25 years of Sir Alex Ferguson
Part 2 the players: Sir Alex's former players tell Ian Herbert about his unique style of man-management: from a consoling arm to the infamous hairdryer
So many obstacles have been brushed aside since the furtive meeting at the M74 services, south of Glasgow, which secured Alex Ferguson the Manchester United job, that it is hard to imagine him harbouring insecurities. But no manager is ever quite without them.
They were certainly abundant back in the day, when – with Steaua Bucharest reigning European Champions and United, Manchester City and Chelsea all occupying places in the First Division's bottom four – Ferguson first walked into Old Trafford. He had just read Arnold Mühren's biography, and the stories of Old Trafford carousing shocked him to the core. He would also feel the chill of paranoia every time he arrived at Old Trafford and saw two directors talking. "It's amazing how that anxiety can transmit itself to become guilt," he said in his little remembered book Six Years at United. "You feel you are with this great club and wish you could give them something that tells them what you are about."
Yesterday was not entirely dissimilar. As he reflected on his Old Trafford silver anniversary, in a city where a side in blue is muscling in on that precious metal, Ferguson glanced up at the images on the wall, a few feet from his seat at United's Carrington Academy. The boys of '92 and '93 are all up there – Giggs, Beckham, Scholes, the Nevilles and, because they don't all make it, Ben Thornley – beaming out beneath a declaration of how United's "responsibility to the future of the game is to give budding talent the best opportunity to flourish. The Academy is just such a place, a proving ground for tomorrow's heroes". That could be a legend for the Ferguson tombstone, though his insistence that such a cohort of mainly local players will emerge together again contained a hint of uncertainty. "Was that a one-off? No, it's not," he said. "It's going to happen again. You can't think that Manchester United could have only one cycle of players as good as that. We will always keep chasing the dream. We will get a bunch like that again. We have got to..."
In a world where foreign Academy recruits are routinely bought for millions, many will doubt that assertion, though United's competitors know that you can't buy what Ferguson brings. In a bar in eastern Spain late on Tuesday night, one of Manchester City's most senior executives was discussing the regime that his club are trying to establish, having felt that indiscipline has cost them "a lost generation" of potential superstars. Ferguson's way was cited as the epitome of the culture City want.
He certainly knows where they are coming from. The stories which so startled him in Mühren's book played out before his eyes when he took his players to Oxford's Manor Ground on 8 November, 1986, and a Paul McGrath clearly destroyed by alcohol had to be taken off in the course of a miserable defeat. "Of course I can remember my first day," Ferguson reflected yesterday. "We bloody lost. 2-0. I said to myself: 'Oh, Christ almighty, I've picked a job all right'. The fortunate thing is I was able to get back to Aberdeen that night!" If McGrath symbolised the old, then Steve Bruce – whose two iconic, title-winning late goals over Sheffield Wednesday brought a less welcome 25-year anniversary to an end in 1993 – was the new. The fixture planners certainly could not have planned it better than bringing Bruce's Sunderland to Old Trafford for this anniversary weekend.
The way that Bobby Robson's disinclination to give Bruce an international cap still grates on Ferguson is a reminder of how he will never forgive a perceived slight on his players, though it was Bruce's proletarian work ethic, so significant in reversing the balance of power Liverpool had held for so long, which he wanted to recall. "When he had his medical the doctor wasn't sure he should pass it," Ferguson remembered. "I was watching the reserves, waiting to see how the medical came along, and [chairman] Martin Edwards came into the directors' box. He said: 'His knees are not that good.' I said: 'For Christ's sake, he hasn't missed a game for five years!' Sometimes you've got to dismiss these medicals. He used to rub his knees and carry on playing!"
Discipline, in its many guises, has been the recurring theme of this epic reign and few articulate that winning quality better than Peter Schmeichel, with whom Ferguson had his moments. For Schmeichel, there was always an element of manipulation about Ferguson's management. The goalkeeper felt he had "a sophisticated and well-defined sense of who it would be appropriate to attack and who he should be more careful with because not everyone in the team has the same psychological strength". That's why Gary Pallister always got it worst – "you feared for your physical safety when those two were rowing," said Schmeichel, himself no stranger to a verbal blast. "Ferguson deliberately tried to provoke a temper in the team that would make us naturally aggressive in games."
