Profile: Alex Ferguson - Leader of boys and men

Ed Barrett on the old-school football manager who has shown that a British team can again command Europe

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A miracle occurred in Turin on Wednes-day night. First, Manchester United fought heroically to beat the mighty Juventus and qualify for their first European Cup final since Bobby Charlton, George Best and the rest bestrode the Continent in 1968. And, second, the club took a huge step towards winning back the goodwill that it had enjoyed in the decade following the Munich air disaster, and then frittered away in the years between Best's departure and Eric Cantona's kung-fu kick.

For the second week running, United laid on a feast of football for an audience of millions, and even their bitterest enemies had to admit that, these days, the Red Devils really do have the best tunes. Then, to cap it all, Alex Ferguson smiled. Not the business-as-usual smile that he usually wears after another comfortable 3-0 spanking of a middle-of-the- table outfit. No, this was real jumpers-for-goalposts schoolboy stuff; the delighted beam of a true football fan.

How times change. Ten years ago it seemed that Ferguson would never smile again. United were at rock bottom after a 5-1 hammering from Manchester City. Everyone agreed that if United were to lose their forthcoming FA Cup tie at Nottingham Forest, then Fergie would be on his bike. The fans wanted his blood, the chairman gave him the dreaded vote of confidence, and he remembers skulking around Old Trafford "like a criminal". Then things began to change. United won the match, went on to win the competition, and haven't stopped lifting silverware ever since. This season, the elusive treble of Premiership, FA Cup and European Champions Cup is on again, and the bookies' odds are mean. If Ferguson achieves this feat, he will join the pantheon of management greats - and could well go on to dwarf them all.

As Ferguson stands on the brink of immortality, he cuts a unique figure. He is the last of the old-school managers, a standard bearer for traditional values to a world dominated by younger, more sophisticated men such as Gianluca Vialli and Ruud Gullit. He deals well enough with super-rich players with cut-throat agents. He is well aware of his own value, too, and has often complained that his salary is not commensurate with chief executives in other businesses. In an attempt to secure his services, Martin Edwards has sensibly promised that his new contract will make him the best-paid manager in football.

Boardroom preoccupations with share prices and takeovers are definitely not to his liking. When Edwards looked to his manager for public support for Rupert Murdoch's proposed takeover, Ferguson's silence spoke volumes. Despite BSkyB's obvious financial potential for buying top talent (a frequent bone of contention at United), Fergie was furious not to have been consulted about the plan, and concerned about losing his own power after rumours that Japanese players would be foisted on him in an attempt to entice TV viewers in Asia.

Like the earlier generation of Scottish giants - Jock Stein, Matt Busby and Bill Shankly - Ferguson's origins were humble and hard. He was raised in a family of shipbuilders in Govan, Glasgow, and he attributes many of his values to his upbringing. He is dedicated to providing top-class entertainment for the man in the street, and likes to remind his young superstars of their obligations to the punters who pay their wages. On his father's advice, he served a toolmaking apprenticeship, in case the football didn't work out. It very nearly didn't.

As a player, he was better with his elbows than his feet, and his career nosedived after one season at Rangers, the club he supported as a boy and had always dreamt of joining. Although he was a top scorer, he was made the scapegoat for a humiliating Cup Final thrashing by arch-rivals Celtic. On a summer tour abroad with the team, he learnt via the newspapers that Rangers were about to dump him. Team-mates recall finding him in his pyjamas in the hotel lobby, drunk and screaming his head off.

He would come back to haunt Rangers. After a successful managerial apprenticeship at St Mirren (where he drove round the streets encouraging the public to come and watch the team), he pitched up at Aberdeen, a club going nowhere and attracting barely a thousand diehard fans to its home matches. By the time he left the crowds had swelled to 15,000 and the Dons had blown the Old Firm monopoly of Scottish soccer wide open. In six years they won three championships, four Scottish Cups and, most remarkable of all, beat Real Madrid to win the European Cup-Winners' Cup in 1983.

