A big splash in the Clyde

What does the Man Utd manager's success owe to the shipyard socialism of Glasgow? By Pat Kane; Managing my Life by Alex Ferguson, with Hugh McIlvanney Hodder & Stoughton, pounds 18.99, 478pp

Pat Kane
Friday 20 August 1999 23:02

It's not so far from Govan to guv'nor. If Alex Ferguson's fascinatingly incoherent autobiography is about anything, it's how proletarian masculinity will never die. As long as there are football pitches, good lads with two feet, and an audience of men to watch them do their ballet every week, working-class culture will survive into the next century. Whether it will have any connection to working-class reality is another question.

You could blow this book and its author apart by comparing the first and last chapters. The Man Utd manager starts by evoking a Clydeside childhood nobly composed from rivets, lathes, street scrapes, loyal pals, stern-but-loving parents and an unforced socialism. He ends by whining about how he's not getting as enormous a pay packet as George Graham, and moaning that he needs more "communication" with the Chairman of his PLC. Fergie still hankers after "the sense of community that existed in the Govan of my childhood". It's just that his love of French wines and thoroughbred horses gets in the way.

So, before we get to his incontestable football achievements, is Ferguson just another megastar from the labour aristocracy of the Scottish central belt, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Sean Connery, Billy Connolly, Gavin Laird and all? Being a West-of-Scotland Mega-Prole like Alex means that you can reminisce about the good old days - dodging dangerous machinery, organising apprentice strikes, throwing hard men out of your hostelry - while blithely proposing a weekly wage packet of pounds 50,000 for Roy Keane. Just to make him feel "needed", you understand.

There's no denying that Ferguson's upbringing at the tough-but-respectable end of Clydeside working-class life after the war has helped him develop, as he puts it, a "success in handling men" as a football manager. And the book serves up the usual wheezy idolising of the Big Men of Football - as in the chapter on Jock Stein, which bears the lyrical hand of collaborator Hugh McIlvanney. But we should take a less romantic look at how this background really helps you whip a side into championship-winning condition.

It's basically this: starting at the shopfloor end of society gives you an acute sense of what the division of labour actually means. When you decide to move from worker to manager, from Govan to "gaffer" (the more appropriate local term), you know exactly how to keep men in their allotted place - while understanding how both to inspire, and inspect, their behaviour.

This seems to be the crucial Ferguson management trick. He has an acute eye for footballing talent: his criteria are skill, determination to win, and physical resilience. But he also has an iron grip on how that talent should be deployed. Anecdote after anecdote berates the players who haven't done what they've been told to do: Gordon Strachan not marking properly, Paul Ince wanting to be a midfield attacker instead of a defender and thus losing a crucial game. Those who repeatedly buck the system are swiftly booted out: the only socialism Ferguson seems to hold to in his footballing practice is of a distinctly Stalinist variety.

And he also knows how to handle working-class men - still the biggest talent-pool for modern British football - by balancing extreme affection and extreme violence, with a brutal regime of training and health as the bridge between the two.

His rhapsody about the first time he saw Ryan Giggs, floating over the pitch so effortlessly "you'd have sworn his feet weren't touching the ground"; as relaxed as "a dog chasing a piece of silver paper in the wind", almost casts Giggs as a 14-year old angel of football. You wouldn't call Alex Ferguson homosocial to his face. But like most football managers, he has an intense appreciation of male sporting beauty.

Yet he can also seem, to the same team of men, like a borderline psychopath. He chucks trays of hot tea against the wall of the dressing room, which just miss the offending player. He puts on his boots in a friendly to adminster a good kicking to a dirty foreign defender. This is also part of his script: giving players legitimacy to be aggressive, then reining it in by tough disciplinary codes and a tight team plan.

Ferguson's devotion to practise, repetition and training is legendary. But there's a phrase from his early days which makes you understand exactly why. He's just completed his first stretch of arduous pre-season training with Dunfermline. Lying painfully in his bed, Ferguson muses that "you feel your body doesn't belong to you". That's the essential truth for the professional footballer. He refines his talents, all the better to surrender them to the club and the manager.

Yet this feeling "only intensifies" Ferguson's desire to be a footballer. Little wonder that he chills the reader when he relishes the hi-tech prospect of instant alcohol tests, and of contracts that penalise players for substance abuse.

He says that certain players have great "engines" or are "flying machines". For all his frequent protestations that it's the humanity of his teams that is paramount, his actual management technique is as systematic, even cybernetic, as any modern corporate head. The Bosman ruling on freedom of contract makes Ferguson react - well, like a bossman. How can these guys just walk away, when I've shaped them into what they are?

There is a lot of warmth and vulnerability in this book. Ferguson will admit to having a "wee greet" to himself when faced with family tragedy, always inside his car, parked in a country lay-by. He also faints spectacularly at his wife's first birth. And of course, once you get into the Match of the Day mindset, Ferguson's strategy notes about the major games in his career - winning the UEFA cup with Aberdeen, last season's triple with Manchester - are very compelling. The mind of a master strategist is laid surprisingly bare. You can't imagine Man Utd's many rival managers not reading these sections very closely indeed.

But the book's last line is frankly weird. "Loyalty has been the anchor of my life, and it is something that I learned in Govan". Not solidarity, or compassion, or egalitarianism, you'll note - but loyalty: the request of the platoon sergeant through the ages. Alex Ferguson has managed his life very well indeed. But spare us the shipyard sentimentalism. Govan and guv'nor were only ever a metal shaving apart.

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