Regime change: Fergie's 20 years
In the first of a two-part series marking Sir Alex Ferguson's 20 years as manager of Manchester United, Sam Wallace recreates the scene at Old Trafford two decades ago - and explains how a driven young firebrand from Scotland imposed his will on a wayward group of stars with a fondness for fast living
Friday 03 November 2006
Twenty years ago this Tuesday, a 44-year-old Scotsman walked into the gym at Manchester United's Cliff training ground and told the players there, as Norman Whiteside remembers, "I don't care who you are, or what reputations you have - I'm the new manager of this club and I'm in charge". And in the months and years that followed, he shouted at them, staked out their houses, advised them, sold them and built the most powerful football club in Britain.
The day earlier, on 6 November 1986, Alex Ferguson - not yet knighted and looking a touch fearful - had been appointed United manager. Twenty years on those early days are largely the forgotten chapter, eclipsed by the success and the trophies that have come since then. It is a story best told by the players who were there at the time, of a manager who had left the comfort of success at Aberdeen, his family home and Scotland - where he had always lived - to attempt a task many thought impossible: making United great again.
What is most remarkable about those early days? Ferguson's bollockings, his obsessive nature and the time he almost burnt his own house down make for great stories - but his utter dedication stands out. Both Whiteside and Ferguson's first assistant, Archie Knox, remember him being in awe at the size of Old Trafford. They recall his capacity for work, especially his rapid overhauling of the club's youth system: "If he was driving home and saw a five-a-side game in the park he would stop to watch," Whiteside remembers.
Of that 1986 team left to Ferguson by Ron Atkinson, all but Bryan Robson and Clayton Blackmore were moved on in the next five years. Those I spoke to do not resent Ferguson for it: players like Whiteside, Arthur Albiston, Gary Bailey and Peter Barnes are football men who respect his achievements. But their memories of Ferguson's early days at United also reveal a man who - faced with a daunting task apart from his family - retained his compassion as he broke up Atkinson's under-achieving squad.
When contact began between Ferguson and United has been a matter for conjecture, but the story started in earnest at the feet of the 18-year-old Matt Le Tissier. His two debut goals at The Dell on Tuesday 4 November, 1986, consigned United, struggling in the First Division and blighted by injuries, to a 4-1 League Cup replay defeat to Southampton. Two days later Whiteside, injured and training alone, saw Atkinson's car pull up at the Cliff training ground.
"He said, 'Big man, I want you in the office.' I thought, 'What have I done wrong?' He looked very hurt," Whiteside recalls. "He told me to fetch the assistant manager, Mick Brown. 'Tell Brown to get all the players together,' he said. 'I've just been sacked.'"
For years United claimed they did not approach Ferguson until after telling Atkinson of his fate on the Thursday, an alibi eventually debunked by the former's autobiography.
The deal had been sealed by United's then chairman, Martin Edwards, on the Wednesday in secret at Ferguson's sister-in-law's house in Glasgow. On the Friday, Edwards introduced Ferguson to the players at the Cliff. Barnes, who Ferguson would pick to play in his first-ever United team to face Oxford United at the Manor Ground the following day, remembers the young manager - whose Scottish accent was yet to be softened by living south of the border - pulled no punches.
"That first talk with us at the Cliff, he said: 'Look you're playing for a great club and you need to keep yourselves fit so you can look after your family. This is a club that deserves all the success in the world'," Barnes remembers. "He said that he wanted the drinking mentality in the team to stop too.
"From the first day he arrived you knew that he was determined to succeed and he made it clear that you had to do things his way or not at all. He ruled with an iron first and there was a lot of discipline introduced into training. The big stars like Bryan Robson, Frank Stapleton were told quite clearly that they had to do it his way."
The club was in the midst of an injury crisis - Robson, Whiteside, Gordon Strachan, Gary Bailey, John Sivebaek and Albiston had all come back from the summer's World Cup finals in Mexico with injuries.
Albiston had damaged an abductor muscle, but had still played on at the behest of a desperate Atkinson. After the 2-0 defeat to Oxford, Ferguson, his former Scotland manager, told him bluntly to "go and get it sorted."
