'That youthfulness, that great optimism you have as a young person. You can't see danger. Sometimes with Jose Mourinho I think of myself as a young man'

In a rare and revealing interview, Sir Alex Ferguson tells Glenn Moore about his affinity with the Chelsea manager, the reasons he sold Beckham and Butt ... and why he always watches out for Paul Scholes at training
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Sir Alex Ferguson's first thought is to dismiss the comparison out of hand. "Not a bit," he says, when asked whether he saw anything of himself in Jose Mourinho. Then he ponders the thought for a moment, and his mind goes back more than a quarter of a century.

Sir Alex Ferguson's first thought is to dismiss the comparison out of hand. "Not a bit," he says, when asked whether he saw anything of himself in Jose Mourinho. Then he ponders the thought for a moment, and his mind goes back more than a quarter of a century.

"In my younger days, when I was at St Mirren, I had a young team which hit a really good spell in the old First Division," he says. "I told the press, 'The way we are playing we will not be out of the first three, I can tell you that'."

He pauses for a second, then comes the punchline: "We didn't win a game for five weeks and ended up sixth. That youthfulness, that great optimism you have as a young person when you get carried away by a few results and can't wait for the next match. You can't see danger. Sometimes with Jose Mourinho talking the way he does I keep thinking about myself at that time."

The latest instalment in what is already a fascinating rivalry took place at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday night with the visiting manager, by common consent, gaining the upper hand. As Ferguson reflects upon a rivalry which has added a new dimension to the Premiership, the comparison has clearly taken hold.

"I remember I had a pub in Glasgow," he smiles. "St Mirren were flying and we were due to play Dundee United in the Scottish Cup. We had all these young players, and one of them, Tony Fitzpatrick, was my captain. He was only a teenager. He was a good player, not quick enough to be top class but a really good passer of the ball with a great attitude and he was doing really well. The BBC turned up at my pub and Archie McPherson, who was doing the interview, started talking about Fitzpatrick.

"Archie said: 'He reminds you a bit of Billy Bremner.' I was in the bar, with all the punters there, and I said, 'If Billy Bremner was half the player Tony Fitzpatrick is he would be the best player in the world'. After the cameras were put away, the punters said: 'That's the headline ­ Tony Fitzpatrick is twice the player of Bremner!' Years later I saw Billy and I said, 'I doubt if you ever heard ...', and he said, 'I did all right.'

Ferguson has enjoyed telling this tale, he's been laughing so much while doing so that I can hardly decipher his words. But the recollection is not just for amusement. The Manchester United manager is combative to a fault and Chelsea are the team to beat. Which means Mourinho is the man to work on.

Ferguson continues: "I don't know what possessed me that day, but you don't see dangers. As a kid of eight or nine I used to climb church steeples for pigeons. You don't look down. Now, if I walk past a window with a six-foot drop I step back. There's a change in you. I don't know when it happened, but as a young manager it didn't change in me until I went to Aberdeen. Mourinho has got that and possibly by being so confident, so sure, his players say to themselves, 'We'd better not let him down'."

It's a beautiful put-down. There is an element of admiration in there but Mourinho's youthful exuberance is nevertheless exposed as a weakness, his inexperience highlighted by someone who knows better, who has been there himself.

In his only other major interview this season, Ferguson suggested Chelsea could struggle in the North. They promptly won at Liverpool while taking a maximum dozen points over Christmas. United, like Arsenal, won 10. It is not a bad return from four games but Chelsea's form meant the gap grew wider.

"I know," Ferguson says. "What has surprised me about Chelsea's resilience is that they are more or less playing the same players all the time."

Of those, the one who fascinates Ferguson is Frank Lampard. "Lampard is quite an interesting case," he says. "There are very few midfield players of today's generation who can play ­ what is it? ­ 130 Premiership matches in a row. But there are freaks and that's freakish. It is an amazing statistic. And his game never changes. He still goes box to box, he is still on the end of most things in the build-up play and in or around the end product. He is an exceptional individual."

