Alex Ferguson: Schooled in the shipyards, he will be football’s last great dictator

He has clearly been good for Manchester United. But has he been good for football?


I will miss him ferociously chewing gum, and I’ll miss that awkward, ill-fitting black woolly zip-up he wears beneath his coat.

Those fans who collected up his discarded gum after a game to sell on eBay should hold on to it. Bound to go up in value now. And his pully, oh I do hope he does the decent thing and donates it to the National Football Museum.

I always thought that frantic gum-chewing was a sign of controlled violence, for you have to be a bully, a nasty piece of work, an obsessive, deluded, a workaholic, a maniac, short-tempered, vindictive, grudge-holding and, perhaps most of all, cunning and clever to be a successful football manager.

If you manage it, and can stay in the job and be successful for more than half an hour – a long time in politics but an aeon in football terms where one bad result can mean the end of everything – then you will be worshipped, adored, fêted, have riches and power heaped upon you, considered a legend in your lifetime and capable of walking on the water, anywhere, any time.

One of football’s self-delusions is that a successful manager can do anything. I remember when Bill Shankly was at his height, and Brian Clough and Bill Nicholson, all of whom for a time were seen as miracle-workers, and otherwise sensible board members as well as fans were convinced that Shanks/Cloughy/Billy Nick could do anything, become Pope or Prime Minister if they wanted, sort out the country not just the club.

I bet there will be people now suggesting that Fergie should stand for Parliament, or go straight into the Lords. If Alastair Campbell were still running No 10, Fergie would be straight there, with his own desk, no problem.

Fergie – no more than Shanks, Clough or Bill Nick – could never have run the country. These days, he couldn’t even run a corner shop. Banning vital people, like he did with the BBC, or kicking stuff in the faces of the stars, as he did “accidentally” with David Beckham, is not encouraged in this modern world. No one today would put up with their hardline ancient methods and madnesses. Outside of football.

Fergie’s record is, of course, remarkable; the length and the number of pots, which has raised him from a mere football club manager to a national hero, the greatest living Briton, so some are saying, in that he has stayed at the top for so many years.

He did it by imposing himself, standing no nonsense, no insubordination, no one interfering or arguing with his plans, his aims, his methods. Which you have to do in football. You are surrounded by much nastier pieces of work – liars and cheats, frauds and con men. And no, not all of whom are football agents.

Alas, I have no personal memories, apart from being shouted at in a press conference. When I was writing official biographies of two of his stars – Dwight Yorke and Wayne Rooney – Ferguson wouldn’t talk to me, the rotten lot, or even give me five minutes on the phone about his own players, giving a quote, to help their book along. And why should he have done? He had better things to do with his time. Anyway, he had his own books to do, re-telling his own story. I assume now he will be working on yet another autobiography. I think it could be his fifth.

He has clearly been good for Manchester United, and good for British football by winning so often in Europe, attracting the admiration of fans around the world. But has he been good for football? During his time at the helm, we have seen the corruption of football, the whole system being totally commercialised, with money becoming the dominant force. Of course, money was always important, since the game went professional in 1885. How else could players be paid. But money is now the major and controlling factor in football. Money brings success, because you can buy the best players and pay them the most. The best players bring success and more money, so the rich, such as United, get richer and richer. There now seems no way of breaking this cycle. Money matters most.

United were the first club in the history of football to discover how to do it, how to maximise their commercial power. It was almost 20 years ago, back in 1995, that I remember going through the club’s annual accounts and discovering that, for the first year ever, they were now making more income from commercial, off-the-pitch enterprises than from the paying fans coming through the turnstiles. It turned the whole history and tradition and point of professional football on its head.

For more than a hundred years, clubs relied solely on fans turning up, paying their money, in order that players and staff got paid. Simples. Since then, ticket-buying fans have becoming minority contributors.

Manchester United had worked out that by having such things as a Mega Shop, about the size of an aircraft hanger, selling replica shirts and other souvenir tat, having shirt sponsors and hospitality suites, and maximising their TV revenue  all meant they no longer had to rely 100 per cent on gate receipts. They had stumbled upon branding, realising that the United brand, if it went global, could make them more money than they could ever make from charging fans to actually watch them play.

This, of course, was not the work of Fergie, but he was at the helm, in charge throughout the whole of this revolution. Which has resulted in multimillionaire footballers, enormous wages, enormous prices for seats, and more and more working-class fans being unable to afford a season ticket for any Premiership club.

Strange, given Fergie’s working-class background, and how he has continually harped on about the old values of the Clyde shipyards of his youth, that he should have been so receptive and understanding of modern commercial methods.

This is part of Ferguson’s native cunning. He has dressing-room cunning, knowing how to manage the minds of footballers, street cunning in knowing how to manipulate and scare the shit out of football agents, and political cunning in anticipating what boardrooms might do, and in seeing which way the winds are blowing in the business worlds.

Will we see Ferguson’s like again in football? We say now we think we won’t, but of course we will, we always have done. But it will be done a different way, adapting to the next round of changes and influences.

Fergie and the greats from the past ruled by fear. That might fade now that top players, and their agents, have such enormous power. Jose Mourinho knows how to instil fear. But Mourinho also uses a very modern technique – love. So many of his former charges still moon lovingly about him, sending kissy-kissy texts. Can’t say I have ever heard any of Fergie’s players, past or present, speaking of loving him. Admiring, respecting, yes, all of that. But not love. In Fergie’s eyes, that’s for jessies and for losers.

Hunter Davies is the author of ‘The Glory Game’, Mainstream, £7.99

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Manager

£32000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Manager is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Panel & Cabinet Wireman

£20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Panel Wireman required for small electro...

Recruitment Genius: Electronics Test Engineer

£25000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An SME based in East Cheshire, ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The Ebola outbreak took three months to diagnose because it had never previously been detected in West Africa (Reuters)  

My hero of 2014 sacrificed herself to save countless others

Ian Birrell
Shia LaBeouf is one of Brad Pitt's favourite actors in the world ever, apparently  

Shia LaBeouf to Luis Suárez: Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Ellen E Jones
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

Monique Roffey interview

The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

How we met

Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

Who does your club need in the transfer window?

Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

Michael Calvin's Last Word

From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015