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Football – Bloody Hell! The Biography of Alex Ferguson - Patrick Barclay

Football – Bloody Hell! The Biography of Alex Ferguson

Author: Patrick Barclay
Paperback: 512 pages
Publisher: Yellow Jersey (1 Sep 2011)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0224083074
ISBN-13: 978-0224083072
eBoook Football – Bloody Hell! The Biography of Alex Ferguson - Patrick Barclay

Cover eBoook Football – Bloody Hell

One rainswept winter evening nearly 20 years ago, fairly early in his time as the manager of Manchester United but a year or so after he had overcome an initial crisis to win the faith of the board and the fans, Alex Ferguson watched his reserve team play at Bury's modest Gigg Lane ground in the company of a reporter who had secured an appointment to interview him the following morning. To the surprise of the journalist, who had travelled up from London by train, Ferguson offered him a lift back to his hotel.

As the silver Mercedes hissed along the M66 towards Manchester, the manager talked easily and entertainingly about football matters, sometimes commenting on the reports of that evening's other matches coming over the car radio. One of them concerned Sheffield Wednesday, then of the Premier League, and Ferguson remarked that he had considered buying Wednesday's centre forward, David Hirst, but had been deterred by the player's susceptibility to injury. A week later, the day after the remarks had appeared – with no special prominence – in the reporter's story, a letter from Ferguson arrived, demanding formal apologies to the Sheffield club's manager, Trevor Francis, for the breach of etiquette, and to himself for the breach of confidence. He was right, so I did.

That is Ferguson in a single, albeit somewhat faded snapshot: a man of convivial warmth in the right circumstances, of profound enthusiasm for the game and generally astute judgment (Hirst's injuries would become a permanent blight on a promising career), but of implacable will. If, in the public mind, it is the last of those attributes that has come to overshadow the others in the years since that very minor incident took place, nevertheless there is no denying that the most successful manager in the history of English football remains a creature of multiple facets. It is no accident that three of the first four references under "Ferguson, Alex" in the copious index of Patrick Barclay's book are to "aggression", "generosity" and "grudges".

Stories will be told about Ferguson as long as football retains its popularity in the British Isles, for no single figure has so thoroughly embodied the game's greatness and its accompanying flaws. This is a man born among the shipyards of Govan, who undoubtedly recognises the absurdity inherent in handing out wage packets of up to £150,000 a week to young stars whose appetite for life's luxuries is sated by their mid-20s, but who also knows that he must rekindle their fire once or twice a week, nine months of the year, using his own fire as the spark.

In the simplest possible terms, as Barclay recounts, Ferguson's fire was ignited by two events. The first was the sight of Real Madrid in the 1960 European Cup final, when the 19-year-old part-time professional with Queen's Park stood among a crowd of 135,000 Glaswegians crammed into Hampden Park and, watching Alfredo Di Stéfano, Ferenc Puskás and Francisco Gento perform their magic, discovered what a thing of beauty and joy football could be. The second was the relative disappointment of his own playing career as a centre-forward with several clubs, including Rangers, the club he had supported in boyhood.

That fire has dimmed only once, when he announced his intention to retire in the summer of 2002, at the age of 61. In Barclay's account it was his wife, Cathy, who woke him from an afternoon nap over the New Year holiday and, with their three sons assembled behind her, ordered him to change his mind. She had realised that a life without daily involvement in the affairs of a football team would, to put it mildly, not suit his temperament, and that the thought of the squad he had built being taken over by Sven-Göran Eriksson, the United board's choice of successor, would be intolerable to him.

That night at Gigg Lane at the beginning of the 1990s, United's reserve team included youngsters called David Beckham, Gary Neville and Paul Scholes. Yet to make their mark on the national consciousness, they formed – together with Ryan Giggs and Nicky Butt – a group of locally produced players who provided Ferguson with the core of successive teams that went on to win the league titles 11 times, the FA Cup on five occasions and the European Cup twice. Ferguson may have been lucky to acquire such a crop, but his careful nurturing of their careers instilled such a sense of purpose and loyalty that even Beckham, the one he famously (and very profitably) discarded, continues to profess an undimmed affection for the club and its manager. Giggs, Scholes and Neville, all now in their mid-30s, are still in Ferguson's squad, which says something about the manager's ability to husband his resources. It remains to be seen whether, when the last of that remarkable generation has gone, and if he himself is still around, he will be able to maintain his extraordinary run of achievements with their successors.

"Ferguson is not a genius," Barclay states unequivocally as he nears the conclusion of a book in which thoroughness of research, richness of detail – particularly concerning the early years in Scotland – and proper celebration of achievement are never allowed to occlude the author's unsentimental view of his compatriot. Among football managers, the author reserves his use of that term for certain passages of the careers of Brian Clough (whom Ferguson detested) and José Mourinho (with whom he gives the impression of being slightly smitten, perhaps because he is one of the few men to whom the Portuguese provocateur has ever shown deference). Ferguson's principal quality, the one that distinguishes him from such great postwar managers as his mentor Jock Stein, Matt Busby, Bill Shankly, Don Revie, Bill Nicholson and Arsène Wenger, is the remorseless preservation of enthusiasm, energy and, above all, control.

It is Ferguson's darker side that forces many neutrals who acknowledge his achievements to withhold their unqualified admiration. In one of the many striking phrases that stud this well-shaped narrative, Barclay remarks that "anger is his petrol", and he explores many examples of Ferguson's ability to pursue an argument – with other managers, with referees, and with the BBC – far beyond the accepted boundaries not just of good manners but of common sense. David Elleray, the distinguished former referee and a frequent Ferguson target, describes several rewarding encounters not immediately connected with a football match, but adds, apropos of the manager's duality: "The analogy I've always used is with people who become very different when they get behind the wheel of a car. When he gets close to a match, he becomes a different person. How much of that is studied, I'm not sure."

Barclay does not let Ferguson off lightly. Of one particular example of the manager's addiction to psychological warfare, he remarks that "it exposed for the umpteenth time the element of hypocrisy involved in railing against supposed trouble-making in the media while remaining such an arch-exponent of the black art himself". He examines Ferguson's habit, earlier in his reign at Manchester United, of steering young players towards the services offered by one of his three sons, a football agent. Nor is he inclined to dismiss Ferguson's role in the turbulent saga of the club's ownership, which reached a climax with the recent news that a club with phenomenally high revenues had declared a loss of more than £80m for the past year, thanks to repayments on debts incurred in a leveraged purchase of the club by the Glazer family of the United States. "To the supporters, his acquiescence with successive carpetbaggers . . . was the truth that dared not speak its name," Barclay writes.

In the end, Ferguson's greatest regret may be that the two sides with which he won the European Cup, first in Barcelona in 1999 and then in Moscow in 2008, did so with colourless, tactically incoherent performances notable only for the refusal of his players to be beaten. No 19-year-old Catalan or Muscovite could have gone home from those matches glowing with a new vision of what the game could be. Ferguson takes pride in maintaining United's tradition of attacking football, and he would have loved to win the most important of trophies – the one he had to land in order to be considered the equal of the great Busby – in the manner of the Real Madrid of Di Stéfano and Puskás. Perhaps, as he approaches his 69th birthday, that is the moment for which he is hanging on.

Richard Williams's The Blue Moment is published by Faber.

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Football – Bloody Hell! The Biography of Alex Ferguson - Patrick Barclay
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