What has impressed Ferguson about Lampard's team is the way they have changed since beating United on the first day of the campaign. "At the start of the season Chelsea were very conservative in the use of their game, they were happy to defend. They got a lot of scrappy one-nils and that was the foundation of where they are now. They drew confidence from winning those games. We were struggling to get 11 on the pitch. Now we have a momentum going you hope normal procedures help you, but they keep on winning."

"Normal procedures", the way a trailing club ­ frequently United ­ hits a run of form and overhauls a long-time leader, is clearly at the forefront of Ferguson's mind just now. It has happened several times in the Premiership era.

"Newcastle were 12 points clear; we threw a 12-point lead away, Blackburn almost threw a 13-point lead away. It can happen. They would be foolish to think it could not. If Chelsea hit a blip it is how they recover. Look what happened after Arsenal lost at Old Trafford [Arsenal dropped nine of the next 15 points]. Arsenal and ourselves have to hope it does happen. The only thing you can do is be patient."

I ask if the resumption of the Champions' League could slow Chelsea down? "I think an injury to one of their important players, Lampard or [John] Terry, maybe [Arjen] Robben or [Damien] Duff, would slow them down."

Chelsea are due to visit Old Trafford on 16 April. Ferguson gets up off the sofa to check a fixture list pinned on a board. "It could be off. That's FA Cup semi-final day. It would then have to be rearranged for the last Tuesday before the end of season. Television would love that ­ except, in fairness, the way Chelsea are going, the League could be finished by then."

It is quite an admission. Should it prove accurate, it would be the first time since the Premiership began that United have gone two seasons without winning the title. Ferguson considers this.

"I think if there was something fundamentally wrong, either with the ability or the hunger of the team, or the manager, there would be more questions asked ­ by myself even ­ as to whether I should be staying on. But I think those things are in place. What we've tried to do is have an eye to the future and make sure we are top all the time. You can't win the League every year."

Sometimes events take a hand. In each of United's blank seasons there have been extenuating circumstances. In 1994-95 Eric Cantona was banned for most of the second half of the season; in 1997-98 Roy Keane was injured for most of it; in 2001-02 the team lost focus after Ferguson announced his retirement; last season Rio Ferdinand was banned for the closing four months, a ban which continued into this September. "The Ferdinand suspension was crippling," Ferguson says. "You look at our defensive record with Rio. It is fantastic and it is defensive records that win the League."

Turning to this season, the United manager sees his problem at the other end of the team. "We've also missed a lot of chances in some games this year: Blackburn, Manchester City at home. Blackburn was always a difficult place to go, even with our best team, so you say that was a fair result. But City at home ­ we had 75 per cent of the possession. They never even got a corner kick. Manchester United teams in the past would have steamrollered them.

"You think to yourself, 'If Cantona had been playing, if Van Nistelrooy had been playing'. You always think of Cantona as someone who would get a goal at a vital moment. You would be thinking, 'For fuck's sake, we need a goal here', and he would get it, or make it."

More recently, those sort of goals have come from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. "Ole would be on the bench. He was fantastic. He would watch a game, assess it, come on and know exactly what to do. It was like bringing the potatoes to the boil, he knew just when."

Solskjaer remains on United's staff,

We are talking in Ferguson's spacious office at the Carrington training ground he argued for, then designed. Large windows overlook the training pitches and trophies jostle for position on the windowsills, many of them presented by various United supporters' clubs. Leaning against a wall are a stack of celebratory framed pictures and photographs, looking for wall space, further testament to the incredible success United have enjoyed under Ferguson.

He is aware, though, that if he drops his guard it could all end overnight. In proof were needed, Ferguson need do no more than stop by the trophy room when United visit Anfield this lunchtime. Who would have thought, after Liverpool had won their 10th title in 15 years in 1990, that the next 14 seasons would be barren? One of Ferguson's staff did.

"I always remember Jim Ryan saying to me just after he joined us: 'Liverpool have massive problems.' I said: 'What makes you think that?' He said: 'It's the age of their team. They are bringing in players like [David] Speedie, aged 31, [Ronny] Rosenthal, in his late twenties, Jimmy Carter.' They were not bringing in young kids, like Arsenal and myself have done, to give them a future. I looked at the age of their team and said 'Christ, where are the young players?' It was just Steve Staunton. Not until Graeme [Souness] arrived did it change. They were buying short-term fixes.

