When Sir Alex Ferguson walks out at Old Trafford tonight, for his 1,000th match as Manchester United manager, his mind is sure to wind back 18 years to match No 1: Oxford United 2, Manchester United 0.
It is not just the scoreline, barely credible today, which will remind Ferguson it was an another era. Having just joined from Aberdeen, Ferguson began the match sitting in the stand to observe his new team from a distance. With Oxford taking early command he soon made his way to the dug-out only to find, to his astonishment, that it was not just his coach sitting in it, but his coach driver. Ferguson was even more dumbfounded when the driver, who turned out to be a Manchester City fan, followed him into the dressing-room at half-time. "I couldn't believe it," Ferguson said this week.
The driver was quickly told he was in future only to be seen behind the steering wheel. It was not long before the players also encountered the new regime's discipline. Ferguson discovered that while he had been signing his United contract, less than 48 hours before the match at Oxford, his players had been on the booze. Most had been invited to Ron Atkinson's farewell party, others went out to celebrate Atkinson's dismissal. Ferguson tackled the problem head-on, with Paul McGrath and Norman Whiteside among the casualties. It was a characteristically bold move from a man who later admitted he had been nervous at his dressing-room reception. So, however, were the squad. Gordon Strachan, a player under Ferguson at Aberdeen, had regaled them with tales of his rages. Unlike the players Ferguson did meet expectations, turning the Hairdryer on players and journalists alike.
He denied this week he had ever thrown teacups in the dressing-room during his United years. This may be true but, as Jaap Stam recalled, he did once kick a heavy treatment table at half-time at Hillsborough with such force the Dutch defender had to take evasive action to avoid his leg being broken. He also, infamously, kicked a boot which wound up scarring David Beckham.
As Stam noted, the motivation is always Ferguson's desire to win and the insistence that United players meet the highest of standards. "It is a mission, not a job," Ferguson once said of his occupation. His devotion is total. Strachan recalls Ferguson driving around Aberdeen checking the players were in bed. Giggs, the great survivor, remembers the night he was at a party at Lee Sharpe's house when Ferguson came around in a fury and broke it up sending everyone home. Ferguson then rang his son, Darren, then a player at United and a friend of Giggs, to check where he was and that he was not, as Darren later put it, "hiding in a wardrobe".
Giggs said this week that Ferguson, while not losing his desire, had mellowed. This is not always apparent. In football, longevity usually results in sentimentality. Think of Sir Bobby Robson; pilloried while England manager he is now so revered that Freddie Shepherd, Newcastle's chairman, said he had sacked Robson reluctantly because he did not want to be remembered as 'the man who shot Bambi". Even Dennis Wise, an old Ferguson bête noire, was rebranded as a "lovable rogue" for last year's FA Cup final.
Not so Ferguson. He may be approaching his 63rd birthday, be a grandfather several times over, and excellent company when relaxed, but the Scot continues to defy any attempt to recast him as avuncular. He would not have it any other way. He knows he inspires such strong emotions because of the fierce competitiveness that fuels his very being. He has many interests - from wine and music to horses and museums - but continues to be defined, and to define himself, by his reign at Old Trafford.
That this now extends to 1,000 matches represents an incredible feat, the more so in the modern age at the biggest club in the land. It is fitting that one of the two men who previously reached this mark, Sir Matt Busby (the other is Dario Gradi, at Crewe) was a valued sounding board in Ferguson's early years, and in return was welcomed back into the heart of the club. Whether Busby's achievement in building United is greater than Ferguson's in reviving it is unanswerable but Ferguson unquestionably operates at a time when the demands upon a manager have multiplied exponentially.
His trophy count does outstrip Busby, something beyond anyone's imagination in 1986. Although Ferguson's reputation had prompted unsuccessful approaches from Arsenal, Tottenham and Wolves, he remained something of an unknown quantity to the wider world. But there were clues in his success at Aberdeen. Consider this: in 93 years either side of Ferguson's reign Aberdeen have won one League championship and three Scottish Cups. During his eight years at the helm they won three championships, four Cups and two European trophies.
United have scored even greater triumphs but the initial seasons were difficult with three mid-table finishes in the first four years. The sack loomed but the chairman, Martin Edwards, resisted and Ferguson's work on improving the squad's fitness, drive and discipline eventually bore fruit. The Nineties opened with cup triumphs at home and abroad. That strengthened his position and the championship, United's first in 26 years, finally arrived in 1994.
Ferguson's devotion to youth development subsequently reaped rich rewards with the club becoming the dominant force of the Premiership's first decade. Their hegemony has not been to everyone's liking - in part because of their overweening commerciality - but there has been much to admire. If, in the early years, there was an in-your-face unpleasantness about the team which reflected the manager's desperation to succeed they have since largely reformed. Throughout, Ferguson has encouraged his teams to play vibrant attacking football with wingers. The club have been involved in some of the greatest of games: the FA Cup semi-final replay with Arsenal, the comeback in Turin, the stupefying European Cup triumph in Barcelona. Among the many Premiership records they hold is that of biggest victory: 9-0 against Ipswich. Even some of the defeats have been extraordinary: United going down 6-3 at Southampton and 5-3 at Chelsea.
One constant has been the refusal to give in, however long the odds. That is a direct manifestation of Ferguson's personality. It is why, though United now lag behind Arsenal and Chelsea, few have written them off.
Another prevailing theme is Ferguson's belief that United are always conspired against or beset by ill-fortune - many a referee has been lambasted while a defeat at Southampton was memorably blamed on wearing the wrong colour shirts. This "world's-against-us" viewpoint is partly genuine, partly a motivational tactic. It is the same with the Hairdryer.
This package - attractive team, compelling manager - is one of the reasons for the Premiership's appeal and global popularity. When he goes he will be missed and, in time, the laird of Old Trafford will be revered the way Busby, Shankly and Nicholson were. But if he has his way, it will not be any time soon.
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