Two more years. That is how long the rest of the Premier League title contenders, and putative Manchester United managers, will have to wait until Sir Alex Ferguson drives away from Old Trafford for good.
In the wake of United's Champions League victory last month Ferguson, now 66, had indicated he would not work past his 70th year, which was interpreted as meaning he would retire in three seasons' time. Tonight, in an interview with Sir David Frost, he fixes his retirement date as summer 2010.
In his first lengthy television interview for nearly a decade, and first major interview anywhere in the English media since sitting down with The Independent in 2005, Ferguson names his three best United players and his biggest transfer mistake and discusses his belief that had Paul Gascoigne signed for him, and not Tottenham, in 1988 the retired midfielder would be a more contented soul today. Ferguson also discusses his feud with the BBC, and referees, and speaks of his friendship with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown and his concern that the talent pool of English footballers is "evaporating".
The general theme running through the interview, which is to be broadcast on Sky Sports 1, is, as it usually is with Ferguson, the need for players – and managers – to stay hungry for success.
"I always feel comfortable with players who have got real ability and a bit of hunger about them," says Ferguson. "In a way it mirrors my own image of a life with a winning attitude. I associate myself with players like that.
"Of the players who have been successful with us over the years, very few have ever caused me a problem in terms of their desire to do better, so I don't expect a problem next year. They're young enough and the great thing about winning the European trophy is that they want to do it again. Young players like Anderson and [Wayne] Rooney and [Cristiano] Ronaldo and Nani. These young boys – they'll want to do that again."
If such players ever thought it would happen without trying they were given a reminder, says Ferguson, by Ryan Giggs. After the players presented him with a watch for beating the club appearance record of Bobby Charlton, Giggs said, pertinently: "I had to wait nine years for my next European medal."
Ferguson goes on to detail a motivational technique that he developed after, in 1993, United won their first league title in 26 years, the first of 10 under his management.
"I said, 'I've written three names down. I've put them in an envelope. Those are the three players that are going to let us down next season.' Of course, there was no envelope. And they're all looking at each other and saying, 'Well, it's not me!' So the next season I did it again, and I think it was Gary Pallister, who says, 'I think one of our names is in that, boss!' But it was just a challenge to them, because dealing with success is not easy."
Asked what he looks for in a player, Ferguson says: "His ability, obviously – and his enthusiasm. I remember someone said to me [that Sir] Bobby Robson's greatest asset was his enthusiasm. People like Bobby Robson are treasures – wanting to keep on working until their 70s and with the same enthusiasm, so I make the point to players. It's not easy to keep that enthusiasm and work-rate and hunger up all your life."
At this point Frost, who is still working in his 80th year, says: "Absolutely – you're going to keep that enthusiasm up long past 70?"
Ferguson laughs, and says: "I'll keep the enthusiasm up – whether I'll still be doing the football, I'm not so sure about that. No, I don't think I'll be... I think no more than three years – two, maybe two, more like that."
"Two more?" asks Frost.
"Yes, I think so. I have also got to respect my wife, because she's suffering. She did suffer because she doesn't go to the games. She's not a football fan you know – she's an Alex Ferguson fan. She's a mother to all these three boys and a grandmother – that's her life. She watches the games on Teletext."
In declaring that his reign at Old Trafford only has two seasons left to run, Ferguson may be risking a repeat of the 2001-02 season, when United's form dipped after he announced it would be his last campaign as manager. Ferguson changed his mind in February 2002 and later admitted there had been a deleterious effect on the players and on his ability to enforce discipline. United finished that season without a trophy and outside the top two in the top flight for the first time in a decade.
"Success gives you control," says Ferguson. "That's what you're after as a manager. Because it's very difficult to control if you're not successful. It means, usually, the end of your job. The most difficult job and the most important man at Manchester United is the manager. Without question, the minute that ever changed it would mean a massive free-fall in the club.
"You can never allow the players to run the football club and you can never allow the supporters to run the football club. They've all a part to play. Without our supporters, we'd be nothing; without the players, we'd be nothing. They are the most important components of a football club; but somebody has to run it. Somebody has to be in charge. The manager is the best man, and has always got to be supported."
Ferguson says that when he does retire, he will make a clean break from Old Trafford. "The field will be left clear [for my successor]," he says. "People say that if you're about the place you'd be in the road. God, when you've done 21 years, or 22, 23 years [which he will have completed in November 2009], you need a rest."
Ferguson, who is a known Labour Party supporter, dismisses a suggestion from Frost that had he not gone into management he would have entered politics. He admits, however, to having given advice to the former prime minister Tony Blair, and adds that the current premier, Gordon Brown, has sent him a 20-CD set on the American Civil War.
Relations with the BBC are less warm, however. Intriguingly, the Sky interview discusses his refusal to speak to its rival broadcaster, but Frost does not ask Ferguson why.
The dispute dates to May 2004 and a documentary which examined, and criticised, the role of Ferguson's son, Jason, who was then an agent, in Manchester United transfers. "I forgive easily," says Ferguson. "I don't hold grudges at all. I have never held a grudge – I think what I'm doing with the BBC is not a grudge. It's a stance until they accept their own wrong. Gary Lineker, a bright boy from the BBC, says I'm childish. Well, he'll understand what childishness means, because he is childish."
On more football-related matters he says referees are not fit enough and that the player talent pool is dwindling. He says: "I think there's an evaporation of real talent coming through. I think the [the influx of foreign players] has something to do with it. You're never going to be able to change the law and say no foreign players – Arsène Wenger [the Arsenal manager] has made that point very, very forcibly over the last few years. Maybe you could insist on four or five English players."
Perhaps. But when this Scottish manager goes, voluntarily, the BBC and a few opponents might be relieved. The game, however, will be poorer.
Sir Alex: The Frost Interview, tonight at 8pm & 10.30pm on Sky Sports 1
Gascoigne's Spurs move 'was a bad mistake', says United manager
Although Sir Alex Ferguson was interviewed before yesterday's news that Paul Gascoigne had again been sectioned under the Mental Health Act, his assertion that Gascoigne's life would have been simpler had he signed for Manchester United has gained added poignancy.
In the Sky interview, having named Gascoigne as the player he would most liked to have signed, Ferguson is asked by Sir David Frost if "he thought he 'could have helped him with his personality problems?'"
Ferguson says, of Gascoigne signing for Spurs: "That was a bad mistake and Paul admits it to this day because as a 19-year-old lad, going to London is not easy for a footballer. We'd be taking that away and we had Bobby Charlton, Bryan Robson, Steve Bruce – all Geordies. We had a structure of players who could have helped him and I think it would have given him some discipline. Maybe it would have helped him, too."
Jaap Stam is the player Ferguson wishes he had not sold. "I made a mistake there," he says. He adds that the decision was due to Stam's poor start to the 2000-01 season and the size (£16.5m) of Lazio's offer. He says: "I went to see him play a game and I says, 'Bloody hell, he's playing fantastic.' So, therefore, it was a bad decision. I should maybe have waited a bit longer." The move was, Ferguson says, "nothing to do with [Stam's] autobiography," though it is evident the book irritated the manager.
Ferguson goes on to name his three best players: "Robson, definitely. [Eric] Cantona, definitely. [Roy] Keane." He adds: "Eric's great asset was to score important goals at important times or make a goal at important times. Keane is a very intelligent man. He reads good books – I like to see that. He had fantastic concentration and focus in the eyes. Bryan Robson had it too – the glazed eye during games."
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