Ferguson: 'At 32 I was managing East Stirling. My players were on about £5 a week'


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The Independent Football

There are Scottish roots in both of the football managers, 36 years apart, who will contest the most compelling fixture of the season tomorrow at Old Trafford. While Sir Alex Ferguson's need no embellishment, those of 33-year-old Andre Villas-Boas derive from Largs, the west Scotland coaching centre he attended, where his application to study as a teenager stated: "I'm going to reach this target I've got in my life, no matter what. I'm going to get there."

But Ferguson's reflections yesterday on the bottom rung of the managerial ladder that he had just scaled when he was 33, revealed why – and despite all his grace and diplomacy for a new challenger – he will find such rich satisfaction in defeating Villas-Boas' side and putting Chelsea in their place tomorrow.

"I was actually 32 when I started at East Stirling," Ferguson reflected. "But it was only a part-time team I was taking over. The players were on about £5 a week." Ferguson was himself earning around £40 a week and, as he always loves to relate, with his first season three weeks away he had only eight players and no goalkeeper.

Villas-Boas might be the privately-educated son of a professor and a descendant of nobility but the challenges, for a young manager, of how to deal with players of around your own age were just the same for the son of a Freshfields steelworker. "When I went to Aberdeen, I was maybe 36," Ferguson recalled. "Bobby Clark, the goalkeeper, was maybe 33. When I went to St Mirren I had Ian Ure [two years older]. I got him the job at East Stirling to replace me. I think Ian is still working in a borstal in Ayrshire somewhere."

A playing career at the top level helped Ferguson though, and he had those experiences to draw on in a way that his challenger does not. His East Stirling players have told how Ferguson would take part in training sessions, eager to show what a good player he was. "I never had a problem dealing with people my age or round about my age," Ferguson reflected yesterday. "It didn't bother me. You can get carried away with these things.

"I never thought about my players having a problem with me either. My advice to any young manager is that you should never seek a confrontation because it's always around the corner, in all shapes and forms. You should contain all your thoughts and decision-making to the performance on the football field.

"Other parts that become contentious, whether it's players' behaviour or discipline, you deal with that as it comes along, but you don't go searching for it. I never did that."

Villas-Boas has benefited from a belief, which did not exist when Ferguson hit Old Trafford, that young coaches can succeed. "If he had been a 33-year-old manager 25 years ago, older players would be going 'What does he know about football?'," Gordon Strachan said this week. "It's been shown now you don't have to have been a good player to be a great coach. That's what he's got going for him."

The new Chelsea manager's willingness to leave out John Terry and Frank Lampard in midweek suggests he is not intimidated either. Yet it has simply never been Ferguson's belief that managing an elite club is a young man's game. He has always said that he believes a manager with experience should succeed him. "If you go back a few years, clubs were giving jobs to players who were just finishing their careers – Trevor Francis, Ray Wilkins," he said. "They were going from playing to managing top teams. That, to me, was quite surprising. It seemed to be a trend at the time to have younger managers.

"That's changed now and experienced managers are coming to the fore again – look at Roy Hodgson and Harry Redknapp. I'm more pleased that experienced managers are being highlighted than young managers. The young managers' time will come."

Villas-Boas taking Chelsea to the title would certainly run against Ferguson's perception of what it takes to prosper at the top. "It will be an incredible achievement [if he wins the league]. That somebody so young could go and do that would be incredible," he said. "You can't dispute that."

But reflections on what motivated Ferguson to make it in management and turn his back on an engineering career on the Clyde reveal the same drive expressed by Villas-Boas in his letter to Largs 16 years ago. "I set about it in determined fashion that I wasn't going to fail. I'd chosen that life," Ferguson said. "I'd been an engineer and I made up my mind that I wasn't going to go back to engineering. The one common denominator is that you want to be successful."

How Chelsea managers fared in first league game against Ferguson

John Hollins, 21 February 1987, Chelsea 1-1 Man United

Bobby Campbell, 21 November 1989, Man United 0-0 Chelsea

Ian Porterfield, 15 December 1991, Chelsea 1-3 Man United

David Webb, 17 April 1993, Man United 3-0 Chelsea

Glenn Hoddle, 11 September 1993, Chelsea 1-0 Man United

Ruud Gullit, 2 November 1996, Man United 1-2 Chelsea

Gianluca Vialli, 28 February 1998, Chelsea 0-1 Man United

Claudio Ranieri, 23 September 2000, Man United 3-3 Chelsea

Jose Mourinho, 15 August 2004, Chelsea 1-0 Man United

Avram Grant, 24 September 2007, Man United 2-0 Chelsea

Luiz Felipe Scolari, 21 September 2008, Chelsea 1-1 Man United

Carlo Ancelotti, 8 October 2009, Chelsea 1-0 Man United

* Guus Hiddink did not face United during his spell in charge in 2009