The proletarian poetry of Fergie's dark side

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The Independent Online
IT COMES as no surprise, perhaps, but judging on the evidence of the second part of The Alex Ferguson Story (ITV, Tuesday), playing for the Govan Bruiser can be an intimidating experience, though I didn't quite expect baseball bats to figure.

Because he retains so much control over how he is perceived, the more illuminating contributions to the programme came from those around him.

"On occasions, him and Archie [Knox] would produce a baseball bat and terrorise the young boys," said Alex McLeish, one of the stalwarts of his time at Aberdeen. "But it was all good-hearted fun." Neale Cooper, another of the mainstays of his side, gave a one-word description. "Scary," he said. "He had this fear factor - you never knew when he'd pop up." Cooper, a natural comedian, told the story of when Fergie did precisely that in a pub and caught him with a drink in his hand:

"`What's that you're drinking, Cooper?'

`It's Coke, boss.' He came really quite close to me and said, `that does nae smell like bloody Coke to me.' I says, `it is, it is, it is Coke!' He tasted it and he looked at me and he came closer and said - " there's a brilliantly timed pause from Cooper and a deadpan, menacing delivery - "`You're dead.' I says, `what?' he says, `You're dead. Monday morning, I'm going to run the bollocks off you. You won't know what's hit you.'"

Later, at Manchester United, Lee Sharpe, who Fergie eventually sold on, caroused once too often and didn't know what had hit him, though he doesn't appear to bear the slightest resentment and told the story with a huge grin. Sharpe and a bunch of chums had been spotted on Blackpool Pleasure Beach when they should have been tucked up in bed, and Fergie had been told about it at a dinner.

"He got up from the function in his dickie bow," said Sharpe, "came round to my house, banged on the door, forced his way in, kicked everyone out who was in the house, sat me down, got his face right up close and said, `Right. You're getting rid of your dog, your house, your car, and what are they, them drums! Get rid of them as well!' And that was it - back in digs, house sold, girlfriend back to Birmingham - that was the last I saw of her, I think."

Not everyone bore the force of his personality so lightly, though, and to the programme-makers' credit they included a few acid contributions from Gordon Strachan, who clashed with Fergie at Aberdeen and United. "You'd see this car sneaking by on Friday nights," he said, bitterly. "What a sad man, sneaking about on a Friday night to see if I was in."

Unable to get on with him at Aberdeen, Ferguson sold him to United, and it was to Strachan's dismay that he found himself on the same side again. "The fourth of November, half past 10 it was," he said of Ferguson's arrival in Manchester. "He always said he'd he'd only leave Aberdeen for Barcelona or Man United. I kept praying the coach of Barcelona would get the sack." You have to wonder, though, if Strachan would be half the promising manager he is if he hadn't had a master's lessons to absorb.

The film's not afraid to undercut Fergie in a gentle way, either. There's a nice scene, before the 1-1 draw against Liverpool at the end of last season, in which, as he's attempting to impress upon the playrowers the threat presented by Steve McManaman, there's a voice-over from Peter Schmeichel, done in a slight whisper, as if they're his thoughts during the talk itself: "We've had it every time we've played Liverpool - McManaman's doing this, doing that. We know that, he doesn't have really have to tell us. I think he likes team talks."

It's at this point that we get the four-letter references to Paul Ince that the tabloids whipped up into a fuss about nothing in advance of the programme. When he calls Ince "a fucking big-time Charlie," it's quite clear from the programme that he's referring to his previous sentence about Ince being allowed to do all the attacking he likes without defensive duties. But that's not half as good a story.

There's plenty of good material from Ferguson himself about the mechanics of managership. He freely admits to using anything he can for motivation - religion, the club, that us-against-the-world feeling he's such an expert at evoking. He's also quite happy to shame them into performing - "when we're not doing so well," he says, "I tend to tell them how lucky they are." He invokes Clydeside, "where they wear rags round their arms to keep themselves warm," and the pits - "Some people have to go into the bowels of the earth to earn the next shilling," he says.

Whatever he does, it works, and the players love him for it. Among the fulsome tributes at the end, Eric Cantona's stands out:

"He was the best manager I had, the one I respected the most, and I still respect him and will do all my life ... Thank you for everything you gave to me. That's from my heart, and it's true."

David Gower's Cricket Monthly came to the season's end on Tuesday (BBC2) with a charming little piece by Fiona Stephenson from Goodwood, where the Rules were drawn up in 1727 (the Laws, drawn up by the MCC, came later). My favourite is Rule 11: "That there should be one umpire of each side and that if any of the gamesters shall speak or give their opinion on any point of the game, they are to be turned out and voided in match [sic].

"Rule 11 is not to extend to the Duke of Richmond."

Guess who drew up the rules.