'Matt understood United, he was a godsend for me'

Ferguson was the first United manager to embrace, rather than fear, Busby's towering presence at Old Trafford. Ian Herbert reports
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The Independent Football

The pipe smoke is one of the things Sir Alex Ferguson has always most vividly remembered.

It emanated from the small office Sir Matt Busby kept at Old Trafford after his retirement and, as the Manchester United manager recalled yesterday, "you always knew he was in, because you could smell it".

Sometimes it was Ferguson who would pop his head into Busby's office, with that greeting, in the Glasgow vernacular, of "How are you auld yin" and sometimes it would be Busby going the other way for the cup of tea and to offer solace where needed. Some of Busby's successors, such as Frank O'Farrell and Tommy Docherty, found the presence of the man who created the modern United an oppressive one, but Ferguson, who at Stamford Bridge tomorrow will surpass his compatriot as the longest-serving manager in United's history, felt it was something to be embraced. He told then United chairman Martin Edwards as much when he walked through the doors of Old Trafford in November 1986.

"The thing [I felt] about Matt when I came here – and I always said this to Martin Edwards – [was that] we should embrace all these great players," Ferguson said. "What I experience with Matt and [Sir] Bobby [Charlton] is that they are the custodians of the history of the club. They understand what makes United. They understand the role of the manager – the importance, how difficult it is. Matt was a godsend for me. Maybe it helped that I was Scottish, but having those two about was security for me, rather than a hindrance. I think that is how United should be. We should have our past involved in the club."

Perhaps that kind of statement was an easy one to make, ahead of a weekend in which Ferguson's time in command of the club moves to a total of 24 years, one month and 14 days, one day more than Busby's total during his two periods at the helm – from October 1945 to January 1969 and December 1970 to June 1971. But a story Ferguson also told yesterday of the trip he, Busby and Charlton took to Scotland in November 1989, with Ferguson's grip on his job looking desperately precarious after the 5-1 derby defeat at Maine Road and Howard Kendall being touted as a successor, reveals the faith Busby put in him during his difficult early Old Trafford years.

Ferguson took the side to Perth to play St Johnstone in a game that inaugurated the Scottish club's new McDiarmid Park stadium. Busby was 80 but willing for the golf four-ball which was proposed and which gave Ferguson, who was partnered by his trusty assistant Archie Knox, the chance to chew over a difficult season. "They beat Archie and I!" Ferguson said of Busby and Charlton. "That's an 80-year-old – beating us!" Life would get worse before it got better: St Johnstone beat United ("a stinking performance" in Ferguson's words) and there were successive defeats to Arsenal, Crystal Palace and Tottenham. But the now legendary goal by Mark Robins against Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup was only a few weeks around the corner and there was something about Busby's ability to help – even at that age – which gave rise to a view, memorably articulated by Ferguson yesterday, that he would always be there.

"I've heard stories about Shankly and Paisley and it was a great period," Ferguson said. "The strange thing for me was that I always thought Matt would be here for ever. Maybe because he started immediately after the war, rebuilt the club, and then had the emotional issue of Munich, he rebuilt it again to win the European Cup in 1968. Maybe to me everything Sir Matt did, all the things that happened, had some sort of eternity about it. I have not had those emotional issues to face that he did. That's why I felt he would be here for ever. It is surprising I have passed his record."

Ferguson's memories also include the night the two of them first met at Old Trafford, in the winter of 1984, though in the vast mental back catalogue of games, yesterday he couldn't select which of two fixtures it might have been. "It was either Manchester United v Dundee United in a Uefa Cup match [a 2-2 draw in the November] or Celtic v Rapid Vienna [1-0 to Rapid in the December] in a game that was replayed because of trouble at Celtic Park," Ferguson said. "At one of those games, Paddy Crerand introduced me to him and we had dinner in the Trafford Suite."

The Glasgow industrial heritage – Ferguson's was ship-building, Busby's coal – was not all that they shared. Curiously, both men briefly contemplated joining the exodus of Scots who emigrated to Canada, where Ferguson still has family. They share a capacity to lose their temper, too. "People say they had a different way of losing their temper," Sandy Busby said. "But my dad could cut a player or person down with his tongue. And when he did that, you knew you were in trouble."