"I always remember Jimmy Sirrell [the former Notts County manager] saying to me when I first became a coach, back in '73, at a coaching school ... He said: "Never let your players all come to the end of their contract, or ages. Always make sure there is a balance." For us that means having one or two midfield players whose contracts are up in 2003, two in 2004, two in 2005, so they can't come to you at the same time, so they don't have you by the balls. David Gill [the chairman] and I have been looking at that this morning ­ when contracts are finishing.

"I could easily have stuck with the same players for my last two or three years and said to the next man: 'It's up to you.' But you can't work that way. This is a fantastic club and it deserves everyone paying attention to the future. I recognised that I had a string of midfield players all coming to their thirties at the same time: Keane, Scholes, Giggs, Butt, Beckham."

Of that quintet, one that has been the foundation of United's success over the last decade, Beckham and Butt are gone; Giggs, his contract negotiations stalling, is being linked with a move. Scholes, having retired from international duty, has come back into form. Keane, the most important of all, is being nursed through the seasons.

"Roy will be the hardest to replace," Ferguson says firmly. "Forget about the playing part, it is the spiritual and emotional thing he gives you. He is an absolute beast of a man in terms of his will to win, and the influence he has in the dressing-room. The desire he shows, it transmits to the dressing-room. I suppose my energy over the last 20-odd years has transmitted itself through the teams I've had and I've always tried to have a player that mirrors myself. Keane, without question, mirrors me almost to a tee. It's very difficult to find someone like that ­ and no, I won't get the one at Liverpool, no chance."

Before Rafael Benitez upbraids Ferguson this lunchtime, it should be noted I prompted this reference to Steven Gerrard, but it's undeniable that Ferguson would love to sign the Liverpool captain. Instead, he has had to bring in less acclaimed players. "We've bought young players, [Eric] Djemba-Djemba, Kleberson, [Liam] Miller, [David] Bellion. People say they are not Manchester United players but they may be in two years' time. You can't judge players who come to this club at that age and expect them to fit in straight away. There are very few exceptional talents like [Wayne] Rooney and [Cristiano] Ronaldo in the world."

To judge from the FA Cup draw with Exeter some of the home-grown talent are also taking time to find their feet. With the probable exceptions of Wes Brown, John O'Shea and Darren Fletcher, the production line appears to have taken a dip and even that trio are struggling to match early promise. Ferguson said, however, that the fault now lay with the system.

"We're still producing young players of good character, behaviour and quality. I take pride in that. It's not easy in the modern game. There's a great temptation to buy. But the academies have been a complete failure as far as I'm concerned. Everyone said it would be a new dawn but it is not. It's supposed to be an élite system but it's not."

The problem for United is that they can only bring in players who live within an hour's travel of Old Trafford. Which would have ruled out David Beckham, for example. "It's impossible to get the required number of players for Manchester United from the local area," Ferguson says. "We had a great crop, Giggs and the Nevilles and Butt and Scholes, but that was a one-off. What if you live in Cornwall? You tell me the last player that came from Bournemouth, or Torquay, or Exeter, or Scarborough, any of these teams in remote areas ­ when did they last get a player? Lee Sharpe [whom United signed from Torquay]? He was from Birmingham."

The system means if United spot a good youngster in another club's catchment area, and linked to that club, they have to pay substantial compensation. "We signed Kieran Richardson from West Ham. He cost £400,000 at 15 years of age," Ferguson says. "Why not go abroad and get three players who don't cost that? From abroad you get players with good educational and behavioural backgrounds, who are medically in good condition. Good prospects physically and mentally."

Ferguson becomes passionate as he explains his frustration. The game still burns within him, something his family recognised when they suggested he rescind his retirement. But will Ferguson go on forever like Sir Bobby Robson, in his 72nd year and seeking another job? "There's no way I'll be like Bobby."

