The first thing to say about Sir Alex Ferguson’s press conference yesterday was that it was a very strange occasion. Completely different to the old days at Carrington, Manchester United’s training ground, where his presence filled every room and corridor, like Don Revie in The Damned Utd. Ferguson himself seemed to feel it too, and from the start he was uneasy.
By the end it sounded like his voice was cracking a little, and – perhaps understandably – he was tiring. He had a whole day of the same ahead of him at the Institute of Directors on Pall Mall in central London where his publishers’ small army of PR people – the type Ferguson would once have scarcely given the time of day – buzzed about mollifying TV crews who had come from all over the world seeking interviews.
The global nature of it was obvious from the first question, from a Chinese reporter who wanted to know what Ferguson felt about Chinese football and why, in his opinion, he had been rude to a female reporter in a previous unspecified exchange. “That’s a good start! Thank you. Dearie me,” Ferguson exclaimed. But if anything, it was the off-beam questions from the foreign press that saved him from having to confront the more difficult aspects.
There was the Australian who wanted to know about Mark Bosnich. The Israeli inquiring about Avram Grant. The Norwegian who was obsessed with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. The German reporter who appeared to be here for last night’s game at the Emirates and, having stumbled across the press conference, chucked in a question about Jürgen Klopp.
It meant that there was no opportunity to probe Ferguson on why he had consigned arguably the biggest fight of his life at Manchester United – his legal action against the club’s then major shareholders J P McManus and John Magnier – to two paragraphs. This was the dispute that went to the very core of the club and ended with his son Jason, then an agent, being forbidden from representing any more United players other than the 13 his company Elite already had on the books.
“It’s straightforward,” Ferguson said. “I had an agreement with John Magnier that once the settlement was made nothing would be said anymore. Nothing has been said by them, or by me, and that is exactly the position we have to be in. So I won’t be going back to that again. Straightforward.”
As a keen student of history, however, Ferguson will know that in untangling the past it is often as much about what the chief protagonists choose not to discuss as what they do.
Asked about David Beckham, and the comprehensive kicking he had given his former player between pages 63 and 74, Ferguson first blamed the change he perceived in Beckham on his wife Victoria, and then changed his tune somewhat. “I don’t think I’ve been too critical on David. How can I argue with how he has turned out as a human being? He is an icon to kids and a very wealthy guy. How can I argue with that? I never had an issue with him.”
Whatever gave us that idea? Perhaps it was the part where he said Beckham “never attained the level where you would say: that is an absolute top player”. Or when he questioned Beckham’s maturity. Or when he told an excruciating story about the player refusing to take his hat off at a team dinner so he could showcase a new haircut in a game. Even Beckham would have to admit his attempts at a rapprochement over the last 10 years are in smoking ruins.
Yet for a manager who railed so hard against the celebrity culture that engulfed Beckham – “the only player I managed who chose to be famous, who made it his mission to be known outside the game” – this is a book that is designed for that modern obsession. A skim down the contents page tells you that with chapters headed “Beckham”, “Rio”, “Ronaldo”, “Keane”, “Van Nistelrooy” and “The Media” among them. It is cut up neatly for the voracious media feeding frenzy that naturally ensued yesterday.
It was Ferguson’s great success, the drive forward in the Premier League, the incredible surge in global interest and the attendant soaring wages that, indirectly, fed this culture of the modern footballer. But make no mistake, Alex Ferguson: My Autobiography takes full advantage of its protagonist’s leading role in the lives of these modern stars of the game.
Put it this way, no-one expected that when the last Ferguson book was to be written we would find him recounting a conversation with Rio Ferdinand about P Diddy. “‘Give me a break, Rio,’ I said when I heard he was going to meet that star of the American rap scene,” Ferguson writes. “‘Is he going to make you a better centre-half?’” The question is left hanging, tantalisingly, in the air. Did he, Diddy?
It is a curious feature of even the most outspoken people that when they find themselves defending their own words, they become defensive, even conciliatory. And it felt that way with Ferguson yesterday who enrolled his former United press officer, Diana Law, daughter of Denis, once his key aide at Old Trafford, to sit alongside him – the old gang reunited for one last sortie into enemy territory.
Over the next few weeks and months, those who feature in the book will have the opportunity to respond to the criticisms that Ferguson has made of them and dispute his version of events. Certainly Roy Keane, perhaps even Wayne Rooney and Beckham, too. In many respects it will make it a much healthier debate about the Ferguson years than the largely hagiographical response when he announced his retirement in May.
Late on, there was a pertinent question from an Australian reporter who asked him if he had simply been settling scores. “It’s not about settling scores,” Ferguson said. “It’s about explaining decisions, for all United fans that wondered why, there is a reason. The most important thing was not losing control ... the manager is the most important person.”
Fair enough, he was maintaining the seriousness of the office, trying to do the best for his club. No-one can deny he did that very well. The Ferguson book has dished out some damning verdicts and in one aspect in particular it has chosen to duck the issue completely. Like all key chronicles of a major period in history it is a fascinating read, but no-one could even pretend that it is definitive.