At Pittodrie Ferguson hit on a winning formula that has served him well ever since. Young players were brought through the ranks in a close-knit family atmosphere. Discipline was tight and commitment was total. While inspiring loyalty and self-belief internally, Fergie deliberately cultivated a sense of paranoia towards the outside world. Everyone is against you, he told his players - referees, the FA, the press, the lot of 'em. It worked a treat. He has brought this siege mentality to United, and even now appears to seriously believe that the world's biggest club is discriminated against by the authorities. A red-faced, gum-chewing Fergie furiously checking his stopwatch to make sure a ref isn't cheating him of vital injury time is one of the enduring images of the modern game.

Ferguson's fiery temper is legendary. A primary school teacher recalls that he "could start a fight in an empty room". He once kicked a full tea urn at his Aberdeen players during a half-time "talk". But his bark is worse than his bite, and a bollocking is soon followed by an arm round the shoulder. He shields players from the media where necessary (notably Ryan Giggs in his first season) and makes a point of never publicly criticising them - at least, not until they've left the club. This in turn has prompted media criticism that he is denying the public access to their idols, or that he is condoning the bad behaviour of the likes of Cantona and Roy Keane. All of which is grist to Fergie's mill, and feeds the "us and them" mentality on which he thrives.

When it comes to the papers, Ferguson disingenuously claims to follow Sir Matt's advice: "Don't read 'em, son". In fact, he expertly uses the media for his own ends. Disinformation is routinely fed to opponents via the back pages, while a few well-chosen words can do wonders for the psychological warfare he wages on rival managers. When Ferguson suggested that Leeds would give his title-chasing Newcastle an easy ride, Kevin Keegan rose to the bait in front of the Sky TV cameras. Other foes appear less vulnerable to Fergie's "mind games". Kenny Dalglish steered Liverpool and then Blackburn Rovers to championships at United's expense. At Arsenal, George Graham and Arsene Wenger have had the upper hand at times, despite Fergie's best efforts to destabilise them.

Though he relishes these confrontations, Ferguson is at his happiest in his natural habitat of United's Cliff training ground, where he can plan, plot and do what he does best: manage men. From the very start he made it clear that things would be done his way. Pre-Ferguson, the only talk of "doubles" involved tumblers rather than trophies; he immediately set about dismantling the notorious drinking school that operated as an alternative power base within the club. Norman Whiteside and Paul McGrath were sold, but Bryan Robson, the heart and soul of the club during its wilderness years, was kept on - a sign of Ferguson's pragmatism. Years later he would ruthlessly prune problem players such as the self-styled "Guv'nor" Paul Ince, who learnt the hard way that there was room for only one boss at Old Trafford.

Perhaps Ferguson's most audacious move came in 1995, after narrowly missing out on a second successive double. He broke up a great side and brought in youngsters such as David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes and Gary and Phil Neville. You'll win nothing with kids, warned Alan Hansen, but he had to eat his words. Fergie's Fledglings, as they were dubbed in reference to the Busby Babes, swept all before them, winning the double again and laying the foundation for the current side, potentially the greatest of them all.

It has been a long road from the steelyard to the boardroom and, a lifelong Labour supporter (he attended the party's pre-election conference), Fergie has mirrored many of his party's social changes. As a youth he organised an apprentices' strike against pay cuts. Today he talks of the "bridge between what the unions wanted from Labour and what the public wanted". He is an admirer of Tony Blair, in whom he clearly sees something of himself - "a strong character who knows what he wants". With friends like these, another kind of title surely awaits him.

He would doubtless be honoured to accept, but he's not driven by money or social status. His real motivation is the tradition of the club and winning football matches. It is this that draws him to the training ground at 7.30 every morning. First he ended United's agonising 26-year wait for the league title and made championships routine; now he seeks to lay to rest the ghost of Busby in Europe. If he succeeds, it will be just a start. "Even if we win all three," he says, "I'd want to go out and win it again."

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