the rest of the press pack – all of them naturally grinning in delight at the awkwardness of my situation – I was obliged to sneak my bag off the carousel.
The shouting matches with the press were often based on what he thought had been written rather than what had actually been written. “Youse are f****** idiots” came about because Ferguson was furious about a story in the Sunday newspapers that a player, thought to be Nicky Butt, had torn a strip off Juan Sebastian Veron for his performance in the Champions League semi-final second leg against Bayer Leverkusen.
Not one person in the room had written the story. Not one person in the room even worked for the newspapers that had done so – in those days there was a much sharper divide between daily and Sunday titles from the same stable.
Ferguson was not a great one for detail. Instead he used, or tried to use, the sheer force of his personality and his reputation to overwhelm you. But if you stood your ground and listened carefully to the accusations he made, they often bore only a passing resemblance to the situation. The problem was, he was not used to being argued with.
As with so many people – players, staff, managers of other clubs, referees – it was easier to let him unleash. As he had become more successful, and consequently more influential, it had become expedient for other managers not to oppose him. The press were always a thorn in his side and he became less available to us. The briefings in a side room in the main building at Carrington were replaced by televised press conferences in the academy canteen. Only a few dared take him on. In his 1999 autobiography, Ferguson was brutal about Gordon Strachan, a player whom he fell out with and sold at Aberdeen only to be reacquainted with at United. He described the “cunning streak” in Strachan, who had said he was “bored” at United. “Wee Gordon,” Ferguson wrote, “could be quite boring on the subject of boredom.”
Strachan, in his own 2006 autobiography, gave it back with interest. You only needed to get as far as page seven, where he disclosed a remarkably personal story about Ferguson from their time together at United in the 1980s – under the guise of illustrating a point about the toll that football management can take.
Strachan’s wife, Lesley, had been looking after Ferguson’s three sons while his wife, Cathy, had been in hospital, provoking Ferguson to reflect, one night in the Strachan family’s front room, on his contribution to family life. “While talking about not having given her and his children enough attention, he [Ferguson] became so emotional that he burst into tears,” Strachan wrote, “the very last thing you would have expected of someone with his image.” It was designed to remind Ferguson that he was not the only one who could disclose sensitive private details. It also gave an insight into the kind of character he was. So often he is portrayed purely as the Govan hard man: quick to force people to back down, the man who once ran two Glasgow pubs and whose character was moulded in those austere post-war years.
He was all of those things but there was another side too. On one occasion, at the end of a tirade at us, the mood seemed to pass from him in an instant as if he was coming round from a trance. “See what you’ve made me do,” he said, as if his anger was an affliction that could seize control of him. Yet he also knew its value as a weapon against dissenting voices. Some viewed him as old-school, and gloriously unapologetic about it. But there is more to him than that.