The Monday Interview: Ferguson still building foundations

As the new season begins, the Manchester United manager is already planning for the 21st century. In an exclusive interview, he tells Glenn Moore why
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The Independent Online
Alex Ferguson," said Ruud Gullit, "is a monument to English football." The man himself would prefer to build a couple.

According to the Deloitte & Touche report into football's finances published last week Manchester United, the team he has managed for a decade, have the biggest turnover of any football club in the world, pounds 55.3m. Yet, while it has the history commensurate with such a status the club does not have the infrastructure. Old Trafford may be England's largest club stadium, and The Cliff one of the better practice facilities but they pale in comparison to Barcelona's Nou Camp, and Internazionale's Appiano Gentile training complex. Ferguson is dedicated to changing that.

On a sunny day last week the 55-year-old Scotsman sat in one of Old Trafford's executive boxes and waved his arm towards the window. Outside a pristine green pitch glistened beneath the deep red of the vast North Stand. "We had discussions at board level about that stand and I was the only one who said we could fill it, week in, week out," he said, "yet it's still not big enough. The ultimate dream is an 80,000-capacity ground," he added. "There's no doubt in my mind we could fill it."

Ferguson still has to get the board on board on this subject but one aim has already been achieved. On the Cheshire border a pounds 15m state-of- the-art training complex is planned. "It should be completed in about 15 months. It is a step I have been urging Manchester United to take for years. One of the things I stressed that summer when I sold Paul Ince and didn't buy anyone was that I expected something to be done.

"In fairness the club have put in a good deal of money but it will be the best money ever spent. We have looked at them all: Milan, Munich, the French national one, Auxerre, the pounds 120m one in Tokyo, one of the best at Panathanaikos. This will take us into the next century."

Ferguson's ability to see the big picture has long been one of his strengths but it is his desire to influence it which marks him out from many managers, notably someone like Gullit who concentrates solely on the team. He is equally involved in the details. Most clubs are now aware of the importance of diet - but how many managers would make it their job to test the proposed post-match meals, as Ferguson had been doing before this interview?

This same search for perfection appears to affect everything he does. He has, for example, just bought out a second Manager's Diary, A Will To Win (Andre Deutsch, pounds 14.99), following the success of A Year in the Life two years ago.

Why? I asked, it can't be that lucrative, even for a Scotsman? "It's not for the money," he said. "The club wanted another and I was prepared to do it because I felt I had not fulfilled my obligation with the last one. I was not able to get into it properly in the last part of the season because the Cantona thing was happening. If I am going to do something, I want to do it right. I've been much more precise about dates and things with this one."

There are other reasons as well. Ferguson has a sometimes stormy relationship with the media and he feels the books give him a chance to reveal more of his true personality.

"It does give you a platform. Because of my style of management I am never going be loved by the press. The modern media write what sells, they deal in stereotypes, so it's furious Fergie or dour Fergie. I do get fed up reading that because it's not accurate. In my normal life I like a joke and a laugh, having people round and sharing football stories."

This is apparent in any extended conversation with Ferguson. He may be a football obsessive but he does have a life outside the game with family and friends a constant theme in the diaries. The photographer, who had never met him, said afterwards, "he's quite normal really. I liked him".

This would please Ferguson who had said: "I think your background is really important, your whole character is ingrained in your background. Some people lose track of that and change themselves. I don't see the need for that. It is important to be able to phone up my mates and exchange banter, give and take a bit of stick. They can see I'm the same person."

In the same way he is pleased someone like Ryan Giggs has been able to keep his childhood friends which, given the disparity in income, cannot have been easy.

Not that the "Fergie fury" image is entirely without substance. He recounts hearing that his son Jason, who works for Sky TV, had been heard saying while directing a United game: "Get the camera on Fergie, he's looking angry".

The books also allow him to make a point or two without being sensationalised. Even though United's lawyer, Maurice Watkin, has been through it, some strong views remain, notably on Ian Wright, whose dispute with Peter Schmeichel regularly features.

"Nothing should ever shock you in football but I couldn't believe it when the FA used him for their advertising campaign," said Ferguson.

