The coincidental sight of an ambulance at Manchester United's Carrington training complex was probably one Sir Alex Ferguson could have done without as he prepared to go home yesterday afternoon. Nobody, least of all a man of power, likes reminders of their own mortality.
Compared to the heart operations undergone by Gérard Houllier and Graeme Souness, the electric shock treatment the Manchester United manager underwent at a Cheshire hospital on Thursday to correct an irregular heartbeat was minor. Houllier was unable to retake the helm at Liverpool for almost six months but Ferguson will be in his usual position in the Old Trafford dug-out, furiously chewing gum, against Aston Villa this afternoon.
The only change to the usual press briefing he delivered yesterday was that he was wearing a sweater and slacks, rather than a tracksuit. Nevertheless, Ferguson was angered that his future had been called into question. His complaint is similar to that suffered by Tony Blair, which was blamed on strong coffee. Ferguson's drink of choice is tea and, of an evening, red wine. "There are no concerns; there are half-a-million Britons and two-and-a-half million Americans who have got irregular heartbeats," he said. "You don't know you've got it. I found out when I went for a check-up two months ago."
Ferguson is in the middle of negotiating an extension to his contract, which will probably take him through to June 2007 when he will be 65. "It's fine with the contract," he said. "I have spoken to David Gill about it and there's no problem. There's no reason to rethink and why should I? It's straightforward what's been done, two minutes' treatment."
Asked about the stresses of a job he does without a regular assistant, which hampered him throughout the unsuccessful 2001-2 campaign, Ferguson replied pithily: "Pressure doesn't bother me; I have always handled pressure well." He then went on to name each of the eight men who have managed Villa while he has been at Old Trafford. That insecurity, which he does not have, is another form of pressure.
Unlike Sir Bobby Robson's family, who have long thought the Newcastle manager should return to Suffolk for a quiet retirement, his wife, Cathy, actually persuaded him to re-think his decision to retire at 60.
Robson, incidentally, was told by a consultant treating him for cancer of the face that: "frankly, at your age , you should never work again". That was in August 1995 since when Robson has managed Porto, Barcelona, PSV Eindhoven and Newcastle. Ferguson will be 62 on New Year's Eve.
However, there has been no progress finding a replacement for Carlos Queiroz, who left his post as Ferguson's deputy to take over at Real Madrid in the summer. Ferguson said he had examined a number of names before the season got underway but work on this front has fizzled out.
Ferguson's workload is enormous. Jaap Stam recalled that he was on his mobile phone more than any man he had ever known, something which hampered his ability to conduct training sessions, especially when there is no regular deputy. Two diaries, entitled A Year in the Life and A Will to Win, admirably chronicle a lifestyle of charity dinners, meetings and trips across Europe on "the red-eye shuttles from Manchester". All this fuelled by three to four hours' sleep. When he took his wife to Italy for an early-season break, he ended up going to watch Roma train.
In the second book, published in 1997, he wrote how he coped with stress. "I take a drink when I feel like it but I don't need it to cope, not yet anyway. I tend to withdraw into myself when I feel the pressure mounting... All the people who want my attention get this treatment. If their demands come at a stressful time, then for the sake of my own well-being I have to put the shutters down."
Stress has not affected Ferguson in the way it unhinged Brian Clough, whose control of Nottingham Forest dissolved into drink, or humbled Kenny Dalglish, who quit Anfield in 1991 saying he found the build-up and aftermath of games unbearable. He would agree with Souness, who underwent a triple heart bypass while manager of Liverpool, that: "stress is the price on the ticket. It is either something you can put up with or can't. If you can't, you can't do this job."
Houllier, who collapsed during a game against Leeds in October 2001 and needed 10 hours of life-saving surgery on his aorta, often refers to the date he regained consciousness as "my other birthday". He is, therefore, a man well worth listening to. "Alex is a workaholic, very committed and dedicated to his job. But you do not know what is going on inside your body... and this is a job that cannot be compared to any other job. I know because I have had others in my life."
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