Albiston and Barnes found their United careers rapidly wound down under Ferguson; so too did Bailey, the goalkeeper who had played for the club since 1978. Now a broadcaster in his native South Africa, Bailey only played five games for Ferguson before he was forced into early retirement. But he recalls the moment when he recognised the unique management skills and the infamous "hairdryer treatment" that were to become Ferguson's trademark.
"It was in the first half of an away match at Luton. The ball had landed between Colin Gibson and myself, and I had shouted 'away!' He couldn't get there and they equalised," Bailey remembers. "He [Ferguson] is a very good reader of characters - he knew shouting at me was not going to help, so he just said to me at half-time, 'What more could you have done?' I said, 'I shouted 'away!'"
"Then he turned and shouted at Gibbo saying, 'That's your ball, get the bloody thing away.' I was a bit dumbstruck at first but I realised what they meant by the hairdryer. As I was walking out the door after the game Alex smiled at me. I thought, 'Damn it, he wasn't just shouting for the sake of shouting.' He knew that shouting at Colin Gibson would have an effect on me. I thought 'Man, he's a clever manager.'"
From a Belfast family of Rangers fans, Whiteside knew that Ferguson had broken the Glasgow monopoly of Scottish football with Aberdeen, but first encountered the man who was to become his boss in the summer of 1986. Both Northern Ireland and Scotland had failed to reach the knockout stages at the World Cup in Mexico and shared a flight back to London.
"We were in cattle class and Scotland were in first class so I chucked Frank McAvennie out of his seat and sat with the lads having a laugh - well, having a beer," Whiteside says. "I looked over my right shoulder and Fergie was there with Archie Knox. I'm there having a few drinks on the flight, three months later he's my boss!"
The relationship between Whiteside and Ferguson is often seen as critical to the new manager's ousting of Atkinson's laissez-faire regime. Whiteside was the teenage prodigy who, some say, was indulged, by Atkinson and then, as the chief representative of the hard-living, underachieving bad old days, sold by Ferguson. The man himself tells a very different story. Whiteside can talk for hours about Ferguson, about the changes he saw in just four years at United and the financial security Ferguson helped him to achieve.
One of Ferguson's early initiatives was to make the club more accessible to the fans. To achieve this he ordered that the injured members of the squad, of which Whiteside was one, were to have dinner at the Old Trafford restaurant. A few weeks in, it was abandoned. Dining off a five-course menu, Whiteside had been, in his own words, "eating too much".
Another obsession of Ferguson's was his players' lives outside football. Whiteside remembers standing in his garage after a trip to "Costco or somewhere. I had about 100 bottles of wine and I was putting them in my wine rack," he says. "I had got about 88 bottles in and he [Ferguson] and Archie Knox drove past. If you went past my drive it came to a dead end, so they had to reverse quickly! He was going around seeing where his players lived." Knox was an invaluable ally in those days - when he left in 1991 to join Walter Smith's Rangers, Ferguson admitted he felt "vulnerable". Now the Scotland Under-21s coach, in 1986 he stayed in charge at Aberdeen for two weeks while they found a manager. He remembers Ferguson's first impressions of United.
"He called me on a regular basis and I think it was Alec who coined the phrase 'Theatre of Dreams'," Knox says. "I can remember him saying to me then: 'You will absolutely love this place, it could be an absolute theatre of dreams this'. He just felt, given the rub of the green, he could resurrect what this club meant to people. It would be on the basis of what he had done at Aberdeen with the youth policy. That has paid off for them big time."
The two men initially left their families behind to run United and, in the early days, lived together in, according to Knox, "various venues, none of them much good". Ferguson took a keen interest in cooking during his brief career in hospitality (he ran two Glasgow pubs) although his claims to be something of a chef are hotly disputed by Knox.
"One Sunday it was my turn to get the papers and he would cook the breakfast. So he was through cooking and all of a sudden there's an almighty bang in the kitchen. I thought 'Christ, he's blown the bloody place up'. It was an old cooker with a grill at the top. He had set a box of matches on top and they had exploded."
At the same time, Ferguson had a first team that was losing games to much humbler clubs and finished 11th in May 1987. Barnes remembers a 1-0 defeat at Plough Lane in November 1986 during which Wimbledon's Crazy Gang treated them to a flooded dressing room floor and salt in the half-time tea.