It is clear, though, that retirement is not something he is looking forward to. He speaks enviously of octogenarians he knows who still labour, adding: "There's no doubt when you retire you start to decline. I'd need to remain active. If I retire tomorrow I could plan a full calendar for three years: doing television, writing a book, doing motivational talks. I've been offered a contract to go to America. There's Australia, South Africa, the Far East. But would that be three years I'd enjoy? Talking? When you are not in the football hub?"

Not that he is a football obsessive, not any more. "I was that way seven years ago. I was on the phone all night, watching videos all the time. It was killing me and I knew it. You need something to keep the mind occupied, an interest. I got into horses for a while, that's all passed. Then I got into golf for a bit, then the wine. Buying it, reading about it. It's a huge subject but all you need to know is what the best buys are, the years and areas. I've quite a lot bonded in London, Petrus, stuff like that. Then some you keep in the house, top wines for special occasions. It's a great interest."

Ferguson is now on a rolling contract. "The club suggested it. I discussed it with my family and felt it was not a bad idea. It takes away that date. If the contract finishes in 2006 the media start discussing who will be taking over, the players say, 'It's his last year, he won't get a new contract.' With a rolling contract it could be tomorrow. David [Gill] and I could sit down and say, 'Let's make this the last year.' We haven't even got to make it public."

One can assume the conversation has not taken such a turn yet, for Ferguson's prodigious energy is as undimmed as his desire. Ferguson has lost 18lb recently ­ "I just stopped eating bread" ­ and looks lean and well. Our meeting had begun at 9am and he had already spent an hour in the gym, and had the meeting with Gill. Yet the night before he had been in Milan watching United's next Champions' League opponents.

Between them, Milan and United have won eight European Cups, but their meeting is overshadowed by Chelsea's with Barcelona. "That is the most difficult one to assess," Ferguson says. "I look at Chelsea and think, 'Barcelona will find it hard'. Then I watch Barcelona and think, 'Chelsea will find it hard'. Ronaldinho tips the balance. He's some player."

"The one that got away," I suggest.

Ferguson nods wryly. The irony is it is thought United lost Ronaldinho because of the negotiating tactics of Peter Kenyon, now Chelsea's chief executive. United did, however, sign Rooney. "As soon as he became available I knew we had to sign him. I spoke to David Moyes several times. I said: 'If he ever becomes available don't let me down.' The word came back to me when he was 14, 'There's a boy at Everton.' We could have got him then but he wouldn't leave, and he wouldn't leave at 16 either. I can understand that, he is a local boy. But the European Championship changed his mind. Once they decided to sell him we couldn't afford not to get him."

Rooney scored a dazzling hat-trick on his United debut, but has sometimes failed to live up to the extraordinary expectations. His manager is not worried. "He's been doing well. He's had been some quiet games but he is 19. Ronaldo was the same last year, but he can explode in games. Once they get maturity they'll get consistency and they'll get better. In three or four years' time they'll be very good."

Rooney, of course, has been involved in some scrapes, most recently the incident with Bolton's Tal Ben Haim, which cost him a three-match ban. "He's like any 19-year-old. Obviously he's a winner. He doesn't like losing. He has a temper. You can't put a 30-year-old head on him. Unfortunately, unlike every other 19-year-old he is being assessed differently. Violent conduct? Do me a favour ­ you see that every game.

"He's actually a quiet boy with great enthusiasm in training. He loves training. I used to just have one problem on the training ground, which was Scholes. Now there are two of them. They get on early and you can't get them off after. They batter balls all over the place and one of them will hit me one day and kill me. That Scholes sends them inches by my head. Then all they hear is me bellowing 'Scholes!' 'What?' he says, looking up like an angel. And they hit the ball hard. Gary Neville was having a piss one day, 45 yards away by the fence. Scholes whacked him right in the arse."

And with that he's off, bubbling with enthusiasm despite the rain as he heads for the training ground to dodge Scholes' missiles. And to stoke the flames for the second half of the season, the stage when United traditionally haul in their rivals. The odds are against them this time, but drop by the bookies with a large bet on United and you might see a man sweat.

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