'All great players are very strong people, but are essentially simple human beings'

Alex Ferguson's No 2 Carlos Queiroz talks to Tim Rich about Rooney's potential, Rio's maturity and why coaching at Real Madrid was 'like a gift from God'

I am nothing," Lyndon Johnson remarked when asked what it was like being vice-president of the United States, before adding with a reptilian smile, "but I could be everything."

I am nothing," Lyndon Johnson remarked when asked what it was like being vice-president of the United States, before adding with a reptilian smile, "but I could be everything."

"Who follows?" is the question lurking behind every man of power. Ten seasons ago Alex Ferguson speculated whether Bryan Robson or Brian Kidd, men whose own managerial careers have long since withered away, would inherit. Now he might ponder the merits of Steve McClaren, Sven Goran Eriksson, Martin O'Neill, Mark Hughes, Carlos Queiroz. The name of Alex McLeish, so resonant when he led Rangers to the treble, may already have a line through it. As Johnson, who considered his job "not worth a bucket of warm spit" discovered, it was all about being in the right place at the right time.

Queiroz, who will sit beside the Manchester United manager on the home bench at Old Trafford to face Arsenal tomorrow, is unquestionably in the right place. Whether it is the right time, only Ferguson knows.

Shortly before he returned to Old Trafford for a second spell as assistant manager after a feverish year at Real Madrid, Queiroz told the Spanish sports daily Marca that he hoped one day to succeed Ferguson. As a man who has coached some of the world's greatest footballers on four continents, speaks five languages and whose original appointment was described by Ferguson as "one of the best decisions I ever made", he has every chance.

At Madrid, he coached three world footballers of the year, at Manchester United there are two who might yet receive that accolade, Cristiano Ronaldo, whom he recommended to Ferguson, and Wayne Rooney. He knew Luis Figo as a 14-year-old and moulded him into the centrepiece of Portugal's golden generation. Better than most, Queiroz must know what makes a great footballer.

"They have unique personalities. You cannot be world footballer of the year with a weak mind. They are all very, very strong people, great personalities but essentially simple human beings. All the great players I have ever met have these qualities in common."

He is not ready to list Rooney and Ronaldo as among the greats, arguing you cannot truly judge a footballer until the age of, say, 21. "They have dangerous people around them. They are not dangerous because they are bad but because the only two words they use are 'yes' and 'maybe'. And sometimes at 17 and 18 you prefer those words rather than 'no'. But you have to say 'no' and later they will understand.

"One level is very crucial in a footballer's life and that is between the ages of 18 and 21 when the mental side of the game starts to make a huge impact on your career. At 16, you cannot judge someone like Rooney mentally, it is too soon. You have to learn to be tough, be persistent, to rebound from criticism. They train young soldiers to shoot perfectly and when the war starts they can't load a gun.

"When I was here last, I saw Wayne Rooney play at 16 and even then the press were demanding he should start. But the coach at Everton protected him and made him grow up. He (David Moyes) usually decided to put him on for 20 minutes and when he was put on he performed well.

"Eusebio came from Mozambique and played for Benfica without having been involved in competitive football before. You can't explain that, you can only put it down to being a very special person. We have great hopes for Rooney and Ronaldo, they have a lot of things to learn and, if they listen to the right people, they can become great players, among the best in Europe, the best in the world."

In Queiroz's first season at Old Trafford, that saw them wrest the title from Arsenal against the odds, the great challenge was not Rooney but Rio Ferdinand. And yet Ferdinand did not entirely excel, certainly not in the way he now dominates. "I understand Rio and sometimes I'll tell him not to think too much. When he arrived here, he was a huge transfer and the press always referred to him as 'the £30m Rio Ferdinand'. On the continent, you don't speak about the transfer fee.

"He had a lot of expectations and saw great responsibilities on his shoulders. Today he is a different player because even after the eight-month ban, he is confident about himself and he knows he doesn't have to win the hearts of the Manchester United fans."

Discounting stand-ins, Carlos Queiroz is the fourth assistant Ferguson has employed during his 18 years in Manchester. When trying to describe the ideal footballing relationship between manager and deputy, Queiroz used the analogy of Lennon and McCartney. I pointed out that by the end the two men loathed each other with Lennon penning the song "How do you Sleep?" to his former partner. And yet some friction is nearly always necessary. Ferguson never really got on with Kidd, maybe because he voted Conservative, maybe because Ferguson saw him as "a moaner". McLeish recalled that although Ferguson and Archie Knox were "soulmates ... they used to strike sparks off each other." Literally, when Ferguson put a box of matches on a hot grill in a house the two men shared.

Queiroz's relationship appears more like the one with McClaren, whose instincts are much more technical and scientific than bluntly motivational. Queiroz, like the Middlesbrough manager, is big on detail. I asked how you prepare to face a team like Arsenal and he talked of more details: "Not just in training but in equipment, in food. We are in the middle of a footballing revolution and every year details become more important." Among the details were Queiroz's insistence that United's players stay in a hotel together before every home game and his decision to push Phil Neville into midfield to nullify Patrick Vieira in a 2-0 victory over Arsenal in December 2002.