"It was there I first saw him lose his temper. He went round all the players shouting at them and telling them 'You can't perform like that'," Barnes recalls. "He said that we had to win games like that, he didn't want players who were soft. Ron was a larger-than-life personality and the players had some leeway - he didn't mind you having a drink. He was a bit sunnier than Alex, who you didn't see crack a smile too often."
When Barnes came to leave he said he was disappointed but that Ferguson was honourable in his dealings. After 14 years at United, Albiston played only "a dozen games" under Ferguson. "I can't fault him. He kept me involved," he says. "I was one of the guys who had been there the longest and he didn't discard me."
Whiteside's departure in 1989 was the most controversial and yet the real story shows a very different side to the public perception of Ferguson.
"We sat and talked about everything," Whiteside remembers. "About my medical condition, about drink, about earning some decent money because I was on peanuts at Old Trafford. There were so many factors. In 29 games at Everton I earned more than in all my [eight-year] career at United. He gave me an indication of what I should ask for. I was on 300 quid a week for the 1985 FA Cup final [in which he scored the winner]. Not a lot is it?
"He gave me a bit of advice and then he rang up [the then-Everton manager] Colin Harvey while I was in his office. He said 'You can have Norman for £600,000 and an extra £150,000 if he plays 50 games.' I only played 29 so United didn't get their money."
By then the senior players had noticed, Whiteside says, a succession of schoolboy footballers and their parents - the Beckham generation - having dinner with Ferguson on evenings before matches. The roots of the empire were beginning to take hold. Those players' rewards have been far greater but many of the originals of 1986 are, in a roundabout way, still benefiting from United too. Working as Old Trafford's corporate hospitality or on MUTV - all part of the great United conglomerate. The giant that Ferguson built.
Tomorrow: James Lawton on how Sir Alex has achieved lasting greatness
On That Day: November 6 1986 revisited
The football world
At home... Brian Clough's Nottingham Forest led the First Division. His son Nigel was proving their inspiration, with five goals so far. Leading the Forest chase were Arsenal, under their own new manager, George Graham. Reigning champions Liverpool, after a stuttering start, were back into third with a thumping 6-2 win over Norwich City, promoted the previous year. Manchester United were a lowly 19th, beneath the likes of Oxford United and Luton Town. But United fans could take some comfort from the fact that they still looked down on Chelsea and Manchester City.
It was European Cup week but not for English clubs. The post-Heysel ban meant only Celtic were involved from Britain and they were knocked out by Dynamo Kiev. Real Madrid, just as they have this week, made progress by edging out Platini and Laudrup's Juventus on penalties.
The rest of the world
'Chilling News as The World Gets Warmer'
'The Independent' reported how the world had grown dramatically warmer in the past century, which could have serious consequences for Europe's climate in as little as 10 or 20 years.
'Top Rock Group to Split'
Roger Waters, Pink Floyd's main songwriter, declared his intention to dissolve the three-man partnership.
While... Berlin's 'Take My Breath Away' was No 1, Top Gun was the film of the moment, a pint cost £1 and the average house price was £44,000.
On your way, son: How long Ferguson's first team lasted before being moved on
Sir Alex Ferguson's first game in charge of Manchester United was away to Oxford United in the old First Division on Saturday 8, November 1986. They lost 2-0. Ferguson wasted no time in breaking up the team he inherited. Here is the team, their age, the number of United games they played for Ferguson and the details of their departure.
Name/Age/Games/Date left/Club joined
Chris Turner (goalkeeper) 28/42/September 1988/Sheffield Wednesday
Mike Duxbury (right-back) 27/134/August 1990/Blackburn Rovers
Kevin Moran (centre-back) 30/51/August 1988/Sporting Gijon (Spain)
Graeme Hogg (centre-back) 22/23/August 1988/Portsmouth
Arthur Albiston (left-back) 29/20/June 1988/West Bromwich Albion
Peter Barnes (right wing) 29/4/January 1987/Manchester City
Paul McGrath (centre midfield) 26/71/July 1989/Aston Villa
Remi Moses (centre midfield) 25/30/Retired 1988 (injury)
Clayton Blackmore (left wing) 22/177 /August 1994/Middlesbrough
Frank Stapleton (striker) 30/20/June 1987/Ajax (Netherlands)
Peter Davenport (striker) 25/64/November 1988/Middlesbrough
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