Jaap Stam's story of how Ferguson sacked him in a car park takes that quality to another level. The manager was upset with his serialised book. "He asked me to meet in a parking lot," Stam related. "I met him and he got in my car and told me he had agreed a deal with Lazio ... and that I would be on the bench if I stayed." Ferguson's unflinching decisiveness also shines through from Roy Keane's autobiography. "He manages," Keane relates, over and over.
But it is modernity, as much as management, which has preserved him all these years. Ferguson has always cherished the new, from players like those he was gazing up at – there have been 79 debuts by teenagers in 25 years – to the latest armoury he can bend to his task. Gary Neville reveals his fascination with orthoptics, for instance. A Liverpool University specialist worked on the players' peripheral vision and Neville's eye exercises become as much a part of his preparations as calf stretches. Ferguson has never been in the habit of calling his players into his sparsely furnished office, though they all describe the video cassettes, later DVDs, strewn around the place.
He would somehow find time to watch some games four or five times – Schmeichel has recalled how the bonnet on Ferguson's car would always be cold when he was the first player in to training at 9am – and the 10-page reports from scouts were delving into a level of detail which other clubs took years to appreciate the value of.
There have been many moments on which this vast tenure has turned – the Mark Robins goal 21 years ago, the Glazers' removal of JP McManus and John Magnier six years ago among them – but Ferguson will tell you that the most decisive moment of all was United's move to Carrington. "The great thing was the move from The Cliff," he reflected. "That was the best thing that ever happened to the club. Definitely. It was an old ground, too small, great history. We couldn't have achieved what we have achieved now. The number of staff, academy, coaches. We have 110 people – without the players – at Carrington. 110 staff here! There was no way we could have accommodated that at The Cliff. The room there was half the size of this here."
It was telling that when City asked United for permission to view Carrington, as they sought advice for what will become the even more lavish Etihad Campus, Ferguson did not stand in their way. He is always proud to display his club's cutting edge and despite the galaxy of challenges it has not always been hot air and hairdryers down the years. There are too many instances to list, though the sealed envelope he presented Bruce and his team-mates with after that first title-winning season is perhaps the best. He said the names of those he thought would rest on the laurels of that success were inside it. They never learnt them because the title was retained. Lesser known is the story of how he and assistant Brian Kidd used to dish out a yellow jersey for the player who had had the worst training session – it was called "having a Pally", after Pallister, not always the best trainer. When Dwight Yorke was distraught to receive it on one rare occasion, Ferguson ruled that the players must vote. He never made the selection again.
What astonishes his players most is that this man, as old as their grandfathers, should still share their energy. "You can talk about all the things he's won and all the years he's been in charge but you wouldn't know it if you watched him on the bench," Javier Hernandez observes in this month's United club magazine. "Every game looks like it's his first." Ferguson preferred to reflect that quality on to Sir Bobby Robson yesterday. "Right to the very end, he wanted to come back into management. When he lost the Newcastle job [in 2004] he wanted to come back. That sort of enthusiasm is incredible. A gift. People don't understand it's not easy to work hard at 70-odd years of age."
That particular landmark arrives on New Year's Eve, though the challenge beyond it is his most formidable. Ferguson's final renewal of United takes place as the years are running out on him and as City's wealth exceeds anything he has faced. At least there are no more surprises after a quarter of a century. "The challenge is here, in this place, no matter who you are up against," he said.
Ferguson: 'I've got another four years yet in the dugout'
Sir Alex Ferguson said last night that he had "another three or four years yet" to continue as manager of Manchester United and wanted to build a young team successful enough to hand over to a successor.
Ferguson said in the interview with his former goalkeeper Fabien Barthez for Telefoot that he "prefers young people" and that he wanted another group to emerge together like the side of 1992 and 1993.
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Fergie in numbers
24 Major trophies won at Old Trafford
9,131 Days he has spent in charge of Manchester United
836 Games won as Manchester United manager – a win percentage of 59.3 per cent
885 The most appearances by a single player under Ferguson at Old Trafford – Ryan Giggs
40 Oldest player: Edwin van der Sar, final of Champions League
1,052 Managers in English game who have been sacked, resigned or left by mutual consent since he took over
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