The Real Madrid president, Florentino Perez, thought Ferguson could not have coached at the Bernabeu. His galacticos, he reasoned, did not need the hairdryer treatment, but gentle tugs on the tiller by a technician, which is why he appointed Queiroz. "If you bang your fist on the table," said Roberto Carlos, "you end up breaking your hand or breaking the table." Later, after Queiroz's sacking, Perez admitted he was wrong. "We thought we did not need a guy who slammed his fist on the table, but we did." Queiroz's replacement, Jose Camacho, was good at fist-slamming. He lasted four matches.

Perez was wrong about many things. That you could sack Fernando Hierro, the central defender who underpinned three European Cup-winning sides without replacing him. That you could sell Claude Makelele, the one quality defensive midfielder he possessed, and rely on simply scoring more goals than the opposition. That the most expensive footballers in the world were the cheapest because you could market them within an inch of their lives and recoup 50 per cent of their personal advertising deals. That the combination of the Zidanes and youth-team graduates would see Real through.

In his intriguing examination of Real Madrid, White Angels, the writer John Carlin recalls looking at the respective benches at a game against Deportivo La Coruña and being shocked how thin Queiroz's reserves were. From the training ground to match day, it was a kind of madness.

Perez's great coup was to clear Real Madrid's debts - £170m - by selling their training ground, Ciudad Deportiva for £290m. It paid for Ronaldo and David Beckham, but it meant the greatest football club in the world trained at Las Razas, a ground rented from the Spanish FA. Queiroz thought it entirely unsuitable and not just because the facilities were dated.

"The fans were allowed in. As a coach I was not used to that at all. They were allowed in at the old Ciudad Deportiva and we could not complain about them coming to Las Razas because we were tenants. They were behind the nets, sometimes 3-4,000 of them shouting while you were trying to train. You would hear voices calling: 'Figo, Figo come here'.

"When you write an article for your newspaper, you don't show them the rough drafts you did, you show them the final product. Because Madrid had an open training ground, you were criticised before you made a decision, everything you tried on the training ground was broadcast.

"Real Madrid Television broadcasts every training session, so if you are the coach of Deportivo La Coruña, you don't need to send a scout, you just turn on the television. When I first arrived, the guy from Real Madrid Television would begin commentating on my training sessions. Let's suppose you have a practice game, seven against seven, they commentated as if it were Real Madrid versus Barcelona: 'Roberto Carlos passes to Figo, Figo to Ronaldo; goooalll!!!'

Eventually, Queiroz persuaded Real Madrid TV to tape the training sessions and simply broadcast the highlights. He was less successful in making other changes. Perez did not buy a central defender in the January transfer window, still less replace Makelele. He did not slow down the relentless marketing of the players that ruined any concept of rest. Madrid, their precious galacticos desperately weary, lost their last five matches in La Liga to finish fourth.

"You can rest players but if you go to a cup game with Real Madrid and Figo and Ronaldo are not playing, the television stations tell you that they pay to broadcast Real Madrid and the advertisers expect the stars to promote their product. This is the new reality and if the players have a day off they generally have to spend it with a sponsor, spending eight or nine hours filming."

And then there was the Spanish footballing press. They had no interest in Beckham's private life, unless it impacted on his football, but they had eight or so pages to fill every day about the minutiae of Real Madrid. "You need to win against Barcelona but you need to win the battle with AS and Marca and if you are in a good mood with one, you have to deal with the other.

"You give an interview and that night it is on the internet, then it is on the radio station owned by that newspaper and then they have an internet poll to decide whether people like what I've said. You need to understand this system. If you try to confront them or if you start a war with them ... then look at the results. Nobody survives."

Queiroz did not survive and yet he harbours no regrets. "If Real Madrid ask you to be their coach a thousand times, you say yes a thousand times. In their team I coached five national captains, it was a gift from God.

"As a professional, it was almost impossible to express my gratitude; to see the movement, the skill, those touches. It was the opportunity to know the human beings behind the footballers: Raul, Ronaldo, Zidane, David, Roberto Carlos and to count them as friends. There is nothing more in the world. To know that if you make a phone call, you can reach them. What more can you expect in life?"

Several months ago, Queiroz returned to his native Mozambique, which once provided half the Portuguese side that played out the enthralling World Cup semi-final with England in 1966 but which in his youth was smashed by civil war. "Football in Africa is dragged down by the infrastructure, the coaching system and the facilities, but people do not understand that to promote football is an easy thing - give balls for people to play with.

"I went to an area in Mozambique where you could not have dreamed to walk because of landmines. Thousands of acres had to be cleared and I opened a little football field. Simple things like two goals, some white lines and a football can make all the difference."

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