The FA are themselves unhappy about Ferguson's revelation that he was approached about the England job. "Just think," said the Scot with a grin, "I could have sabotaged them, got them relegated or something." More seriously he added: "I hope I haven't embarrassed them by mentioning it, but there was an approach. It was an honour to be asked but I don't want to leave Manchester United."

That is not surprising seeing as Ferguson, again, could become the first manager to win three successive league titles. Another assault on Europe beckons although he is still searching for a central defender. "If I could depend on David May, Ronny Johnsen and Gary Pallister being fit all season I wouldn't want anyone else. They have quality and the strength to handle anything. But Pallister has a back problem, if it recurs it keeps him out for four weeks with another two-three to get match sharp. May and Johnsen have both suffered muscle pulls. You need cover."

Ferguson increasingly draws on the experience of his senior players by bringing them into United's equivalent of the "boot room". "I used to have Robson, Bruce, Parker come in. Now it's Schmeichel, Pallister, McClair. I get things from that, Schmeichel is very forthcoming. He has a broad imagination, his ideas are not always right but he is prepared to say them, that's important. A manager trying to make his way in life might not do this but I've built up a relationship with these players. I've had Pallister for eight years, Irwin for seven. At times you have rucks but there is a good team unity.

"I said to McClair in one of my team talks: `This is probably the 1,000th team talk you heard from me' and he said: `Yes, I've slept through half of them.' You can only say that to a manager you have a relationship with.

"You want to see what kind of football mind they have. Some of them don't think tactically, they think their natural ability will get them through. But against better players you need to think tactically. Keane has a good appreciation and Irwin is very astute. Robson was excellent at spotting things early in a game and communicating. With Schmeichel his emotion tends to override it. He is an emotional player which is fine in that position, he needs to keep at high boiling point, shouting at people as he might not have anything to do for an hour.'

Of the younger players, David Beckham currently gets the most attention and Ferguson spends much effort on persuading him to rest. He has even threatened to phone his home to check he is in.

"He's a restless spirit. He has plenty of energy and finds it hard to rest. I've said to him: `Why not invite people around your house instead of going out?' Young players need rest. His profile is not a problem. My only concern with any of my young players is that they prepare themselves for the football. If David listens to me it won't be a problem.

"He has an agent. I don't know what plans they have but if I was in his position I would take on a PA and a secretary and get a small office. You are giving employment to people and they are working just for you. It costs you pounds 60,000 a year instead of someone taking 20 per cent of everything. I can't understand giving money away like that."

Meanwhile, the search for more Beckhams goes on. United are considering opening schools of excellence across Europe, beginning in Dublin, and are already looking for a full-time European scout. The competition for young players is becoming ever more intense.

In the book Ferguson mentions a player with a rival team who United wanted to sign but "weren't prepared to meet his father's requirements". The inference is obvious.

"There is a professional point of view and a moral one. The professional one is to get best players in whatever it takes. The football world has changed and even schooolboys have agents. The moral view is that you should not even be thinking about it for kids. They should just play football. If you chase money you might never get it. If you are good at your job it will come to you.

"Lot of clubs must pay but it can cause problems. We did it once, years ago. We agreed to pay pounds 10,000 on his 17th birthday. No sooner was he in the place and the parents wanted more, while it also caused problems with the other boys and their parents. Not again."

Money, of course, is even more of a problem at the top with the wage demands of men like Markus Babbel (pounds 1.5m a year) and Ronaldo (nearly pounds 3m) conflicting with the strictures of the plc.

"Obviously if the chance came to sign a really top player I would want to take it but the club are not prepared to pay the salaries. The plc thing has its restrictions, same as for other clubs. It is hard for the supporters to accept and sometimes for me. There will come a time when we will have to say: `What is needed to make sure we win the European Cup' and do it, buy big. But you have to be careful, you can make a lovely broth, then ruin it by putting the wrong thing in it."

Ferguson on Old Trafford

`The ultimate dream is an 80,000-capacity ground. There's no doubt in my mind we could fill it'

Ferguson on David Beckham `He's a restless spirit. I've said to him: `Why not invite people around your house instead of going out'?'

Ferguson on signing youngsters `Lot of clubs must pay but it can cause problems. We did it once, years ago. Not again'