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

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