The Boss: the many sides of Alex Ferguson, by Michael Crick

An obsessive drive for success

Chris Maume
Friday 20 December 2013 03:46
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Football fans are always the severest critics of the teams they follow, and Michael Crick, one of our most prominent investigative journalists and a Manchester United supporter, is also the club's most trenchant critic. He clearly felt that in the case of United's phenomenally successful manager, there is much to investigate.

He has played the assiduous detective before, in Manchester United: Betrayal of a Legend, the title of which indicated where he was coming from. More recently, he applied his biographical bovver boots to Jeffrey Archer, and has employed the same methodology here of matching public statements against little-known facts.

Virtually the first half of the book is devoted to Sir Alex Ferguson's career before he took charge at Old Trafford in 1986, after his tenure at Aberdeen challenged the hegemony of the Old Firm, Rangers and Celtic. A toolmaker from Govan, he had been a journeyman striker who retired with a huge sense of under-achievement that has plainly fuelled his obsessive drive for success.

For this United fan, who admittedly tends to take a slightly indulgent view, much of Crick's revelations fall squarely into the category of practices which may be unsavoury but are par for the course, the kind of things all managers must do to keep their jobs. He cites numerous examples where Sir Alex's recollections are slightly at odds with what Crick takes to be the facts. He claims to have played for Scotland, for instance, but as Crick says, the games in which he played were not full internationals.

He also claims not to have been a drinker as a player, yet Crick cites well-documented alcohol-fuelled celebrations. It's obvious, though, that what Sir Alex means is that he wasn't, unlike so many footballers, a heavy and constant drinker. Nowhere does he claim to be have been teetotal at any time in his life.

More seriously, when he was sacked from one of his first clubs, St Mirren, and took them to a tribunal, Crick all but accuses him of committing perjury. The whole saga, he says, exposed some of Ferguson's least appealing characteristics: "the bullying, the desire for total control, the obsession with money, the dishonesty and pettiness". Take virtually any of the most successful football managers - Jock Stein, Brian Clough, Bill Shankly, even the sainted Matt Busby - and you will find a hard, hard man, full of other qualities but tough as old football boots, with a huge streak of ruthlessness.

Far more damaging than Sir Alex's selective memory are the recent revelations that he has exerted unconscionable pressure on some young players as he attempted to push them into the arms of his football agent son, the bullish Jason. Crick could profitably have spent more than one chapter on this, the book's most damaging disclosure.

Still, Crick said when he began The Boss that he intended it to be the most exhaustively researched biography of a football manager. He has certainly succeeded. Given Sir Alex's legendary temper, this reviewer would love to be the proverbial fly on the wall the next time they meet.

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