And troubles on the pitch were not all Ferguson turned to Busby for. The older man also tried to talk some sense into Paul McGrath when United were attempting to address his drinking after Ferguson arrived in Manchester. "Even the warmth and wisdom of that great man had no effect," Ferguson once recalled. It was Busby's memory for everyone's first name, a quality he also recalls deeply in Jock Stein, which contributed to his great sense of humanity.

The two knights of the realm have contrasting records, too. Statistically, Busby's record pales by comparison with Ferguson's – not an outcome the current manager envisaged that cold day on the golf course. Busby actually won only eight trophies to Ferguson's 23 and he never clinched more than one per season. But as Ferguson observed yesterday, it was Busby's pioneering role at Old Trafford – leading them into Europe in the face of the narrow-minded resistance of Britain's football authorities and the emphasis on youth which Ferguson has developed – for which he will also be remembered.

Carlo Ancelotti, Ferguson's challenger this weekend, could only reflect yesterday that Ferguson's longevity is something no manager could hope for now. "For me it's impossible. I came from Italy and impossible to think a coach will stay 24 years. Too much! He never lost his expression and ability to manage a team. He's involved not just as a coach but also really inside this club. To do this job, you have to have a lot of passion."

The improbability of lasting nearly a quarter of a century has been reinforced by Sam Allardyce's dismissal in extraordinary circumstances this week and in Ferguson's dissection of that problem there was evidence of that cutting tongue Sandy Busby recalled. "I read comments from an agent involved with this [Blackburn situation] – Jerome Anderson," Ferguson said. "Jerome Anderson couldn't pick his nose. It's unbelievable. If that is the state the game has got to then we are all in trouble. They have got rid of a very successful, highly competent manager who the players love and who has changed the club and now they have to replace that."

It is certainly a different world Ferguson occupies now. The pipe smoke and the golf rounds might be gone but the sense that the mission remains incomplete – even with United currently winning the battle to dethrone the vastly more wealthy Chelsea as champions for a second time in a decade – will prevent tomorrow afternoon being one of any emotion. I don't think [tomorrow will be particularly special]," Ferguson said. "It is a proud moment, but not really [special]. The record has been mentioned but nobody is making an issue of it. Winning the match is what would be very emotional for me."

Greatest managers ever? How their records compare

Date of birth

Busby: 26 May 1909, Belshill

Ferguson: 31 December 1941, Govan


Busby: 20 January 1994

Time in charge

Busby: 1945-69, 70-71 (24 years, 1 month, 14 days)

Ferguson: 1986-present (24 years, 1 month, 14 days)

United's record while in charge


Busby: 1,141 / W576 D266 L299

Ferguson: 1,358 / W801 D317 L240

Win percentage

Busby: 50.48

Ferguson: 58.98

Major trophies

European Cups

Busby: 1 (1968)

Ferguson: 2 (1999, 2008)

Cup-Winners' Cups

Ferguson: 1

League titles

Busby: 5

Ferguson: 11

FA Cups

Busby: 2

Ferguson: 5

League Cups

Ferguson: 4

Charity Shields 9

Busby: 5

Ferguson: 9

Record Victory

Busby: 10-0 v Anderlecht, Sep 1956

Ferguson: 9-0 v Ipswich, March 1995

Individual awards

Ferguson: Manager of the year (9 times)

Games played in season (all competitions)

Busby: 44 (1946-1947)

Ferguson: 56 (2009-10)

Games needed to win European Cup

Busby: 9 (1967-68)

Ferguson: 13 (2007-08)

Record Signing

Busby: Willie Morgan, £117,000 from Burnley, August 1968

Ferguson: Dimitar Berbatov, £30m, from Spurs, August 2008


Ferguson: £80m shirt deal with AON

Average attendance

Busby: 42,064 (1949-50*)

Ferguson: 74,864 (2009-10)

Old Trafford capacity

41,748 (August 1949*)

76,000 (2009-10)

Notable players

Busby: Denis Law, Bobby Charlton, George Best, Dennis Viollet, Harry Gregg, Duncan Edwards, Alex Stepney, Nobby Stiles

Ferguson: Paul Scholes, David Beckham, Paul Ince, Eric Cantona, Roy Keane, Ryan Giggs, Wayne Rooney, Peter Schmeichel, Cristiano Ronaldo

*Old Trafford closed between 1946-49 after suffering damage in World War Two